The rise of the machines: Pentagon examining how enemy nations could empower AI to kill

The US military has built a force that relies heavily on the decision-making skills of its troops but “authoritarian regimes” might use weapons that can act independently.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 March, 2016, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 12:45pm

The Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian official said on Wednesday that the Defence Department is concerned that adversary nations could empower advanced weapons systems to act on their own, noting that while the United States will not give them the authority to kill autonomously, other countries might.

Deputy Defence Secretary Robert O. Work said that the Pentagon hasn’t “fully figured out” the issue of autonomous machines, but continues to examine it.

The US military has built a force that relies heavily on the decision-making skills of its troops, but “authoritarian regimes” might find weapons that can act independently more attractive because doing so would consolidate the ability to take action among a handful of leaders, he said.

“We will not delegate lethal authority to a machine to make a decision,” Work said. “The only time we will ... delegate a machine authority is in things that go faster than human reaction time, like cyber or electronic warfare.”

Work’s comments came during the first of a series of live Washington Post events called “Securing Tomorrow,” hosted by columnist David Ignatius. Work said the United States is likely to narrowly use artificial intelligence in the next five to 10 years, pointing, for instance, to self-parking vehicles.

The event focused heavily on how the Pentagon is preparing for the future through what it calls a Third Offset Strategy, in which the military is seeking to counter the military advances of adversaries. The concept gets its name from two earlier “offsets”.

We will not delegate lethal authority to a machine to make a decision
Robert O. Work , US Deputy Defence Secretary

In the first, the Pentagon developed tactical nuclear weapons during the cold war. In the second, the military introduced the use of GPS to precisely guide a variety of bombs and missiles on the battlefield.

The Third Offset Strategy focuses on the introduction of machine learning – networks of machines that work together and the distribution of military force through the use of drone swarms and other technologies.

Work said that it means the Pentagon will not try to match its adversaries “tank-for-tank, gun-for-gun, missile-for-missile, person-for-person,” and instead will offset enemy strengths in other ways.

“This is a much more dynamic strategy than we had in the cold war,” Work said. “Then we had one, single opponent. It was a very stable competition, and we kind of understood the way they were going.

“We knew the areas where we could pick where we would dominate the competition, like information technologies and precision-guided munitions. This is a much more dynamic environment in which a lot of military-relevant technologies are coming from the commercial sector.”

Asked whether the Pentagon needs to prepare for robot warfare, Work said the US must begin working its “strategic muscles” more than it has in the last 25 years because of the emergence of China and Russia as threats. Part of that is disclosing new military capabilities to give potential enemies pause, he said. One recent example is the public emergence of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, which had worked mostly in the shadows since it was established in 2012.

Defence Secretary Ashton Carter wants it to invent new ways to use old weapons, such as having fighter jets, while in flight, deploy drone swarms.

“We will reveal for deterrence, and we will conceal for war-fighting advantage,” Work said. “There are a lot of things in the budget that we don’t talk about because we want to preserve that in case, God forbid, deterrence fails and we do come to a conflict of arms.”