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International relations

The first AI conflict? Israel's Gaza operation gives glimpse of future

Sophisticated algorithm leads to 90% of rocket fire being intercepted

Streaks of light are seen from Ashkelon as Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel.   © Reuters

CAIRO -- Israeli military action last month in Palestinian-controlled Gaza has been described as the first artificial intelligence war, imparting a glimpse of future conflicts in the 21st century.

"This is the first time [AI] was used broadly across an operation." a senior Israeli officer involved in digital conflict told Nikkei. The technology was deployed to defend against missile attacks and identify targets. The lessons learned from real battlefield experience will be used to improve accuracy.

When Hamas, the Islamic militant organization that effectively controls Gaza, fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israel between May 10 and 21, the Israeli military conducted a series of airstrikes on the self-governing Palestinian territory that the senior officer characterized as "very successful."

Over the course of the operation, the Israeli military shot down 90% of the rockets flying from Gaza, relying on its Iron Dome anti-aircraft defense system.

AI was used to determine rocket trajectories based on radar information, intercepting those headed for densely populated areas. The system is designed to leave alone rockets judged to fall in uninhabited areas. Each interceptor missile is estimated to cost more than US$50,000, so eliminating pointless interceptions helps control costs.

Rocket attacks originating from Gaza killed 12 people on the Israeli side of the border. "We were not perfect in defense," the officer acknowledged. "We had rockets that landed in our cities." But he noted: "This is an opportunity for us to train our algorithms using real-time data."

Israel also turned to AI to orchestrate attacks on Gaza. Vast amounts of data gathered from human intelligence and geographical information were analyzed for so-called precision attacks. Drawing on satellite imagery, sensors and other sources, the team was able to obtain 3D geographical information about Gaza and identify the locations of rocket launchers that Hamas installed. AI further shed light on the types of weapons to be used in attacks and on determining safer routes for ground troops near the front lines.

Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system fires to intercept a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel.   © Reuters

"Algorithms and 3D modeling help us be precise and accurate," the officer said. "We are using everything available that we can collect in real time." Asked whether Gaza residents' personal mobile phone information was used, he issued no denials, saying: "We need to have very precise planning regarding the manner of the strikes in order to minimize the threat to the civilian population."

However, Palestinian health officials claimed Israeli attacks on Gaza killed 253 people, 66 of whom were children, drawing condemnation from countries across the Arab world and human rights groups.

Israel is known for its wealth of startups in areas such as information technology and medicine. Its military ranks have proved a source of talent for these companies, and the relationship between the military and private sectors runs deep. "We have joint efforts with our industry," the officer said. "We take algorithms developed in startups and Israeli companies."

The country's AI ambitions go beyond its borders. The officer revealed that the military is looking into cooperating with foreign companies as well as exporting its technology and know-how abroad.

The military use of AI has become a more pressing topic globally, and the development of weapons that employ the technology is underway. A report commissioned by the U.N. Security Council, for example, stated that small Turkish-made drones equipped with AI to automatically attack enemies without human intervention may have been used during Libya's civil war.

While AI-outfitted weapons are expected to save on staffing and boost efficiency, concerns have emerged that people will not be able to intervene properly, with some human rights groups demanding a ban on the development of fully autonomous weapons.

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