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Revealed: IBM’s £4m deal to build prototype AI software platform for UK military

The British government has agreed to pay IBM nearly £4m to develop a prototype military software platform powered by artificial intelligence.

According to a contract notice identified by NS Tech, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) sees the “land artificial intelligence” platform as a way of gaining “operational advantage over [its] adversaries”.

IBM, which is well known in the AI field for its Watson super computer, won the £3.8m contract last month and has until next September to prove the value of the technology.

Former MoD IT director Gerry Cantwell said the duration of the contract suggested the proof of concept had been set up to determine what was technically possible, ahead of a follow-on procurement.

“I suspect [this] means that IBM will provide the platform, and possibly some of the tools, but there may be other tools and applications that they will use as well,” Cantwell, now chief technology officer of UKCloudX, told NS Tech.

“They will be looking at different aspects such as performance, how tools integrate together, how easy it is to pass data between them or how easy it is for the tools to handle different data formats.”

The contract notice, identified through Tussell’s procurement database, states that the proof of concept will be cloud-hosted and reliant on a large computer processor to analyse existing commercial data sources. The data sources could include mapping data from Ordinance Survey and weather data from the Met Office, as well as flight paths and navigation channels, said Cantwell.

The deal was struck around six months after the US government awarded an $800m battlefield software contract to Palantir, a big data analytics firm founded by the Paypal billionaire and Trump supporter Peter Thiel. NS Tech revealed in August that Palantir has won nearly £11m of MoD contracts over the last four years.

An MoD spokesperson said: “We have awarded a contract to IBM to assist with the development of a standalone AI proof of concept, using commercially available data.”

Asked about comparisons to the US battlefield platform, the spokesperson added: “We are unable to comment on similarities or dissimilarities with other AI commercial ventures.”

IBM declined to comment.