Government versus Private Enterprise in WW1 Trenches in Ukraine

Government versus Private Enterprise in WW1 Trenches in Ukraine. By David Ignatius.

Like WWI:

To see the human face of the “algorithm war” being fought in Ukraine, visit a company of raw recruits during their five rushed weeks at a training camp here in Britain before they’re sent to the front in Ukraine.

They will soon have a battery of high-tech systems to aid them, but they must face the squalor of the trenches and the roar of unrelenting artillery fire alone. The digital battlefield has not supplanted the real one.

At the British camp, instructors have dug 300 yards of trenches across a frigid hillside. The trenches are 4 feet deep, girded with sandbags and planks, and slick with mud and water at the bottom. The Ukrainian recruits, who’ve never been in battle before, have to spend 48 hours in these hellholes. Sometimes, there’s simulated artillery fire overhead and rotting animal flesh nearby to prepare the trainees for the smell of death.

The recruits practice attacking the trenches and defending them. But mostly they learn to stay alive and as warm as they can, protecting their wet, freezing feet from rot and disease. “Nobody likes the trenches,” says Oleh, the Ukrainian officer

The paradox of the Ukraine conflict is that it combines the World War I nightmare of trench warfare with the most modern weapons of the 21st century.

“It’s hard to understand the brutality of contact in that front line. It’s Passchendaele in Donetsk,” explains Brigadier Justin Stenhouse, referring to one of the bloodiest battles of World War I. …

But with algorithmic wizardry:

Palantir technicians showed me an unclassified version of the Army database they helped create to address that problem [of the government’s too many separate repositories for information].

You can see in an instant what units are ready, what skills and experience the soldiers in these units have, and what weapons and ammunition are available. Logistics problems like this once took weeks to solve; now there are answers in seconds. …

Known as Project Maven, and it initially spawned a huge controversy when it was launched in 2017. The idea was to write algorithms that could recognize, say, a Russian T-72 tank in drone surveillance images in the same way that facial recognition scans can discern a human face.

The military’s AI partnership with Silicon Valley got off to a bad start. In 2018, engineers at Google, initially the leading contractor for Maven, protested so angrily about writing targeting algorithms that the company had to withdraw from the program.

Maven has evolved. It’s now supervised by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and it generates AI models on a fast, one-month cycle. A tech executive explained to me that companies now compete to develop the most accurate models for detecting weapons — tuning their algorithms to see that hypothetical T-72 under a snowy grove of fir trees, let’s say, rather than a swampy field of brush — and each month the government selects a new digital array. …

What could possibly go wrong?

These technologies can also create 21st-century dystopias, in the wrong hands. The targeting algorithms that allow Ukraine to spot and destroy invading Russians aren’t all that different from the facial-recognition algorithms that help China repress its citizens. We’re lucky, in a sense, that these technologies are mostly developed in the West by private companies rather than state-owned ones.

But what if an entrepreneur decides to wage a private war? What if authoritarian movements gain control of democratic societies and use technology to advance control rather than freedom? What if AI advances eventually allow the algorithms themselves to take control, making decisions for reasons they can’t explain, at speeds that humans can’t match? …

Bureaucracy loses at creativity and development:

Looking at the Ukraine war, we can see that our freewheeling entrepreneurial culture gives the West a big advantage over state-run autocracies such as China and Russia — so long as companies and CEOs share the same democratic values as Western governments. …

Ukraine, which has suffered so much in this war, wants to be a techno-superpower when the conflict finally ends. [Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister for digital transformation and vice prime minister] … explains it this way: “Let’s plan to turn Ukraine into the world’s ‘mil-tech valley,’ to develop the most innovative security solutions.