The Israeli army has deployed AI-enabled military technology in combat for the first time in Gaza, raising fears about the use of autonomous weapons in modern warfare.
The military has hinted at what the new technology will be used for, with Israeli forces operating “simultaneously above and below ground,” spokesman Daniel Hagari said last month.
The tech is destroying enemy drones and mapping Hamas' vast tunnel network in Gaza, a senior defense official told AFP.
New defense technologies, including artificial intelligence-powered gunsights and robotic drones, have become a bright spot for Israel's technology industry in a grim period.
The sector is expected to account for 18 percent of GDP in 2022, but the war in Gaza has wreaked havoc with eight percent of its workforce called up for combat.
“The war in Gaza in general presents threats, but also opportunities to test emerging technologies in the field,” said Avi Hassan, chief executive of Startup Nation Central, an Israeli tech incubator.
“There are technologies on the battlefield and in hospitals that have never been used in this war.”
But the rising civilian death toll shows that much greater oversight is needed over the use of new forms of defense technology, Mary Wareham, a weapons expert at Human Rights Watch, told AFP.
“Now we're facing the worst kind of death and suffering we see today — some of it being brought about by new tech,” she said.
More than 150 countries backed a UN resolution in December that identified “serious challenges and concerns” in new military technology, including “artificial intelligence and autonomy in weapons systems.”
– 'Angry Birds' –
On October 7 Hamas launched an unprecedented offensive against Israel that resulted in the deaths of some 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Hamas also captured about 250 hostages and Israel said 132 were in Gaza, at least 29 of whom were believed to have been killed.
Israel's military response has killed nearly 28,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-ruled territory's health ministry.
Like many other modern conflicts, the war has been shaped by the proliferation of inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, which have made air strikes easier and cheaper.
Hamas used them to drop explosives on October 7, but Israel turned to new technology to detonate them.
For the first time, the army has used an AI-enabled optic sight made by Israeli startup Smart Shooter, which is attached to weapons such as rifles and machine guns.
“Hamas uses a lot of drones so this will help our soldiers intercept the drones,” a senior defense official said.
“It makes every regular soldier — even a blind soldier — a sniper.”
Another system for neutralizing drones involves equipping a friendly drone with a net, throwing it around enemy craft to neutralize it.
“It's drone versus drone — we call it Angry Birds,” the official said.
A cornerstone of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pledge to “destroy” Hamas is quickly mapping an underground tunnel network where Israel says the group's fighters are hiding and holding hostages.
The network is so vast that the military has dubbed it the “Gaza Metro” and a recent study by the US Military Academy West Point has 1,300 tunnels stretching over 500 kilometers (310 miles).
The military has turned to drones that use AI to learn to recognize humans to map tunnels and enclose the drone in a robotic case made by Israeli startup Robotican.
It is being used in Gaza “to get into tunnels and see as far as communication allows you,” a senior Israeli defense official said.
The official said pre-war technology did not allow drones to operate underground due to problems sending images to the surface.
The conflict raised human rights concerns but cemented Israel's status as a world leader in the manufacture of sophisticated defense systems.
The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the United States — Israel's main international ally and provider of billions of dollars in military aid each year — is training its own troops to shoot down drones using the Smart Shooter's optic sights.
In late January, three US soldiers were killed in a drone attack on a base in Jordan.
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