NATO ears in on AG-EDT recommendations

By Monitoring Desk
Thursday – March 4, 2021
BRUSSELS (Belgium): New technologies such as the artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous and quantum technologies are changing the world, and the way North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) operates, Wednesday, recognising the risks and opportunities that new technologies bring to the alliance, defence ministers endorsed NATO’s coherent implementation strategy on emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT) in February 2021.

According to a press release, the strategy sets out ways in which the alliance will foster and protect the development of new technologies to maintain the alliance’s technological edge, underpinned by robust principles of responsible use.

NATO will work with partners, academia and the private sector — including start-ups — to develop and adopt new technologies more quickly, and strengthen the allied industrial base.

As part of the NATO 2030 agenda, secretary general (SG) Jens Stoltenberg has also proposed a NATO defence innovation initiative to promote better transatlantic cooperation on critical technologies.

To support these strategic efforts the NATO SG Stoltenberg announced in July 2020 the creation of an advisory group (AG) on EDT (AG-EDT) to solicit outside views from specialists and practitioners.


The adoption of EDT requires NATO to operate at a pace of relevance that matches the dynamic technology landscape that surrounds it and to cooperate with a variety of non-traditional actors to achieve this.

In its first recommendations, the AG-EDT highlighted five key areas of importance to the wider alliance efforts when considering the development and adoption of EDTs.

Advances in machine learning and AI; encompassing the development of the technology itself and advances in its application, this domain concerns the potential impact of innovations such as neuromorphic computing, generative adversarial neural networks and the ability to reveal unexpected insights from data that has been gathered or is yet to be gathered.

Harnessing the quantum scale; there is an ongoing translation of knowledge gained from the study of quantum processes to useable quantum enabled technologies including quantum computing, quantum sensing as well as quantum cryptographic systems and the manipulation/development of material at the quantum scale.

Data security; algorithms and systems for securing and compromising the security of communications, data transactions and data storage; including quantum proof encryption methods, blockchain and distributed ledger architectures and the field of cyber-security in general.

Computing enabled hardware; developments in miniaturisation, power harvesting and energy storage. This domain encompasses the physical systems necessary to deliver digitally enabled critical infrastructure on a global scale (internet of things) and the widespread use of robotics. The true scale of global disruption that these developments will bring is yet to be fully revealed/understood.

Biological and synthetic materials; including the design, synthesis and manipulation of materials at the atomic/molecular level to innovations at mesoscopic and macroscopic scales. Enablers include bioengineering, chemical engineering, gene-level manipulation, additive manufacturing and generative design.

The AG-EDT foresees the continued proliferation of cyber-physical systems; where computing systems directly affect change in the physical world and evolve autonomously through sensing and data. Advances in autonomy, the ubiquity of high-speed communications and other advances will rapidly drive human-machine teaming. The rise in communication platforms and the importance of data transactions will simultaneously motivate citizen expectations concerning digital inclusion/isolation and the needs for protecting personal digital assets — including private data and private computing tools.

As the global population increases, the struggle for classically defined resources such as water, food, energy and raw materials will continue to grow and heighten. Data as a resource will add a significant new stress dimension to these pre-existing drivers of conflict, creating and reinforcing global asymmetries in opportunity and prosperity. Geographic data pooling has the potential to create data poverty in the world, data gathering without rights and consent has the potential to create optimal conditions for data exploitation and the insights gained from data analysis risk increasing disadvantage when it comes to accessing more conventional resources. These conditions are likely to precipitate digital and physical conflicts over data and data systems in the future — cyber-physical conflict.

Importantly, science, technology, engineering, mathematics and business (STEM-B) talent and competence will be the human resource of global value and key strategic importance. Allied and partner countries need to be shaped to develop, attract and retain such talent.

Space will be the key theatre of the future within which NATO must lead in the development of a technologically proliferated environment that is demonstrably driven by values and ideals. Primarily, the domain of space should be viewed as an opportunity to deliver on its global good objectives (for example the United Nations [UN] sustainable development goals [SDGs], NATO 2030) rather than a platform for perpetuating archaic conflict narratives. The opportunity for global thought leadership in EDTs presents itself and should be taken.

NATO will need to embrace certain organisational traits to capitalise on and cope with the developments and trends outlined above. Importantly, NATO will have to commit financial and human resources to this effort. The alliance will need to develop its capability to horizon scan effectively, experiment at pace and embrace the idea of controlled failure to achieve greater agility. NATO will need to develop ontologies and taxonomies to structure EDT knowledge across the alliance. The organisation will need to develop internal competence in innovative technologies and innovation and actively participate in developing triple-helix ecosystems in order to optimally leverage the brightest minds from industry, government and academia. In addition, NATO will urgently need to develop novel means and methods of achieving modularity and interoperability at pace through experimentation, testing, standards development and best practice.

Common international rules and regulations on transfer, use and access to data and technologies will shape alliances and trust in the age of digitisation. The active role of NATO in the discussion on international policy will be key for the security and peace amongst allies.

NATO must establish itself as a recognisable thought leader amongst the technology literate, engaging with civil and defence applications across the public and private domains. Leading the mission to use EDT to defend the ideals, ethics and norms of free, open, tolerant and transparent societies that seek to protect human dignity and diversity. EDTs bring the risk of significant erosion of these ideals if misused.

A clear challenge that emerges from the AG-EDT deliberations is the need for NATO to become an organisation that is able to adapt and adopt new technologies at a pace that is appropriate to the rapidly evolving EDT landscape. In order to achieve this aim NATO will have to embrace the organisational traits of agility within a coherent innovation programme, which include widening of the distribution of technology literacy throughout the organisation; establishing an efficient network of innovation centres – drawing on NATO’s existing innovation capabilities; design, facilitation and participation in novel, flexible financing mechanisms, enabling NATO to embrace not only innovation driven by large companies but, importantly, by agile and disruptive tech small medium enterprises (SMEs); development of an allied innovation ecosystem – creating innovation partnership initiatives with external EDT stakeholders from industry and academia.

The AG-EDT, composed of 12 experts from academia and industry, advises NATO on its efforts to drive the adoption of new technologies.

In their first annual report, the experts offered concrete short-and long term recommendations on how NATO’s approach to EDT should look like.

The group provided advice on how NATO might best finance its innovation efforts, build an operational network of innovation centres, promote successful innovation business and operating models, and increase the level of technical literacy across NATO.

The experts agreed that NATO is exceptionally well-placed to be a global driver for a values-based innovation agenda.


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