Lord Mitchell debates involving the Ministry of Defence during the 2019 Parliament

Artificial Intelligence in Weapon Systems Committee Report

Lord Mitchell Excerpts
Friday 19th April 2024

(1 month ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Mitchell Portrait Lord Mitchell (Lab)
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My Lords, I have had the honour to sit on many committees of your Lordships’ House; some were good, some not so good. This committee and its investigation into autonomous weapon systems have been in a different league. The committee was masterfully chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, and I have never witnessed such skill in chairing a committee and then combining our deliberations so seamlessly. And what did we produce? A cracking report, which is of the moment. We should all be very proud.

Sadly, I cannot be so complimentary about the Government’s response. Ours was a serious and well-researched document, but the Government took little on board. Their reply was tepid and, on occasion, wrong. We deserve better. Because the subject matter is so dynamic and changes by the day, I pushed hard to set up a formal review mechanism to keep this report up to date but, predictably, the Government totally ignored this request. Is the Minister able to suggest a structure for keeping this important subject continuously reviewed and relevant?

I will confine my comments to the section dealing with procurement, innovation and talent. My constant worry with government procurement in the fast-moving tech market is that Whitehall is ill equipped to manage relationships with tech companies. Instinctively, the MoD is old school, totally at home purchasing hardware equipment from the likes of Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and Raytheon—they have been doing it for years. But AI is a different story. At its heart, it is sophisticated software designed by the informal tech bros in Silicon Valley, emotionally ill matched to the arms suppliers of yesteryear. It is a measure of the pace of external developments that some key actors in the AI sector today are barely referenced in our report, not because of incompleteness in our deliberations but because of the sheer pace of development.

Let us take the case of Nvidia. In our report it warrants just one footnote but, today, it is the third most valuable company on the US stock market. It is a leader in designing AI chips and is indispensable in building many forms of autonomous weapon systems. It has come from nowhere to world leader in just a few short years. Anduril Industries is also based in California. It manufactures AI weapons that can hover and then identify their target—in effect, attack drones. It did not cross our radar either, but now its weapons are in use in Ukraine. Its founder, on a formal day, wears Hawaiian shirts, shorts and flip-flops—he is 30 years old. There are many like him in the tech world and, more and more, they are turning to weapon systems.

Our report highlights that the MoD procurement processes are particularly lacking in relation to software and data, both of which are important for the development and use of AI. Tech bros and Whitehall mandarins are not natural bedfellows. We need translators. I wonder whether our Ministry of Defence procurement officials are temperamentally equipped to engage with those Silicon Valley companies. My guess is that they are not. Perhaps the Minister can comment on this.

Finally, let us look at salaries. Top AI programmers and system designers can earn six or even seven-figure amounts, which is light years away from what our public sector can pay. Such disparities will grow and it will be increasingly difficult for the MoD to recruit top employees. So what do we do? One answer could be for private companies to second their staff to the public sector. We suggested that, but I am not sure that we were heard.

Ours was an outstanding report. The Government could have produced a much more helpful response but, sadly, they did not.