The European Defence Agency’s Annual Conference 2018 entitled 'From Unmanned to Autonomous Systems: Trends, Challenges and Opportunities’ was opened this morning in Brussels by the Head of the Agency, Federica Mogherini.
Addressing a 400-strong audience representing the whole European defence spectrum - governments, armed forces, industry, EU institutions, NATO, think tanks and media - Ms Mogherini welcomed that the Agency's annual conference "once again, is a place to talk about innovation, and to look at the trends that are shaping our world and our security environment".
Devoting this year's conference to unmanned & autonomous systems and artificial intelligence proved to be a very timely choice as "this is not a debate about some distant future, or about science-fiction" but about technological developments which are already part of our lives, Ms Mogherini said. Artificial intelligence is everywhere and its applications are expanding at incredible speed, "also contributing to our security – for instance, in building stronger defence systems against cyber-attacks".
Humans must always remain in control of the use of lethal force
Yet we also know that artificial intelligence poses new security challenges, and it is now starting to be weaponised, the Head of the Agency said. "We are entering a world where drones could independently search for a target and kill without human intervention. Artificial intelligence could take decisions on life and death, with no direct control from a human being. The warning about the dangers ahead is coming from the very people who are working on artificial intelligence: researchers, pioneers, and business people as well, who don't want to see their own discoveries exploited for malicious goals".
Against this background, the EU has a very special role to play – as a promoter of new global rules to protect our citizens' security, and at the same time, as a force for innovation and progress at the service of human beings, she stressed.
"So first of all, we are working to build consensus on what should and should not be allowed in the field of autonomous weapons. We would like scientists and researchers to be free to do their job knowing that their discoveries will not be used to harm innocent people. Together we can define the boundaries of artificial intelligence applications, so that within those limits, scientists are free to explore the immense positive potential of artificial intelligence", said Ms Mogherini, adding: "Our position on this has always been very clear: all weapon systems should comply with international law, and humans must always remain in control of the use of lethal force".
Work is currently ongoing at the United Nations to define a first set of guiding principles on autonomous weapons, and this work needs close cooperation between governments, the industry and civil society.
"No time to waste on Artificial Intelligence"
Supporting innovation and having a strong industry is essential for Europe's security, and this is also true with artificial intelligence, Ms Mogherini stated. "Almost 50 per cent of global private investment in artificial intelligence start-ups is happening in China. We Europeans cannot afford to waste time, and to be less innovative than other world powers. It is a matter of economic growth, and it is a matter of security".
Our European defence industries and research laboratories are among the best in the world. And yet, investment from European national governments in research and technology in the field of defence continue to decrease, she underlined.
"We, as the European Union, cannot tell national institutions how much to spend on defence or on research. What we can do – and what we are doing, is to incentivize our Member States to join forces, create new economies of scale, to the benefit of our industry and of our collective security. This is the logic behind all the work we have been doing on security and research, with the European Defence Agency, with the European Commission and with our Member States".
EDA's essential contribution to recent EU defence initiatives
The revised Capability Development Plan (CDP), the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF) are all tools recently set up to allow and foster increased defence cooperation. The European Defence Agency, Ms Mogherini said, "provided an essential contribution in crafting these initiatives, to ensure their coherence and to help turn them into concrete action".
The Europe of defence is taking shape, and in the years ahead, the role of the European Defence Agency will be even more important, she stressed. "This can be the hub where governments and the industry meet. A place for coordination among national defence policies, following the guiding light of innovation and of our collective security".