The Village People: Foreshadowing AI in the Navy Since 1979!


The Village People got it right when they said Navy recruits can not only “sail the seven seas” but also “learn science technology.” Of course, at the time, the campy American disco group had in mind the United States Navy, who incredibly employed In the Navy for a television and radio ad campaign. But the sentiment applies equally today to the British Royal Navy, now increasingly turning to artificial intelligence to tackle present and future challenges.

In April, the Royal Navy quietly debuted a small autonomous submarine — aka, an Extra-Large Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (XLUUV). At nine-tonnes (roughly the same weight as a light military tank or a cruise ship anchor, by the way), the state-of-the-art craft will travel up to 3,000 miles from home for three months at a time. Controlled entirely by AI, and in the absence of all human contact, it uses machine learning to simulate the presence of a trained captain. And just like a flesh-and-blood captain, the sub will decide, based on context, which actions to take and which tasks to prioritise.

The project is undoubtedly phenomenal. That said, still relying on floats and armbands in the training pool like a kid learning to swim, there’s some way to go before the XLUUV can dive deep into the seven seas alone. One major concern is that, if the craft is ever to be armed, it could elect to fire a torpedo in circumstances where a person would decide against an attack — but human operators can also make poor choices in this sense, so this isn’t a problem unique to AI. For long-term success, the answer is more and better-quality data!

Right now, the Royal Navy isn’t using artificial intelligence to fire weapons autonomously, but it is currently trialling AI in its defence against supersonic missile attacks for the first time. Building on previous tests not involving live missiles, Formidable Shield is the largest exercise of its type, involving over 3,000 personnel. The project tests the ability of warships to detect, track, and defeat incoming missiles — ranging from ballistic missiles to sea-skimming weapons that move at twice the speed of sound just above the water. The systems used provide real-time alerts and practical advice on the appropriate course of action in an attack situation — right down to which weapon operatives should choose to combat the missile and which operatives are best suited to take the lead in firing that weapon.

Royal Navy warships joining the Formidable Shield project

The XLUUV and Formidable Shield projects and other related projects offer a quick snapshot of the future of defence at sea for the UK and beyond. Other countries, including the US, are pouring funds into research on the various ways that AI (subfields like natural language understanding, human-centred computing, deep learning, sensor-based systems, and more) can address key problems important to their Navies.

Considering the ongoing success of the projects mentioned here, it’s crucial that the Ministry of Defence and the Defence departments of other governments continue to invest in similar innovations, maximising the potential of their Navies to take on new challenges and threats. I’d say that’s already a major priority, and I’d also guess other top-secret plans are bubbling under the surface — after all, the majority of warfare forces do, for obvious reasons, prefer to keep their cards close to their chest.

Besides the ability to learn science technology, the Village People also sing about oceans of other benefits of joining the Navy. One is the sense of camaraderie that develops when recruits “join their fellow man” (and woman) to “make a stand” and “protect their motherland.” Sadly, this hallmark would sink to some extent in any Navy where people are displaced by artificial intelligence.

But it wouldn’t end up fully submerged. Indeed, many human personnel will inevitably be axed from roles where AI is a better fit, such as those whose tasks entail predictable and easily disrupted rules or patterns — this is the case in lots of sectors, not just Defence. Even so, absolutely nobody is under the slightest illusion there won’t remain some roles in which people and teams have the edge, like those involving unpredictable elements.

Remember that human-machine collaboration will always be necessary. The Navy, as the Village People tell us, “need a hand.” Well, let me tell you that artificial intelligence needs a hand too — from its human creators.



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Catriona Campbell

Catriona Campbell


Behavioural psychologist; AI-quisitive; EY UK&I Client Technology & Innovation Officer. Views my own & don't represent EY’s position.