Artificial intelligence is having a huge moment in 2022. The chatbot ChatGPT, developed by OpenAI, has gained notoriety for its ability to engage in seemingly human-like conversations, sparking curiosity and serious conversation about where the technology is headed.
Applications in national security and space are poised to benefit from this new age of artificial intelligence, says technologist Patrick Beltgen, director of defense and intelligence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. He says the industry is just beginning to understand the potential of so-called generative AI, with tools like ChatGPT that create coherent, compelling content and written forms like DALL-E 2 that come up photorealistic from a natural-language description.
Defense and aerospace organizations have long sought the use of artificial intelligence for its ability to automate tasks, shorten decision cycles, and achieve autonomy in systems. “But now that ChatGPT has taken the world by storm, many people are wondering: How can this help my mission?” Beltgen said.
One such mission could be space field awareness, where AI could help analyze objects in space and, more importantly for military leaders, determine the intent to maneuver satellites. Today’s human analysts make judgments about whether the approach of one organism to another has hostile intent. An AI model can be trained to provide advice and “guid an analyst or operator to a set of possibilities,” says Beltgen.
This kind of predictive analysis is trickier than it sounds because hostile attacks in space “don’t happen very often,” he says, and there is a limited amount of physics-based data for training models. “The hardest thing is trying to model human intent.”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a good example of this. “The invasion seems quite obvious in hindsight, but when they were amassing troops and equipment in February, I and many others thought it was a hoax, and I was wrong,” says Beltgen. “We didn’t know what Putin really meant.”
The maneuvers of satellites in orbit seem mostly benign, but enemies will continue to test the limits. “This is a very well-known military tactic,” he says. “You fly right to the edge of the other person’s country. You fly right along the border. You go across international waters. And I think you’re seeing some of that in space where many operators have normalized the ability to move.”
For intelligence analysts trying to predict hostile action in space or on Earth, synthetic AI could be a game-changer if models are trained enough.
The GPT chatbot, which stands for Generative Pre-Trained Transformer, is trained in general knowledge and natural language processing. GPT for national security analysts, for example, will be pre-trained, Peltgen says, “with all intelligence reports ever written, plus all news articles and all Wikipedia.”
Will artificial intelligence disrupt intelligence analysts? Peltgen doesn’t think so, at least not at the moment. Former Director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Robert Cardillo predicted years ago that robots would soon analyze most of the imagery collected by satellites and replace many of the human analyzers, but that vision has yet to materialize.
He adds that a lot of AI-powered reporting today is highly formulaic and not as reliable as human analysis. “Intel analysts build on their knowledge of what they’ve seen happen over time.” But it is conceivable that an algorithm could be trained to predict the activity, which would be “really difficult because human life and geopolitics are so messy.”
Peltgen’s final analysis: “I don’t think you can make a prediction machine, but it might be possible for a chatbot to give me a list of possible next steps that might occur as a result of its chain of events.”
And what does ChatGPT say about this?
“With the ability to analyze massive amounts of data, detect patterns and anomalies, and make predictions and decisions at a speed and scale that humans cannot match, AI can help identify and thwart threats before they occur, improving the effectiveness and efficiency of national security operations. As such, it has the potential to Artificial intelligence will play an increasingly important role in national security in the coming years, and its adoption and development will be a major priority for many governments around the world.”
Well if you say so.
Sandra Irwin covers military space for Space News. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of the National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews. This column ran in the January 2023 issue.