british navy frigate

British warships could be given minds of their own with new AI assistants

Computer ‘assistants’ with a ‘mind’ will support sea captains when controlling Britain’s warships, according to the head of the Royal Navy.

Admiral Sir Philip Jones, First Sea Lord, said the planned new Type 31e frigates - due to enter service in the 2020s - would come complete with app-based tools able to access the ship’s data. They would use touch-screen displays and voice-controlled systems, in a similar vein to Apple’s Siri ‘intelligent personal assistant’.

In the longer term, he said, the Navy will continue working on the development of artificial intelligence (AI). One recent exercise featured UK forces’ first ‘AI hackathon’.

“This is not a gimmick or a fad. As modern warfare becomes ever faster, and ever more data-driven, our greatest asset will be the ability to cut through the deluge of information to think and act decisively,” said Admiral Jones.

“Under Project Nelson, the Royal Navy aims to develop a ship’s ‘mind’ at the centre of our warships and headquarters to enable rapid decision-making in complex, fast-moving operations.”

Admiral Jones was speaking on the first day of the biennial Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) event, the world’s biggest - and for some, most controversial - arms fair, held in the cavernous ExCel Centre in London’s Docklands.

On display was a vast array of state-of-the-art military equipment, from tanks and armoured personnel carriers through fighter jets and high-speed inflatables, to sniper rifles and high-tech protective clothing.

Organisers said it was the biggest DSEI to date, with 1,600 exhibitors displaying their wares and 42 national pavilions.

In his opening address, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox emphasised the importance of the defence industry to the UK economy, with an annual turnover of £35bn last year.

The Department for International Trade’s stand featured a Bowler off-road rapid intervention vehicle (RIV) complete with machine gun, a light artillery gun and an inflatable rescue launch as well as a series of unmanned aerial drones.

“We are clear that the success of this industry is the United Kingdom’s success and that our position as a global leader in defence and security exports is something that should be celebrated,” Dr Fox said.

However, such an overwhelming display of military hardware provoked a different reaction from arms control campaigners demanding Britain halts sales to “repressive” overseas regimes blamed for human rights abuses.

Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “It is shameful that the government is welcoming despots and dictatorships to the UK to buy weapons.

“The weapons being promoted at DSEI are deadly and could be used to fuel war and conflict for years to come. If the government cares for human rights and democracy then it’s time to end its support for arms fairs like DSEI.”

The Royal Navy has recently been upgrading its fleet with the latest technology in order to stay competitive. It installed a ground-breaking radar system on the HMS Queen Elizabeth in late 2015 that is capable of detecting objects as small as a tennis ball travelling at triple the speed of sound over 25km away. 

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