WASHINGTON – The U.S. military wants to expand its use of artificial intelligence in warfare but says it will take care to deploy the technology in accordance with American values.
Outlined its first AI strategy in a report released Tuesday, the Pentagon called for accelerating the use of AI systems throughout the military, from intelligence-gathering operations to predicting maintenance problems in planes or ships. The report urges the U.S. to advance such technology swiftly before other countries chip away at its technological advantage.
“Other nations, particularly China and Russia, are making significant investments in AI for military purposes, including in applications that raise questions regarding international norms and human rights,” the report says.
It makes little mention of autonomous weapons but cites a 2012 military directive that requires humans to be in control.
The U.S. and Russia are among a handful of nations that have blocked efforts at the United Nations for an international ban on “killer robots” — fully autonomous weapons systems that could one day conduct war without human intervention. The U.S. has argued that it is premature to try to regulate them.
The strategy unveiled by the Department of Defense this week is focused on more immediate applications, but even some of those have sparked ethical debates.
The Pentagon hit a roadblock in its AI efforts last year after internal protests at Google led the tech company to drop out of Project Maven, which uses algorithms to interpret aerial video images from conflict zones. Other companies have sought to fill the vacuum, and the Pentagon is working with AI experts from industry and academia to establish ethical guidelines for its AI applications.
“Everything we’ve seen is with a human decision-maker in the loop,” said Todd Probert, a vice president at Raytheon’s intelligence division, which is working with the Pentagon on Maven and other projects. “It’s using technology to help speed up the process but not supplant the command structure that’s in place.”
The Pentagon’s report follows President Donald Trump’s Monday executive order prioritizing AI research across the government, a move seen as firing up a battle for leadership with China.
The American AI Initiative executive order calls for the administration to “devote the full resources of the federal government” to help fuel AI innovation.
“Americans have profited tremendously from being the early developers and international leaders in AI,” a White House statement said.
“However, as the pace of AI innovation increases around the world, we cannot sit idly by and presume that our leadership is guaranteed.”
The order stops short of specific funding or a detailed strategy for deployment of artificial intelligence.
The move comes amid growing concerns that China will overtake the United States in key areas of artificial intelligence, helped by a broad national strategy and accelerating investment.
Darrell West, head of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation, said the White House move is “timely” but implementation remains uncertain due to a lack of clear funding. “The president sometimes launches initiatives that sound good but have little actual impact,” West said.
“China is investing $150 billion by 2030 with the goal of becoming the pre-eminent AI country in the world. It is important for the U.S. to keep pace because AI will transform many different sectors.”
Daniel Castro of the Center for Data Innovation, a think tank that follows technology issues, offered a similarly cautious response.
“If the administration wants its AI initiative to be transformative, it will need to do more than reprogram existing funds for AI research, skill development, and infrastructure development.”
Castro welcomed the initiative but called for a more comprehensive AI strategy that covers areas such as digital free trade, data collection policies and other issues.
Sen. Marco Rubio called the initiative a “good start,” writing on Twitter: “China is the most comprehensive challenge we have faced from a near peer adversary in over half a century. Confronting it will require a comprehensive response.”
The White House said the plan calls for “unleashing AI” by making more resources available to researchers, setting guidelines for regulations, promoting AI in education and improving U.S. competitiveness.
The statement made no mention of China but called for “an action plan to protect the advantage of the United States in AI and technology critical to United States national and economic security interests against strategic competitors and foreign adversaries.”