"In future wars, the side that wins the 'cyber war' or 'robot war' will emerge victorious," says Professor Mitsuyoshi Hiratsuka of the Tokyo University of Science.
Hiratsuka has for years been studying AI application in military equipment. He says the race to develop such weapons is steadily accelerating. He says that recently senior officials from the Defense Ministry and Self-Defense Forces have been paying him unofficial visits.
"We believe that the US military is prioritizing the development of equipment for game-like wars where the fighting is done between AI-equipped drones and robots," he says. "And this has stirred up a sense of rivalry in China."
Hiratsuka thinks these weapons will vastly change what future battlefields look like. "First, a cyber-attack will be launched, for example using computer viruses. It will aim to bring down the enemy's radars and missile defense systems. Next, drones will start fighting in airspace. The military leaders of the warring countries will be giving directions from locations on the ground, far from the action. Nation A gains an upper hand after shooting down the enemy's drones in a laser attack from an artificial satellite. It then loads an unmanned landing ship with unmanned amphibian vehicles and invades Nation B. Some of the unmanned equipment might have four legs, enabling them to swiftly move in the desert. Nation A will be able to invade Nation B without losing a single soldier."
Hiratsuka says fighting between soldiers will soon be obsolete.
"The Third Revolution in Warfare"
AI weapons are sometimes called the "third revolution in warfare", following explosives and nuclear weapons, and countries around the world are vying to get ahead. The United States has been developing the technology by equipping aircraft and submarines with AI. Experts say that China is also making progress in the field. In all, more than ten countries, including Russia, Israel, and South Korea, are rumored to be developing such "third generation" weapons.
"Arm the Self-Defense Forces with AI weapons"
Against this backdrop, former Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto is urging Japan to develop AI weapons as soon as possible, saying Japan's declining population makes the move all the more urgent.
"As Japan's population continues to dwindle, the 240,000-strong Self-Defense Forces will be cut to half its current size", Morimoto says. "Each person will have to do twice as much as they currently do. So labor saving using AI, such as unmanned aerial vehicles and ships, is an absolute must."
Morimoto says US military equipment manufacturers have already begun the research and development of a next-generation air combat system, combining military drones with manned aircraft. In the system, human-flown fighter jets would be deployed further back in a combat position, while AI-equipped drones fly near the frontline. The drones would assess the enemy's fighting capacity and strike, allowing commanders to strategize without worrying about human life. Based on information gathered through the drone attacks, the manned fighter jets could then be used for the next round of attacks.
Morimoto says Japan may introduce similar AI weapons in the future.
"The production of AI weapons hasn't even begun yet in the United States. It's likely the Japanese government will at most mention the concept of AI weapons in its revisions of the National Defense Program Guidelines later this year," he says. He believes the introduction of AI weapons could be stipulated in the next round of revisions.
"Autonomous killer robots"
But some are opposed to AI weapons. International human rights groups are protesting the development of "autonomous weapons," systems in which the AI identifies the enemy and attacks without human input. The groups call them "killer robots."
Last November, the United Nations held a meeting to discuss AI weapon. Delegates from about 90 countries, including Japan, participated.
However, the discussions stalled. Developing nations called for a ban on developing such weapons, while the United States and Russia claimed it was too early to decide, saying it was not yet possible to predict how the technology would advance.
Japanese lawmakers begin studying
In the midst of this international debate, a group of Japanese lawmakers has started studying AI weapons. It is Japan's first ever non-partisan study group on AI weapons.
Lower house member Kiyohiko Toyama of Komeito is a founding member.
"Just like with nuclear weapons, the gap is widening between the major powers that are making AI weapons, and developing nations," Toyama says. "It's a difficult challenge to figure out how we should regulate these weapons," he says.
Toyama says calm discussions on how to regulate AI weapons are necessary, with the assumption that such weapons may one day become uncontrollable.
"AI doesn't have emotion, survival instincts, or intuitions. They are only capable of accumulating knowledge through learning. There is a possibility that one day AI weapons would start indiscriminately killing humans, should we lose control," he says.
He adds that once the technology of autonomous weapons becomes complete, various kinds of risks will occur and spread further. He says efforts to stop excessive development are necessary even at this stage.
Defense Minister denies development plan
In February, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera appeared at the Lower House Budget Committee and said, "There is no concrete plan to research or develop lethal weapons that do not involve humans."
However, he said the government would consider using AI in various situations.
"It's necessary to try to improve technology, for the safety of the Self-Defense Forces and to reduce their burdens. This would include the research and development of AI and unmanned vehicles," he said.
The Defense Ministry has already begun looking into what privately-developed AI technologies could be used for defense equipment.
One of the people NHK interviewed for this story said that because military intelligence is highly classified, we are asked to trust the conscience of each country. "If a soldier is killed by AI weapons, on whom do his or her family put the blame?"
It seems likely that AI will change the way we live. However, if the development of the technology, particularly for weapons, goes too far, these changes may bring terrible consequences. At this stage, we may be relying on the conscience to prevent this arms race from spiraling out of control.