military medical robots

The Waikato Dialogue: Technology & Security

On 20 September, my business partner and I attended a symposium hosted by the Political Science & Public Policy Programme and New Zealand Institute for Security and Crime Science at the University of Waikato. AI Forum NZ also provided sponsorship.

The programme for the day was wide-ranging and it’s that breadth that is the real take home point for me. The speakers were multi-disciplinary and not limited to academics but also included practitioners and even the Aotearoa NZ Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

I approached this symposium from TorquePoint’s ‘Red Team’ perspective, essentially making the case that there is a lot of hype around AI, robotics and other technology with military potential. The reality and need are quite different to the prototypes and experimental programmes shown in short clips by large companies seeking to gain government contracts. As with previous posts about conferences I’ve been to, I always answer the two main questions up front. Was it worth going? Would I go again? It’s ‘Yes’ to both in this case although I would qualify the second part by suggesting longer panel question times and possibly some simulations or table-top exercises. This might lead to an optional second day of workshops.

The first keynote speaker was Dr Brian Young, the Director of the NZ Defence Technology Agency. It was good to see the DTA coming out to conferences. He made several interesting points about NZ’s size and ability to compete. When this country was put to the bottom of the spare parts list by the USA following our anti-nuclear legislation, we were forced to innovate just to keep platforms operating. The solutions, in some cases, were better than the original and international industry came knocking on our door to buy it.

The highlight of the day, for me, was the second keynote speaker, William Carter. Will is the Deputy Director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He provided a wide-ranging presentation on emerging technologies and the future of US leadership. After lunch is a challenging slot for any speaker but he had everyone’s attention with observations about gaming and pornography leading the tech race. His research focuses on international cyber and technology policy issues including AI, cyber conflict and deterrence, surveillance and privacy, data localization, financial sector cybersecurity, law enforcement and technology including encryption. If you get a chance to hear him speak, I recommend you do. He has several publications on the CSIS website.

The three panels were built functionally as follows:

Panel 1: Disruptive Technologies and NZ – Threats, Opportunities and Issues.

This panel included my paper “Against the Tide – A Red Team View of Disruptive Technology in National Security.Dr Wil Hoverd (Massey University) presented a fascinating paper on “Technological Threat Attribution, Trust and Confidence, and the Contestability of National Security Policy.” Peter Cook’s (Massey University) presentation on “NZ National Security Implications of 3D Printed Firearms” addressed the Cody Wilson case in the US and considered whether that was a concern for NZ. The conclusion arrived at was that it was not yet a problem for NZ but needed to be monitored. Dr Michael Dizon (University of Waikato) gave a wide-ranging presentation on “Encryption and the Manifold Meanings of Security.”

Panel 2: The ‘LAWS of War’ – Autonomous Weapons and Humanity.

This panel comprised four presentations focused on legal issues. The first was “The US Unmanned Aerial Battlefields: Implications for War and International Security,” by Francis Okpaleke (University of Waikato). This was followed by the case from a disarmament perspective of “Autonomous Weapons and the Erosion of Human Decisions to Constrain Violence,” by Thomas Nash and Thomas Gregory (Massey University). Sean Welsh (University of Canterbury) spoke on “Drafting a Protocol VI of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons to Regulate Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems.” He also has a website where you can read all his other publications. The final paper in this panel was by Edwina Hughes (Aotearoa NZ Campaign to Stop Killer Robots) “Fully Autonomous Weapon Systems: the Ultimate Disruption to Humanity?” The organisation she represents is part of an international coalition of NGOs seeking to achieve a pre-emptive ban on FAWS. They achieved success with cluster munitions a few years ago so will be an interesting group to watch.

Panel 3: Revolutions, Morals and Techno-Geopolitics

The final panel of the day comprised four speakers. Akkas Abbasi (University of Waikato) spoke on “A Neo-Revolution in Military Affairs (NRMA): Disruptive Technologies and their Implications for the Balance of Power. Dr Reuben Steff (University of Waikato) – one of the convenors of the day – presented “Artificial Intelligence and the Challenge to New Zealand’s Sovereignty and Military.” This was a fascinating examination of the gaps in AI capability between nations and the implications for small states like NZ. I took from it that we could choose to be known for our expertise in a single aspect of AI. That must be set within the context of a strategy – which doesn’t exist yet. The third speaker was Sean Ainsworth (Victoria University of Wellington) “Analysing the Development of Russian Cyberwarfare and Grey-zone Operations in the Near Abroad.” I find the grey zone conflict discussion really interesting. False flag cyber-attacks and attribution are tricky to deal with. Often, countries like the US have the ability to see through a false flag but can’t reveal the technology they are using to do so – making the claim challengeable. Finally (and one of my favourite presentations of the day) was Dr Dan Weijers (University of Waikato) with the enticing title “Just wrong, disgusting, grotesque, offensive: How to Deal with Public Rejection of New Potentially Life-Saving Technologies.” Using the example of ‘PAM’ a proposed anti-terrorist prediction market software tool, he took us on a whirlwind philosophical tour of what affects public acceptance or rejection of new technologies.

The day ran over time a bit, so Dr Joe Burton (University of Waikato) – another convenor of the day – cut his “Learning from History” session but provided a great wrap up. The conversation carried on though as many delegates went out for dinner together (the restaurant is highly recommended).

On the admin and logistics side, the venue was about the right size for the 50-60 attendees although being in one part of a performing arts complex has its audio challenges. The catering and other support was done very well.

It was great to see so many from other universities speaking or in the audience. In a small country, it’s vital to consolidate academic resources wherever possible. Like any dialogue, it should be ongoing. I hope the University of Waikato will keep this one going.