Papers released to Drone Wars UK by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that progress in preparing ethical guidance for Ministry of Defence (MoD) staff working on military artificial intelligence (AI) projects is proceeding at a snail’s pace. As a result, MoD’s much vaunted AI strategy and ethical principles are at risk of failing as the department races ahead to develop AI as a key military technology.
Minutes of meetings of MoD’s Ethical Advisory Panel show that although officials have repeatedly stressed the need to focus on implementation of AI programmes, the ethical framework and guidelines needed to ensure that AI systems are safe and responsible are still only in draft form and there is “not yet a distinct sense of a clear direction” as to how they will be developed.
The FOI papers also highlight concerns about the transparency of the panel’s work. Independent members of the panel have repeatedly stressed the need for the panel to work in an open and transparent manner, yet MoD refuses to publish the terms of membership, meeting minutes, and reports prepared for the panel. With the aim of remedying this situation, Drone Wars UK is publishing the panel documents released in response to our FOI request as part of this blog article (see pdf files at the end of the article).
The Ministry of Defence AI Ethics Advisory Panel
One of the aims of the Defence Artificial Intelligence Strategy, published in June 2022, was to set out MoD’s “clear commitment to lawful and ethical AI use in line with our core values”. To help meet this aim MoD published a companion document, entitled ‘Ambitious, safe, responsible‘ alongside the strategy to represent “a positive blueprint for effective, innovative and responsible AI adoption”.
‘Ambitious, safe, responsible’ had two main foundations: a set of ethical principles to guide MoD’s use of AI and an Ethics Advisory Panel, described as “an informal advisory board” to assist with policy relating to the safe and responsible development and use of AI. The document stated that the panel had assisted in formulating the ethical principles and listed the members of the panel, who are drawn from within Ministry of Defence and the military, industry, and universities and civil society.
The terms of reference for the panel were not published in the ‘Ambitious, safe, responsible’ document, but the FOI papers provided to Drone Wars UK show that it is tasked with advising on:
- “The development, maintenance and application of a set of ethical principles for AI in Defence, which will demonstrate the MOD’s position and guide our approach to responsible AI across the department.
- “A framework for implementing these principles and related policies / processes across Defence.
- “Appropriate governance and decision-making processes to assure ethical outcomes in line with the department’s principles and policies”.
The ethical principles were published alongside the Defence AI Strategy, but more than two years after the panel first met – and despite a constant refrain at panel meetings on the need to focus on implementation – it has yet to make substantial progress on the second and third of these objectives. An implementation framework and associated policies and governance and decision-making processes have yet to appear. This appears in no way to be due to shortcomings on behalf of the panel, who seem to have a keen appetite for their work, but rather is the result of slow progress by MoD. In the meantime work is proceeding at full speed ahead on the development of AI systems in the absence of these key ethical tools.
The work of the panel
The first meeting of the panel, held in March 2021, was chaired by Stephen Lovegrove, the then Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence. The panel discussed the MoD’s work to date on developing an AI Ethics framework and the panel’s role and objectives. The panel was to be a “permanent and ongoing source of scrutiny” and “should provide expert advice and challenge” to MoD, working through a regular quarterly meeting cycle. Read more