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How cyber operations, social media and artificial intelligence are changing warfare

The invasion of Ukraine has shown how new technologies are now used alongside more traditional means of waging war. This new podcast episode explores the role of cyber operations, social media and artificial intelligence in modern-day conflicts.

AI and cyber security images

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the images of tanks and troops amassing and then crossing the border could make it seem like little has changed in the world of warfare. However, as the fighting in Ukraine progressed it also became clear how conflicts today are developing in new and very different ways.

Many of the images we have seen were captured by satellites in space or on mobile phones, and the sharing of these on social media has helped to shape public attitudes and been used to circumvent or undermine state-sponsored messaging. We have also seen hackers declare cyberwar on Russia.

In the latest episode of the WORLD:we got this podcast series Dr Tim Stevens and Dr Kenneth Payne, who are both based in the School of Security Studies in our Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy, explore how cyber operations, social media and artificial intelligence are changing the face of war.

Dr Tim Stevens explains how our reliance on digital systems is creating new vulnerabilities, and explores whether cyber operations could ever be an alternative to sending in troops on the ground.

He also looks at the ways that social media is changing conflicts, including widening the pool of those who report on warfare as it unfolds, and who can be considered as participants.

Through our cell phones we can be engaged in conflicts as active agents of information, misinformation and disinformation, as well as helping to amplify narratives.– Dr Tim Stevens

He also explains how countries all around the world are engaging in information operations, in part because it does not put troops in harm’s way and is readily deniable.

Countries have different strengths - China is very good at stealing intellectual property, Russia at sabotage, the Americans at high-grade intelligence collection and breaking things quietly. The UK excels at signals intelligence. – Dr Tim Stevens

He says society needs to understand cybersecurity is not just an challenge for the technical community to address, as it is a political and strategic issue as well, and we we need to start having difficult discussions about what we are comfortable for our own military and security forces to do when it comes to information operations.

If your objective is to persuade a civilian population that their government cannot be trusted, then it does not matter what platform you use, in fact you are going to exploit all of them. Cyber security is a political and strategic problem, not a technical one.– Dr Tim Stevens

In the same episode Dr Kenneth Payne looks at the role artificial intelligence (AI) is already playing in modern-day warfare. Like cyber, he says some are motivated to use AI in a bid to avoid humans being put in harm’s way.

One thing that people implicitly hope AI will do will be to spare our own people from risk if it comes to war… we've got very small, highly professional forces that are scarce representing a, broadly-speaking, risk averse society that's reluctant to use them. AI provides one way of overcoming those challenges.– Dr Kenneth Payne

He sets out the ways we are already using AI in security and military operations, and how this could develop in the future, such as having AI swarms or shoals roaming the skies or swimming through the oceans hunting down our enemies.

However, while many see the advantages AI offers, and developments are continuing at pace, there are also potential disadvantages and concerns, particularly around the risk of AI making mistakes, the technology failing and the ethical considerations of having life-or-death decisions not being made by humans.

He says we are not likely to see wars entirely fight fought by AI and we cannot “outsource” the ethical or moral dimensions of war to machines.

Looking to the future, he suggests the focus should be on trying to ensure that our AI systems work in conjunction with - or in support of - our existing human practices, norms, and moral values. And we need to understand how AI could lead to a whole new era of warfare.

Right up until this moment, decisions about warfare have been made by human intelligence ..and we're now on the cusp, right at the start of a transition, to an era where some, perhaps even many decisions about violence will be made by a very different sort of intelligence. And we're still in the early stages of understanding the implications that flow from there.– Dr Kenneth Payne

In this story

Tim  Stevens

Tim Stevens

Senior Lecturer in Global Security

Kenneth Payne

Kenneth Payne

Professor of Strategy