By Guy Faulconbridge
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's cyber spies at the GCHQ eavesdropping agency say they have fully embraced artificial intelligence (AI) to uncover patterns in vast amounts of global data to counter hostile disinformation and snare child abusers.
AI, which traces its history back to British mathematician Alan Turing's work in the 1930s, allows modern computers to learn to sift through data to see the shadows of spies and criminals that a human brain might miss.
GCHQ, where Turing cracked Germany's naval Enigma code during World War Two, said advances in computing and the doubling of global data every two years meant it would now fully embrace AI to unmask spies and identify cyber attacks.
The world's biggest spy agencies in the United States, China, Russia and Europe are in a race to embrace the might of the technological revolution to bolster their defensive and offensive capabilities in the cyber realm.
"AI, like so many technologies, offers great promise for society, prosperity and security. Its impact on GCHQ is equally profound," said Jeremy Fleming, the director of GCHQ.
The Cheltenham-based Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) - the British equivalent of the NSA - is publishing a paper "Pioneering a New National Security: The Ethics of AI" confirming its full use of the technology.
"AI will be a critical issue for our national security in the 21st century," the report, released on Thursday, said.
While AI is not yet at the science-fiction stage of competing with humans to generate revolutionary ideas such as AI itself, computer software can see patterns in data within seconds that human minds would take hundreds of years to see.
GCHQ has been using basic forms of AI such as translation technology for years but is now stepping up its use, partly in response to the use of AI by hostile states and partly due to the data explosion which makes it effective.
Hostile states were using AI tools in an attempt to undermine free societies by spreading disinformation, GCHQ said, so it would use AI to counter such networks.
Similarly, AI could be deployed against organised crime or child abusers to uncover their networks or the maze of complex financial transactions which have traditionally been used to shield criminal empires.
In cyber intelligence, the United States is ranked by the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center as the top global power, followed by Britain, China and Israel.
"We can expect the deployment of new computing techniques, synthetic biology and other emerging technologies over the next few years," GCHQ said in the report.
"Each new development helps our economy and society grow stronger, and provides opportunities to keep us secure, but also has the potential to be misused by those who seek to do us harm."
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Giles Elgood)