While highly advanced and destructive cyberspace capabilities have historically resided strictly with top-level nation states, those days may soon be over.

Commercial advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning could level the playing field and lower the barrier of entry for smaller nation states, as well as non-state actors.

During a keynote presentation at the CyCon U.S. conference in Washington, D.C., Nov. 7, Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of Army Cyber Command, wondered aloud what would happen if machines — and not people — were able to get on to a network, hunt for a vulnerability and search for the information they want. What if machines could rapidly discover vulnerabilities on networks, deploy implants and exploit those vulnerabilities at machine speed?

“Think about the implications for military superiority, think about the implications for economic superiority, think about the implications for information superiority,” he said.

Nakasone pointed to the DARPA Grand Challenge last year as a real-world example of this technology. In that event — essentially a machine versus machine in a game of virtual capture the flag — one team sought to defend a network and counterattack an adversarial network, all in a matter of minutes and without human intervention.

[The threat of weaponized machines]

While the nations most poised to take advantage of these technologies today are likely large nation states such as Russia, China and the United States, Nakasone said artificial intelligence is not being driven by governments, but rather, the private sector.

“Think about the implications of technology with a small country like Korea that’s able to develop that,” he said. “Or, for that matter, perhaps even a non-nation state that’s able to leverage that technology.”

Nakasone also noted the role of groups such as Anonymous, a loose global hacktivist collective, that was not previously considered as a player in such conflicts. As an example, he pointed to their involvement against Israel in the 2014 Gaza conflict. In that instance, Anonymous did not target military networks, but rather went after the Israeli economy, DNS servers and other key targets they knew were fundamental to how Israel was able to operate empower its economy.

Other military leaders have recently addressed their concerns with automation in regard to offensive cyber operations.

“With the increasing automation, [adversaries are] using elements of [artificial intelligence] … to enhance the offensive,” Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, commander of the Navy’s 10th Fleet and Fleet Cyber Command, said in February.

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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