Does AI *really* help the defense in military situations?

Christina, an apparent MR reader, asked me whether it is really true that AI helps military defense more than military offense, as was previously argued by Eric Schmidt.  I can think of a few parallel cases:

1. In chess, AI clearly has helped the defense.  Top computer programs never play 32-move brilliant sacrifice victories against each other, a’ la Mikhail Tal.  Most games are drawn, and a victory tends to be long and protracted.  (Do note it is sometimes better to get the war over with and lose right away.)

2. In the NBA, analytics have helped offense more, for instance by showing that more attempted shots should be three-pointers.  Analytics of course is not AI, but you can consider it a more primitive form of using information technology to improve decisions.

3. It is interesting to ponder the differences between chess and the NBA as potential analogies.  In chess, the attack often “plays itself,” as the player with the initiative may be following fairly standard strategies of bringing the Queen and some lesser pieces in the neighborhood of the opposing King, or maybe just capturing material.  Finding the correct defense is often a more complex matter, and the higher quality of the chess-playing programs thus boosts defense more than offense.  Besides, under perfect information chess is almost certainly a draw, and the use of AI asymptotically approaches that outcome.

In professional basketball, the offense typically has more options and permutations, and given any offensive decisions, the defense often respond in fairly typical fashion, such as lunging at the player attempting a shot, or doubling Stephen Curry as he crosses the half-court line.  In those cases where the defense has more options, however, analytics conceivably could help basketball defense more than offense.  A (hypothetical) example of this would be using game tape and AI to see which kinds of tugs on the jersey best disrupt the shot or rhythm of the team’s leading scorer.  That said, most of the action seems to be in honing the options for the offense.

4. Is warfare more like chess or more like the NBA?

I believe the USA has more options in most of its conflicts, and thus AI will help the United States, at least at first.

In the Second World War the Nazis had more options than their opponents.  In the Civil War and American Revolution, however, the available offense was more static and predictable, and AI for those fighting forces might have helped the defense more.  In the Iran-Iraq war I suspect the defense had more options too.  Terror groups have more meaningful options than the forces defending against terror, and thus AI might help terror groups more than the defense, at least provided they had equal access to the data and to the technology (which is doubtful at this point, still as part of the exercise this is useful).

5. One important qualifier is that the chess and NBA examples already assume a game is on to be played.  A war, in contrast, is started as a matter of volition on at least one side.  If AI creates a new arms race of sorts, where one side at times opens up a decisive lead, that may provoke more decisions to engage and thus attack.  The mere fact that AI increases the variance in the power gap between the two sides may increase the number of attacks and thus wars.

So there is more to this question than meets the eye at first, and I have only begun to engage with it.

Addendum: AI is also spreading in the legal world, will this help defendants or plaintiffs more?


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