Artificial intelligence as the Pentagon’s latest weapon

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA (TIP): In its quest to maintain a US military advantage, the Pentagon is aggressively turning to Silicon Valley’s hottest technology – artificial intelligence.

On May 12, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter made his fourth trip to the tech industry’s heartland since being named to his post last year. Before that, it had been 20 years since a defense secretary had visited the area, he noted in a speech at a Defense Department research facility near Google’s headquarters.

The Pentagon’s intense interest in AI -and by connection the Silicon Valley companies specializing in that technology – has grown out of the “Third Offset” strategy articulated by Carter last fall. Concerned about the re-emergence of China and Russia as military competitors, he stated that computer-based, high-tech weapons would give the US military an edge in the future.

Third Offset is a reference to two earlier eras when Pentagon planners turned to technology to compensate for a smaller military. In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower emphasized nuclear weapons as a deterrence to larger Warsaw Pact armies. A second “offset” occurred in the 1970s and ’80s when military planners turned to improved technology in conventional weapons to again compensate for smaller numbers. This time, Carter acknowledged, the United States faces significant challenges in translating civilian innovation into a military advantage, since the country will neither control nor determine the path of artificial intelligence.

“That’s different than 30 or 40 or 50 years ago when we expected to control the pace of technology,” he said Wednesday in a speech at the Pentagon’s nearly 1-year-old Defense Innovation Unit Experimental facility, otherwise known by the techie acronym DIUx. “That’s not true anymore, but we still can stay the best military with respect to applications of AI”

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In recent weeks, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O Work has repeatedly emphasized the importance of AI-related technologies that he believes will help create a new class of ” Iron Man “-style fighters armed with increasingly smart weapons.

He has invoked the concept of “Centaur Warfighting” – systems that combine AI with the capabilities of humans, resulting in faster responses than humans alone could achieve. The Defense Department will need Silicon Valley’s help with that technology. And Carter indicated that bridge-building with local companies was a key reason the new Pentagon office he visited Wednesday will now report directly to him. The Defense Department has always had a close relationship with some of tech’s biggest companies. The Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard , for example, served as deputy secretary of defense in the Nixon administration.

Many companies still count the Pentagon and intelligence agencies among their biggest customers. A venture fund backed by the CIA has been investing in tech companies since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.

But younger Silicon Valley executives, particularly those in AI research, have shown little interest in seeing their new technology used by the military.

The depiction of defense weapons that fire without a human operator raised alarms among arms control advocates and some military strategists who worry that the line between offensive and defensive uses of smart weapons will be difficult to maintain.

“We need to figure out where to draw the line and we need to stay on the right side of it,” said Stuart J Russell, an AI specialist at the University of California, Berkeley who is a leader in a movement to ban autonomous weapons.

In fact, turning over killing decisions to machines is seen by some technologists and military strategists as inviting a new and possibly destabilizing arms race. “I’m not as confident that we can clearly delineate between offensive and defensive weapons, in general,” said Paul Scharre, a weapons analyst at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based policy group. “If there was an easy way to do that, nations would have agreed long ago to only build ‘defensive’ weapons.” (NYT News)

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