May I interest you in a credit card *bleep*

In August this year, eight teams gathered for the three-day final of DARPA’s AlphaDogfight trials. The teams had developed Artificial Intelligence (AI) pilots to control F-16 fighter aircraft in simulated dogfights. The winner beat the human USAF pilot in five dogfights out of five. I’m not really sure what this means for the defence of the free world, partly because I don’t know anything about air combat (other than endless games of Falcon on my iMac years ago) but largely because it seems to me that there is a context error in the framing of the problem. Surely the future of air warfare isn’t robo-Maverick dogfighting with North Korea’s top fighter ace but $100m Tempest fighters (which as Sebastian Robin pointed out in Forbes earlier this year, might make more sense as unmanned vehicles) trying to evade $1m AI-controlled intelligent drones and machine-learning (ML) swarms of $10,000 flying grenades that can accelerate and turn ten times quicker. The point about budget is important, by they way. Inexpensive Turkish drones have been observed in Syria and Libya destroying enemy armour that costs ten times as much.

As is often said then, we plan for the battles of the next war using the weapons of the last one. This is true in finance just as it is in defence. A couple of years ago, John Cryan (then CEO of Deutsche Bank) said that that the bank was going to shift from employing people to act like robots to employing robots to act like people. They put this plan in motion and earlier this year announced big staff reductions as part of a radical overhaul of operations. At the same time, the bank announced that it will spend €13bn on new technology over the next four years. These investments in infrastructure “are already making some humans at Deutsche unnecessary”. The bot takeover in banking is already happening.

It is not surprising to see this takeover happening so quickly, because there are many jobs in banks that are far simpler to automate than that of a fighter pilot. In India, YES Bank has a WhatsApp banking service that uses a chatbot (a conversational AI with extensive financial knowledge) to help customers to check balances, order cheque books, report unauthorised transactions, redeem reward points, connect with help desks and to apply for more than 60 banking products. And this is only the beginning. The Financial Brand reported on research from MIT Sloan Management Review and the Boston Consulting Group showing that only one in ten companies that deploy AI actually obtain much of a return on ROI. This is, as I understand it, because while bots are good at learning from people, people are not yet good at learning from bots. A robot bank clerk is like a robot fighter pilot, an artificial intelligence placed in the same environment as a human: when organisations are redesigned around the bots, then the ROI will accelerate.

Maverick

with kind permission of TheOfficeMuse (CC-BY-ND 4.0)

The robots will take over, in banking just as in manufacturing. So will you be served by a machine when you go to the bank five years from now? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. For one thing, you won’t be going to a bank five years from now under any circumstances. You’ll be explaining “going to” a bank to your baffled offspring just as you were explaining “dialling” a phone to them five years ago. But you won’t be going to your bank in cyberspace either. Your bot will. As I pointed out in Wired this time last year, the big change in financial services will come not when banks are using AI, but when customers are.

The big change in financial services will come not when banks are using AI, but when customers are. Click To Tweet

Think about it. Under current regulations, my bank is required to ask me to make decisions about investments while I am the least qualified entity in the loop. The bank knows more than I do, my financial advisor knows more than I do, the pension fund knows more than I do, the tax authorities know more than I do. Asking me to make a decision in these circumstances seems crazy. Much better for me to choose an approved and regulated bot to take care of this kind of thing. And if you are concerned that they may be legal issues around delegating these kinds of decisions to a bot, take a look at Ryan Abbott’s argument in MIT Technology Review that there should be a principle of AI legal neutrality asserting that the law should tend not to discriminate between AI and human behaviour. Sooner or later we will come to regard allowing people to make decisions about their financial health as dumb as letting people drive themselves around when bots are much safer drivers.

The battle for future customers will take place in landscape across which their bots will roam to negotiate with their counterparts – ie, other bots at regulated financial institutions – to obtain the best possible product for their “owners”. In this battle, the key question for customers will become a question of which bot they want to work with, not which bank. Consumers will choose bots whose moral and ethical frameworks are congruent with theirs. I might choose the AARP Automaton, you might choose the Buffett Bot or the Megatron Musk. Once customers have chosen their bots, then why would they risk making suboptimal choices around their financial health by interfering in the artificial brain’s decisions?

Imaging the world of the future as super-intelligent robots serving mass-customised credit cards and bank accounts to human customers is missing the point — just as imagining the world of the future as F-16s with robot pilots duelling M-29s with robot pilots is — because in the future the customers will be super-intelligent robots too.

[An edited version of this article first appeared on Forbes on 24th November 2020.]

War stories

The science-fiction action adventure movie Aliens is one of my all-time favourite films. I’ve watched it countless times, in the cinema, on video, on DVD and now on Blu-ray in the directors cut and the original theatrical release. I know the whole film off by heart yet I never get tired of watching it. Just like the original movie alien I think the visualisation is superb: it pretty much all looks real (except for one single effect, which is the drop ship entering the atmosphere).

James Cameron had several designers come up with ideas for the drop ship that took the Marines from the Sulaco to the planet. Design after design, he finally gave up on them to come up with on he liked and constructed his own drop ship out of a model of an apache helicopter and other spare model pieces.

[From Aliens (1986) – Trivia – IMDb]

I love the “Colonial Space Marines” and their equipment. I love the way they storm in and then have to survive as it all goes wrong. I love their vehicle and their assault cannons, their auto-sentries and their flamethrowers. Fantastic. And what exciting future it would be!

We all know, of course, that they won’t really be like that. The most advanced military machine that we have today, the US Armed Forces, already employs more drone pilots than actual pilots. They’re building robots that can climb stairs and sensors that fit in tiny mechanised bees. We would really fight the aliens on the distant planet LV-426 by sending in men and women? I don’t think so. By the time we’re mining asteroids in the year 3000, the standard intergalactic assault will be to send in nano bots to get a DNA sample of the enemy and then use it to engineer a virus that will wipe them out in a week. A couple of days after I wrote the first draft of this post, I read

From state-sponsored cyber attacks to autonomous robotic weapons, twenty-first century war is increasingly disembodied. Our wars are being fought in the ether and by machines. And yet our ethics of war are stuck in the pre-digital age.

[From Cyber and Drone Attacks May Change Warfare More Than the Machine Gun – Ross Andersen – Technology – The Atlantic]

As is often said, science fiction isn’t really about the future. It’s about now. The Colonial Space Marines fighting the aliens represent US Marines fighting asymmetric wars around the globe right now. (And just as in the movie, they won’t be held to win unless they take off and “Nuke it from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure”.)

The role of technology in the future of conflict will be critical but it won’t be romantic. I don’t see my great-grandchildren reading the equivalent of the Commando picture library that gripped me when I was a kid, or watching movies like Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes