Battlefield AI company claims to be a good actor.

Battlefield AI company claims to be a good actor.

Revolutionizing Military Technology: Helsing AI’s Groundbreaking Software

On the screen in front of me, a mountain landscape unfolds, and a small yellow dot moves menacingly towards my troops. Unsure of the dot’s identity, I request my long-range camera to zoom in. Within seconds, it captures an image of a military drone with distinctive wide wings. The dot turns red, indicating a potential threat. This might sound like a scene from a video game, but it’s not. It is cutting-edge technology designed for real militaries. And this is the first time that defense-tech company Helsing AI has revealed its software to a journalist, providing a glimpse into their groundbreaking system.

Helsing AI’s flagship software is built to handle massive amounts of data generated by various sensors and weapons systems used in modern warfare. By leveraging algorithms, this data is transformed into a video-game-style visualization, providing real-time insights into the unfolding events on the battlefield. What I am observing is a simulation of how a military using Helsing’s system would perceive the situation.

The brains behind Helsing AI consist of three individuals: Torsten Reil, a gaming industry veteran and one of the company’s co-CEOs; Gundbert Scherf, a former special adviser to Germany’s military, who brings expertise in European militaries and modernization efforts; and Niklas Köhler, the company’s AI expert and chief product officer. Köhler, originally focusing on medical applications of machine learning, was drawn into the defense sector due to the similarities between detecting drones and finding cancer in medical scans.

In the fast-paced world of modern warfare, every second counts. Helsing’s founders assert that their software can provide Western militaries with a crucial information advantage. Their system aims to enable faster and more informed decision-making, accessible on various devices. This means soldiers on the frontlines can access the same real-time information as their commanders in control centers, bridging the knowledge gap. Currently, much of this decision-making process relies on manual methods, such as phone calls, reading reports, and manually annotating maps. Köhler points out that understanding the various systems, their operations, and intent is an AI problem that their software addresses.

While Helsing is not the first company attempting to build an operating system for war, it stands out as a prominent European startup in this field. Traditional defense companies have faced challenges in delivering such systems, paving the way for tech companies like Helsing and others, such as Anduril and Palantir, to step in. What sets Helsing apart is its focus on mapping the electromagnetic spectrum, the invisible space where machines communicate through electronic signals. By using AI applications to analyze and optimize the use of different parts of the spectrum, Helsing empowers militaries with powerful techniques.

Helsing’s journey hasn’t been without obstacles. When Spotify founder Daniel Ek invested €100 million into the company in 2021, some Spotify users expressed outrage over their subscription dollars being allocated to the arms industry. However, the tide changed following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Europe’s attitudes toward defense shifted significantly, with billions of dollars in military aid flowing into Ukraine, substantial increases in military spending, and rising venture capital investments in defense tech.

Having weathered initial skepticism and funding challenges, Helsing has grown to employ 220 professionals across its offices in London, Paris, Berlin, and Munich. Hiring top engineering talent proved to be a hurdle. Köhler describes the often-debated motivations surrounding the defense industry during the pre-Ukraine period. Even in Germany, where skepticism regarding the military is deeply rooted due to the country’s past, attitudes have transformed. In response to the Russian invasion, the German parliament approved a €100 billion military revamp a mere four months later.

Today, Helsing boasts military contracts with countries like Germany, France, and the UK. Additionally, the company has formed partnerships with well-established defense contractors, including Rheinmetall and Saab, to integrate AI into existing weapons systems. While the specifics of Helsing’s involvement in Ukraine remain undisclosed, a Ukrainian government official confirmed the company’s plans to engage in the country.

Helsing’s corporate slogan, “AI to serve democracies,” reflects its commitment to selling exclusively to democratic governments and not to autocratic regimes like Russia or North Korea. However, questions arise about the boundaries of democracy, particularly concerning countries like Poland or Hungary, where constraints on judicial independence and LGBTQ rights have been observed. The slogan underscores Helsing’s idealism, manifested in job advertisements seeking individuals who believe in protecting democratic values.

The founders of Helsing point to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea as a wake-up call for Europe to be prepared for Russian aggression. Concerned about falling behind in critical defense technologies, Torsten Reil, the CEO of Helsing, was intrigued by the resistance of leading tech companies, notably Google, to engage in defense-related projects. Reil expressed his surprise at the unwillingness of Google engineers to work on defense initiatives, emphasizing the importance of collaboration between technology and defense to maintain open and free societies.

While defense products often lack transparency, Helsing aims to differentiate itself by aligning its AI capabilities with democratic values. The founders assert that they prioritize privacy and freedom, refraining from engaging in technologies like facial recognition. By focusing on object recognition rather than people, Helsing aims to ensure that its technology serves defensive purposes only.

Nevertheless, the integration of automation in defense raises ethical concerns. While Helsing’s current systems require human intervention for decision-making, there are concerns about future pressure to connect their systems with autonomous weapons. The accountability of humans versus machines in making critical decisions remains a significant challenge. Herbert Lin, a senior research scholar at Stanford University, warns policymakers against relinquishing control to AI and emphasizes the importance of human accountability.

Helsing acknowledges these concerns and has implemented measures to address them. They aim not only to include humans “in the loop” but also to ensure their active engagement. By incorporating pauses into their system, they prompt operators to reflect on the information and question whether they want to follow the AI’s recommendation. This emphasis on human decision-making reduces the risk of undue reliance or ignorance of AI-based insights.

Helsing’s success in securing contracts and attracting talent is a testament to the shifting attitudes within Europe. The company’s injection of Silicon Valley idealism into the defense sector seems to be resonating. According to Reil, public sentiment has swung dramatically in favor of defense efforts. The urgent need for enhanced defense capabilities, driven by geopolitical events, has repositioned defense technology as a critical asset for democratic societies.

In conclusion, Helsing AI is revolutionizing military technology with its innovative software. Through advanced algorithms and real-time data visualization, Helsing provides Western militaries with an information edge. The company’s growth and partnerships with established defense contractors reflect the changing landscape of the defense industry. While concerns about accountability and automation persist, Helsing’s commitment to human decision-making ensures that their AI serves as a powerful tool for monitoring and analysis, empowering democracies to make informed choices in the face of evolving threats. As attitudes continue to evolve, Helsing’s mission to protect democratic values through cutting-edge technology remains at the forefront.