Ministry of Defence experts are exploring new AI technology that could one day act as virtual “good angels” that sit on the shoulder of officers, advising their decisions during conflict situations. The ministry’s Defence and Security Accelerator, the department responsible for developing the latest technology to be introduced into the army, is funding the development of an AI-powered ‘Virtual Life Coach’.
The AI tool is still in its prototype stage and limited to offering more run-of-the-mill assistance such as checking details on pensions or where an officer might have their uniform tailored. But one consultant quoted in The Times newspaper has compared the technology’s future potential to Cortana, the AI ally of warriors in the computer game Halo, who offers the protagonist tactical advice.
The technology has already been tested at the RAF Fylingdales radar base, offering servicemen and women advice on a range of potential personal issues such as improving sleep and managing stress. In an occupation known for its impact on mental health, one of the tech’s most potentially crucial functionalities is to alert the chain of command if it identifies any indication that its user might possibly be considering self-harm.
The new technology is currently being further developed by Birmingham tech company Daden, who were awarded the contract by the Defence and Security Accelerator. David Burden, who works for the company, explains:
“It’s not quite Tinkerbell, she’s too mischievous, but it’s that character on your shoulder making sure you’re doing the right things. We’ve talked about the idea of a combat mentor — so looking after the personal wellbeing of the soldier and the tactical situation.”
It’s not the first time that the potential of AI-powered assistants has been explored by militaries around the world. In the USA, the Pentagon have long held an interest in the field. Some of the software that power’s Apple’s Siri was originally developed as part of a Pentagon project to develop a voice-activated assistant that would retrieve information for a user from online sources then analyse how it was used to continually optimise the process. Canada’s navy is also developing a voice assistant to be deployed on the bridges of warships that has been compared to Amazon’s Alexa.
For now, the UK’s version of virtual assistant technology being developed by Daden is text-based rather than voice activated, though voice activation technology would be expected to be added if prototypes show promise. Even more intriguing is another project that Daden has worked on for an AI assistant designed to be used by the military. While assisting a soldier it gradually builds a virtual representation of the individual’s persona. If the user then subsequently leaves the military, other soldiers would still be able to ask the AI technology for advice. In theory, the virtual assistant would offer the same advice that its previous user would have. However, the information would be subjective based on the particular soldier persona it had absorbed.
In keeping with his habit of drawing parallels with fictional worlds, Mr Burden compared that AI project to the magic portraits of former headmasters hanging on the walls of Professor Dumbledor’s office in the Harry Potter books. He is able to ask them for advice. He explaines:
“The information you receive will be subjective. It will be very opinionated, it might be wrong — it is what that person would have said if you’d have asked them a question.”