Pentagon Sprinting to Catch Up with China on Artificial Intelligence

This picture taken 26 December 2011 shows the Pentagon building in Washington, DC. The Pentagon, which is the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense (DOD), is the world's largest office building by floor area, with about 6,500,000 sq ft (600,000 m2), of which 3,700,000 sq ft (340,000 m2) …
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The U.S. military is sprinting to keep up with China on the development of artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, which will be crucial to maintaining a military edge over near-peer competitors, according to a briefing by the director of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC).

“Leadership in the military application of AI is critical to our national security. The table stakes are high. For that reason I doubt I will ever be entirely satisfied that we’re moving fast enough when it comes to DOD’s adoption of AI. My sense of urgency remains palpable,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan.

“Our potential adversaries are moving very deliberately towards a future of artificial intelligence,” he said.

He said Russia has focused generally more on the robotics and automation side, but China has focused on the “whole breadth of artificial intelligence capabilities.”

“From President Xi Jinping down to the provincial level they have had a strategy of accelerating adoption and integration of artificial intelligence well beyond the research, well beyond the theory, actually fielding those capabilities,” he said.

“And as a regime that’s made it clear that artificial intelligence is part of their strategy as they look towards 2035, they’ve made no secrets about what they want to do on the military side as well, everything from autonomous weapons to big emphasis to how you use AI in command and control,” he said.

Shanahan said he stays away from the phrase “arms race,” but acknowledged there is a “strategic competition.”

“We understand how fast we need to move, we see our adversaries moving fast, so it’s a strategic competition not an arms race. They’re going to keep doing what they’re doing, we acknowledge that, and what I don’t want to see is a future where our potential adversaries have a fully AI-enabled force, and we do not,” he said.

“When it goes back to this question of time and decision cycles and I don’t have the time, luxury, of hours or days to make decisions, it may be seconds and microseconds where AI can be used to our competitive advantage,” he added.

China has been vocal in its goal to become the world’s leader in AI, and by virtue of its massive surveillance infrastructure across the country, has been able to collect more data to feed into and improve its AI capabilities.

Shanahan acknowledged that by some rankings, China is ahead of the U.S. in AI in terms of speed of adoption and data. However, he said, “Just the fact that they have data does not tell me that they have an inherent strength in fielding in their military organizations.”

But he also acknowledged that China’s control over its commercial sector “does give a strength in terms of their ability to take commercial and make it military as fast as they can integrate it, or have certain companies actually working on behalf of the military.”

He contrasted that to the situation in the U.S., where the AI commercial sector has taken off but has little to no experience working with the government. “That’s where part of that wariness comes in — why should we work with DOD?” Shanahan said. “So that is a limitation for us.”

In 2018, Google infamously pulled out of an AI project with the Pentagon called Project Maven, after its employees protested working on a program with military applications.

“If we do not find a way to strengthen those bonds with the United States government and industry and academia, then I would say we do have the real risk of not moving as fast as China when it comes to this,” he said.

“This is mandated, from President Xi Jinping down, ‘This is what we’ll do together, civil-military integration,’” he said. “It does give them a leg up and we have to work hard to strengthening the relationships we have with commercial industry to prove that we are a good partner.”

Shanahan said the JAIC plans to have an internal ethicist look at ethics problems with using AI in war-fighting.

Despite the slower start, the Pentagon is hoping to sprint ahead with the JAIC centralizing the military’s AI efforts.

Shanahan said the JAIC was established a year ago with a handful of people, no money, and no permanent space. “It now has over 60 government employees, a real home, a healthy fiscal year ’20 budget, and we are delivering some initial AI capabilities,” he said.

Shanahan said the JAIC did not receive money until March 2019 but that there will be progress on a couple lines of efforts by March. “That’s pretty quick,” he said. He said the services themselves are also moving out on AI projects as well.

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