Military Academy launches centre for artificial intelligence excellence


The South African Military Academy overlooking Saldanha Bay in the Western Cape has formally launched the Defence Artificial Intelligence Research Unit (DAIRU) as a centre of Artificial Intelligence (AI) excellence.

Artificial Intelligence is viewed as a critical component of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, capable of fundamentally shaping geopolitics and the conduct of warfare. Nations need to adopt AI technologies swiftly and effectively, as integration determines success in future conflicts.

In his keynote address at the ceremony held on Friday 3 May, Mondli Gungubele, Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, remarked that the initiative is not just symbolic; it represents a strategic move towards leveraging AI for national development and security. He emphasised the transformative power of AI and its potential to revolutionise various sectors.

Gungubele said that AI is being rapidly adopted globally and has the potential to surpass human abilities. Artificial Intelligence crosses a broad spectrum, from Narrow AI, which excels in specific tasks, to General AI, which can outperform humans in intellectual tasks, and the theoretical realm of Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI).

The integration of AI into defence and military operations was emphasised, acknowledging the global trend towards AI-powered military applications and the need for proactive governance in this sphere. The establishment of the DAIRU positions the country as a leader in harnessing emerging technologies for global competitiveness and safeguarding national interests, guests at the ceremony heard.

“AI, akin to electricity or fossil fuels, has the potential to redefine modern militaries and reshape the global balance of power,” the Minister said.

Lieutenant General Michael Ramantswana, South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Chief of Staff, noted that the inauguration of the DAIRU marked a significant milestone for South Africa, reflecting the nation’s commitment to leveraging AI for military advancement and broader socio-economic growth.

The initiative is not only about bolstering military prowess but also about positioning South Africa as a leader in AI innovation on the continent and globally, attendees at the launch were told.

From radar development in World War II to the advent of GPS and the internet, the military has consistently embraced emerging technologies to gain a strategic advantage. The South African National Defence Force’s investment in AI research and development through DAIRU reflects a proactive approach to staying abreast of technological advancements.

“We do not just want to be consumers of the technology,” Ramantswana said. “The SANDF should also strive to innovate new artificial intelligence solutions.”

Collaboration with industry and academia is deemed essential for the success of the DAIRU, Ramantswana emphasised, enabling the SANDF to leverage expertise, share resources and accelerate progress in AI implementation.

“But make no mistake – success will require dedication and commitment. We must dedicate sufficient resources to this initiative to ensure that the SANDF and defence sector remain at the forefront of technological innovation in Africa and beyond,” he added.

Dr Moses Khanyile (Director: DAIRU) underscored the opportune timing of the event, aligning with the drafting of the African Union’s formulation of a Continental AI Strategy.

“The uneasy peace that has been in existence between the superpowers for the last seven decades is directly attributable to the possession of nuclear weapons,” Khanyile noted. “However, the discovery of artificial intelligence technology has ignited a new global digital arms race.”

This has far-reaching implications if left unregulated and he emphasised the imperative for oversight.

“As things stand,” Khanyile told the assembled dignitaries, “there is no consensus on the rules of the game, how AI should be regulated, both as dual-use technology and as an asset to humanity.” This sentiment encapsulates the urgency and complexity surrounding AI governance.

The SANDF has already established a cyber command within the Defence Intelligence Division and the Space Command Section within the South African Air Force and these capabilities need continuous flows of highly skilled AI practitioners, such as those produced by the DAIRU.

This includes research and development on AI capacity, strengthening the country’s cyber resilience, improving maritime and border security, combating illicit trade and trafficking and boosting the SANDF’s operational efficiency on and off the battlefield.

In modern warfare, AI can assist human decision-making processes by rapidly processing vast amounts of data from diverse sources. Specific applications include AI-driven drones, targeting systems and image analysis, which have already demonstrated their value in military operations. AI can also be leveraged to counter disinformation, enhance cybersecurity, and predict/prevent cyber-attacks.

Institutions like the South African AI Institute and military academies are pivotal players in preparing national defence forces for digital warfare.

The DAIRU seeks to achieve these objectives by, amongst others, utilising resources within the government, Stellenbosch University (the Military Academy houses the Faculty of Military Science) and the private sector. The establishment of the Defence AI Research Unit exemplifies a commitment to spearhead AI applications in defence within the African context.