Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology is playing an increasingly important role in our lives. From the customised suggestions we get from Netflix and Spotify, to the production lines of thousands of products we use everyday, these technologies are seen everywhere. However, we are also increasingly seeing their use operationalised for dangerous and deadly purposes.
As the war in Ukraine rages on, the role of AI technology has become increasingly apparent. Disinformation and cyberwarfare played a key role in the early days of the war, while more recently drones have proven tactically important on the battlefield. Russian forces have targeted Ukrainian cities with Iranian-made kamikaze drones. Meanwhile Ukraine’s battlefield successes have been assisted by their use of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones, with the technology playing a pivotal role in destroying Russian artillery and heavy armour.
The proliferation of such weapons systems has sparked an arms race. A number of countries have invested in these technologies, attempting to reduce human involvement and better integrate AI systems, in order to make them more efficient and more deadly. This is a dangerous path, and there are genuine fears that the conflict in Ukraine could mark the first time that lethal autonomous weapons see battlefield use.
However, despite the dangers and uncertainty posed by the development of AI technologies, peacebuilders and development practitioners are increasingly seeing the prospective benefits and the enormous potential that they offer as a tool for peace.
One example of AI being used for peacebuilding is the UN’s engagement of AI in peace negotiations in conflict zones, through partnerships with AI companies like Remesh. The potential for AI systems to sift through thousands of data points in dozens of languages, enables the UN to engage populations in the conflict zones in what they call large-scale digital dialogues. Respondents are asked questions and the “responses go through an algorithm that clusters answers with similar meanings”. The AI technology identifies areas of priority for respondents, as well as areas where populations might potentially be able to find common ground.
The technology was recently used by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) to test support for potential policies, such as the development of a unified currency. The results of the dialogue were broadcast to an audience of 1.7 million people and were used to support the government’s attempt to move the Libyan peace process forward, giving the process significant legitimacy and community buy-in. Over a decade on from NATO’s intervention, Libya remains far from peaceful; however, thanks to peacebuilding efforts and the ongoing peace process, Libya recorded the largest increase in peace in the 2022 Global Peace Index.
The potential for AI to assist with peace and development is not limited to its use in dialogue. A group of academics from Swedish universities recently published research into the role AI could play in helping to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The research found that of the 169 targets within the 17 SDGs, the achievement of 134 of them could potentially be enhanced through the use of AI technology.
Furthermore, research is being undertaken to explore how artificial intelligence solutions could be engaged as a tool to predict political instability, war crimes and mass atrocities. The research suggests that by analysing online patterns of disinformation, hate speech and propaganda, the early warning signs of mass violence could be identified and targeted interventions could be pursued. Other similar uses for AI could include detecting the use of banned weapons and ammunition in combat videos posted online. This could potentially be an enormously useful tool in helping societies transition from a negative to a positive peace.
With potential threats to cybersecurity as well as technological limitations, it is important to recognise that even the positive operationalisation of AI technology is not without issue. This area of technology is still in its nascent state, and there is certainly a need for more robust regulation and oversight.
Despite this, the potential that AI has to enable peacebuilders to innovatively tackle problems is remarkable. The advent of AI technology should be greeted with cautious optimism and if handled appropriately, it may well have the potential to unlock a new dimension of peacebuilding.