Ukraine: The Artificial Intelligence war

As the war in Ukraine lingers on, the battle is raging on many fronts. Unlike previous conflicts, technology, particularly AI, is playing a significant role


The sudden invasion of Ukraine came like a bolt from the blue. Various intelligence departments worldwide have warned the world about Russia’s imminent invasion of Ukraine. However, after almost eight decades of peace since the last world war, few believed that the continent would move down that path again. However, in contrast to previous wars, there’s a new player on the battlefield; Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Ironically, humanity achieved various technological advancements due to wars. AI is no different, and the first concepts too were conceived during the second world war. At the time, the allies needed to decipher enemy messages. They gathered the most famous British mathematicians to Bletchley Park (a small estate close to London) and instructed them to decode enemy conversations. One of them was Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, who built a large calculator called Colossus to perform fast calculations. The war was shorted by two years as a direct result of their work, thus saving millions of lives! Of course, this was only the inception, but that tiny seed led to the creation (a decade later) of the field of study we call AI.

Fast forward to today, and we’ll notice that AI is an essential element in the Ukrainian war. One of the technologies used is facial recognition technology, which can determine a person’s identity just from a photo. The company providing the system trained the AI on 2 billion images obtained from social media services. Through it, the Ukrainian arm can identify persons of interest at checkpoints, thus restricting the movement of Russian operatives on the territory. Another use of such a technology is to identify the dead. Rather than going through the laborious process of collecting fingerprints from dead bodies, facial recognition can simplify the arduous process. Finally, since many families, including numerous children, have been dispersed, the system can help to reunite refugees.

Another technology is AI transcription, which can examine streams of speech data and change it into text for further analyses. When soldiers are on the battlefield, their primary source of communication is via radio transmissions. Some of these are encrypted, but many others are open, so anyone with the right equipment can listen in. The Ukrainian military uses this technology to surveil the Russian army at scale. The past decade has seen significant advances in AI’s capabilities around speech thanks to massive algorithms that learn from vast tranches of training data. The AI primarily handles four tasks; gather audio captured from radio receiver hardware; remove noise, including background chatter and music; transcribe, translate Russian speech, and highlight critical statements relevant to the battlefield.

On the other hand, Russia is no less than Ukraine when it comes to AI. Vladimir Putin declared in 2017 that Russia aspires to become the world leader in AI. Notwithstanding this, Russia still lags behind the US and China in AI defence capabilities. One of the technologies used in Ukraine is the analysis of battlefield data, including drone surveillance footage. This technology was already battle-tested in the Syrian war, proving effective for intelligence gathering.

Another area that Russia is looking at involves autonomous weapons. They already have “kamikaze” drones with autonomous capabilities called the Lantest. Syria was their first testing ground. Their function was to loiter in an area and attack tanks, vehicle columns, or troop concentrations. Once launched, it circles a predesignated geographic area until detecting a preselected target type. It then crashes itself into the target, detonating the warhead it carries.

But the Ukrainian war is not just on the ground. The web is the next battleground, and AI is used to gather intelligence. All sorts of social media posted by troops and attacks uploaded by average Ukrainians allow civil society groups to fact-check the claims made by both sides in the conflict. It also provides necessary documentation of potential atrocities and human rights violations. That could be vital for future war crimes prosecutions.

On the infowar front, the war on disinformation is at its peak. Russia already took the first steps to isolate their Internet from the rest of the world through RuNet. This network allows the Internet to continue working as expected but redirects all the internet traffic through national servers managed by the state. Practically, the state controls the websites that Russians can view and those they can’t. Thus it is unsurprising that companies offering proxy services have become increasingly popular in Russia. These companies allow users to create secure tunnels through RuNet and, in so doing, see censored content.

Anonymous, the movement of hacktivists, too declared a cyberwar on Russia. They monitor what’s happening in Ukraine and hack into Russian servers for payback.

As part of this operation, they leaked the personal information of 120,000 Russian soldiers and 35,000 files from the central bank of Russia. Television stations, too, were targetted by broadcasting streams showing citizens the devastation of the Russian invasion. The activists have also hacked a censorship agency, government, corporate, and news websites.

As the war in Ukraine lingers on, the battle is raging on many fronts. Unlike previous conflicts, technology, particularly AI, is playing a significant role. In the past, technology was instrumental in bringing a world conflict to an end. Let’s hope this time around; it will have the same effect of restoring peace to the war-torn country and avoiding further escalations on the European continent.

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