Dusseldorf With the artificial intelligence of 21 Strategies, warfare can be trained on the computer. Together with partners from research and industry, the start-up from Upper Bavaria has developed “Ghostplay”. Simulated weapon systems adopt their own tactics to defend or attack. Now the armaments group and development partner Hensoldt is joining the young company.
Ghostplay has the potential to close a “capability gap” in the Bundeswehr, says Gary Schaal. The political scientist heads the research project at the Helmut Schmidt University of the German Armed Forces in Hamburg (HSU). He knows that with the electronic warfare and missile defense systems available, the German military has not yet been well positioned to defend against drone attacks.
“The aim was to find out how to fend off swarms of drones as best as possible using artificial intelligence,” says Schaal. With Ghostplay there is now a kind of digital twin to try out these and other skills.
In the development phase since 2021, the team led by 21 Strategies co-founder and head of technology Christian Brandlhuber simulated swarms of drones and anti-aircraft gun tanks (abbreviated: flak tanks) of the Gepard type. While the drones repeatedly flew attacks in the artificial environment, the anti-aircraft tanks were programmed in such a way that they should do everything they could to survive these attacks.
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On the basis of artificial intelligence (AI), both sides have developed better and better strategies for overcoming the opponent, says Brandlhuber: “The novelty is that the systems learn tactics themselves.” To do this, they would calculate far in advance what reactions their own movements would have could pull.
Ghostplay is a “multi-agent system”. That means: “Both the drone swarm and the cheetah tanks learned group coordination within Ghostplay,” says Brandlhuber.
Third wave AI: A prerequisite for technical autonomy
21 Strategies originally developed its tactical AI for financial market decisions. However, with the great interest in military applications, the focus of the start-up founded in 2019 is likely to shift.
The potential seems enormous: In reality, according to Brandlhuber, five to six of these tanks would be able to defend themselves against 50 to 60 drones. Tactics were developed within Ghostplay to repel 300 to 400 drones.
Artificial intelligence has been used by the military for many years, for example to analyze image data and recognize patterns. According to the definition of the innovation authority of the US Department of Defense “Darpa”, this is AI of the so-called second wave.
New projects clearly stand out from this: In the third wave of AI, the systems learn to think about the consequences of their own decisions. This is considered a basic requirement for technical autonomy.
In principle, the system could even be used to react fully automatically in a situation that is very dangerous for the crew, in order to protect the lives of the soldiers. According to Gary Schaal, such an application scenario is unthinkable in Germany given the current legal framework.
People must remain part of the decision-making chain in Germany
According to Vanessa Cann, Managing Director of the KI Bundesverband, artificial intelligence as a cross-sectional technology has great potential to also be used in defense. So far, however, only very few companies specializing in AI have been involved in the defense sector: “In the past, many start-ups have preferred to keep their hands off the defense industry because of marketing concerns or because of their own ethical concerns,” she says.
However, this could change due to the war in Ukraine and the realization that other countries are working on AI for the military and that Germany has to defend itself against this. At present, only systems in which the decision-making authority remains with humans are permitted in this country. HSU professor Schaal hopes that Ghostplay can advance the entrenched ethics debate and provide differentiation.
On the one hand, it is one of the first systems to be set up according to a standard for value-based technology that came into force in 2021. 21 Strategies boss Yvonne Hofstetter, who is also an honorary professor at the Center for Ethics and Responsibility at the Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences, helped develop it.
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Second, the research project shows that AI-based assistance systems can give people in critical situations more time to make decisions at all, says Schaal. According to this argument, autonomous systems could even strengthen the role of humans in the decision-making chain.
With the optimized tactics, effects and sensors can be “used much more efficiently, which, among other things, reduces ammunition consumption,” says Brandlhuber. Another field of application could be the further development of weapon systems. For example, additional armament on a tank could be simulated and how this would affect tactics and mission success.
Hensoldt acts as general contractor
Ghostplay emerged from the Bundeswehr’s center for digitization and technology research and is therefore also the result of the economic stimulus program that the federal government set up to overcome the corona crisis. The two Bundeswehr universities were each endowed with 250 million euros in order to transfer new technologies to the economy.
The sensor specialist Hensoldt acts as the general contractor for the research project. The armaments company already has experience with the use of AI when it comes to evaluating reconnaissance data from networked sensors and effectors. The aim is always to create a picture of the situation from incomplete information, for example from radar stations. In addition, according to the company, Hensoldt already uses simulation techniques in product development.
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The company, headquartered in Taufkirchen, is now to take over ten percent of 21 Strategies. Neither side gave any financial details.
The joint development could be useful for the sensor specialists, among other things, in order to optimally use and coordinate their active and passive radars. In use, active radars are quickly endangered because they can be easily spotted by the enemy. Tactics could be optimized with the help of the simulation environment in order to use these active high-performance radars only as rarely and for a limited time as necessary.
In addition to Hensoldt, 21 Strategies and HSU, the consulting firm Borchert and the Fraunhofer Institute for Communication, Information Processing and Ergonomics are involved in the development of Ghostplay. The project is scheduled to run until the end of 2024.
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