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Race to limit AI's role in warfare decisions

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Australia will seek to ensure global legal guardrails are in place as the military moves to harness artificial intelligence.

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Defence Minister Richard Marles and Science Minister Ed Husic were in London for an AI safety summit convened by the British government.

Both lauded the potential for breakthroughs, including diagnosing rare conditions, improving education, better weather modelling and dealing with climate change issues.

But the defence minister warned that humans needed to stay in charge when it came to the military to ensure international law was followed by the “defining technology of our age”.

“It’s critically important that artificial intelligence is not deployed in a defence context which undermines the obligations that we have under a range of international treaties,” he told reporters in London.

“What is fundamentally important is that the rules that we have in place around the way in which we engage in warfare … still need to be there.”

As such, it was important there was “a human-centred way” forward to ensure Australia remained compliant with its international obligations, including operating within the rules of law and armed conflict, Marles said.

Short-term risks include data breaches, AI using data sets that are possibly discriminatory and bad actors taking advantage of the technology to up the scale and sophistication of cyber attacks.

Husic emphasised the need for safeguards around the technology.

“What’s the handbrake that stops the technology when it’s working in a way that is working against our interests? There’s some of that discussion that’s happened,” he said.

US President Joe Biden signed an executive order that set guardrails and conditions around the use of AI.

Company safety test results will need to be shared with the government, standards need to be put in place and the National Security Council will ensure the military and intelligence community uses the technology safely, ethically and effectively in missions.

The development of AI and advanced quantum technology underpin the second phase of the tripartite AUKUS pact, which involves Australia, the US and UK.

The first phase paved the way for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

Husic and his British counterpart Michelle Donelan also signed a joint statement on quantum technology co-operation during the AI safety summit.

The memorandum of understanding paves the way for more investment between Australian and UK companies to facilitate research to accelerate quantum development.

The technology will aim to hasten breakthroughs in areas such as logistics and the design of new pharmaceuticals.

The UK is Australia’s second biggest quantum collaborator after the US.

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