Pentagon steps on AI accelerator as age of lethal autonomy looms

Pentagon steps on AI accelerator as age of lethal autonomy looms

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Utilizing artificial intelligence, the U.S. armed forces have steered miniature drones on reconnaissance tasks for special operations and have aided Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. This technology monitors the physical well-being of troops, anticipates when Air Force aircraft require repairs, and maintains surveillance over adversaries in the cosmos.

Amplifying its efforts, the Pentagon is determined to deploy legions of low-cost, AI-driven, disposable autonomous vehicles by 2026 to maintain parity with China. The bold venture, known as Replicator, aims to “spur advancement in the considerably sluggish transformation of U.S. military innovation into utilizing systems that are compact, intelligent, economical, and plentiful,” as stated by Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks in August.

Although its financing remains unclear and specific details are sparse, Replicator is set to expedite critical decisions on which AI technologies are sufficiently advanced and reliable for implementation – this includes systems equipped for combat.

A consensus is evident amongst academics, industrial leaders, and Pentagon chiefs that within a handful of years, the U.S. will have operational fully autonomous lethal weapons at its disposal. Even though authorities maintain that human oversight will be perpetual, specialists argue that progressions in processing data rapidly and inter-machine dialogues will naturally assign supervisory duties to humans.

Particularly anticipated is the deployment of lethal arms in large numbers as part of drone clusters. Numerous nations are developing such technology – and among them, China, Russia, Iran, India, and Pakistan have not committed to an American-led pact to employ military AI with accountability.

Whether the Pentagon is actively evaluating any fully autonomous lethal weaponry for deployment, as stipulated by a directive from 2012, is not clear. A spokesperson for the Pentagon chose not to provide details.

Replicator underscores considerable obstacles in technology and staffing for the Pentagon’s procurement and innovation as the breakthroughs in AI are set to revolutionize the art of warfare.

“The Department of Defense is grappling to integrate AI enhancements resultant from the last major advancement in machine learning,” remarked Gregory Allen, formerly a principal Pentagon AI executive now associated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

Spanning over 800 unclassified AI ventures, the Pentagon’s array comprises numerous projects still undergoing trials. In essence, machine learning and neural networks are instrumental in assisting human operatives to derive meaningful insights and bolster efficiencies.

“At present, the engagement of AI within the Department of Defense greatly supports and enhances human capabilities,” said Missy Cummings, head of George Mason University’s robotics lab and a past Navy pilot.” “AI is not operating independently. Individuals utilize it as a tool to clarify the complexities of warfare.”

AI-assisted technology is actively surveilling potential dangers in the space sector, the latest sphere of military contest.

China projects the use of AI, such as on satellites, to “decide who is an ally and who is a threat,” stated Lisa Costa, U.S. Space Force’s chief of technology and innovation, during a virtual symposium this month.

The United States is determined to match this pace.

A working model named Machina, employed by the Space Force, independently keeps a watchful eye on over 40,000 spatial entities, orchestrating numerous data captures nightly with a network of global telescopes.

Machina’s algorithms direct telescope sensors. Computer vision coupled with extensive language models guides them on what elements to monitor. AI also leads the way in drawing upon astrophysical and physical data immediately, as explained by Col. Wallace ‘Rhet’ Turnbull of the Space Systems Command at an event in August.

Another AI initiative within the Space Force scrutinizes radar signals to forewarn of hostile missile launches, he added.

Moreover, AI’s predictive capabilities assist the Air Force in sustaining its fleet, predicting when over 2,600 aircraft, including B-1 bombers and Blackhawk helicopters, will likely require service.

Machine-learning algorithms forecast potential malfunctions hours in advance, declared Tom Siebel, CEO of C3 AI based in Silicon Valley, which manages the contract. The technology from C3 also develops missile trajectory models for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and identifies internal threats within the government workforce for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency.

In the realm of health-related pursuits is a pilot initiative monitoring the physical readiness of over 13,000 soldiers in the Army’s Third Infantry Division. Using predictive analytics and AI, they aim to lower injuries and enhance overall fitness, according to Maj. Matt Visser.

In Ukraine, AI furnished by the Pentagon and its NATO allies plays a pivotal role in countering Russian hostilities.

NATO partners distribute intelligence originating from data amassed by satellites, unmanned vehicles, and ground sources, some consolidated with software from U.S. firm Palantir. Certain information is derived from Maven, the Pentagon’s seminal AI undertaking, now mainly overseen by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, as indicated by officials like retired Air Force Gen. Jack Shanahan, the first director of Pentagon AI,

Initiated in 2017 to handle Middle Eastern drone footage—as propelled by U.S. Special Operations forces battling ISIS and al-Qaeda—Maven has progresses to assemble and evaluate data from a diverse array of sensors and human intel.

AI has been instrumental in aiding the Pentagon-established Security Assistance Group-Ukraine in coordinating logistics to support military contributions from a consortium of 40 nations, Pentagon officials assert.

To gain the upper hand on the battleground in modern times, military divisions must be lean, inconspicuous, and agile as advancing sensor networks enable constant global visibility at any given time,” Gen. Mark Milley, the former Joint Chiefs chairman, remarked during a June address. “And that which you can see, you can target.”

To better integrate combatants, the Pentagon is pushing the development of comprehensive battle networks—dubbed Joint All-Domain Command and Control—to automate data processing including optical, infrared, and radar from various military branches. Nonetheless, the task is herculean and riddled with red tape.

Christian Brose, once the director of staff for the Senate Armed Services Committee and now with the defense technology company Anduril, is optimistic despite military reform challenges.

“The discussion may no longer be focused on the validity of this approach, but rather on how to execute it swiftly and efficiently,” he commented. In his 2020 book, “The Kill Chain,” Brose champions the immediate overhaul to keep up with China in the race to deploy more sophisticated and cost-effective networked weaponry systems.

With this objective, U.S. forces are forging paths in “human-computer collaboration.” Numerous autonomous aerial and maritime vehicles are currently monitoring Iranian movements. U.S. Marines and Special Forces also employ Anduril’s autonomous Ghost drones, sensor towers, and anti-drone equipment to safeguard American troops.

Essential strides in computerized visual recognition have enabled drones to operate without GPS, communication links, or even external pilots. This is vital to the design of its Nova, a quadcopter, utilized by U.S. special operation units for reconnaissance in conflicted regions.

Looking ahead, the Air Force’s “loyal wingman” initiative envisages teaming manned aircraft with their autonomous counterparts. An F-16 pilot might deploy drones to conduct reconnaissance, draw adversarial fire, or engage in the offensive. Air Force commanders expect this program to launch later in the decade.

The timetable for the “loyal wingman” doesn’t align seamlessly with Replicator’s, which many deem too optimistic. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s non-committal stance concerning Replicator may partly aim to maintain adversary uncertainty, though decision-makers might also still

Exploring potential possibilities concerning functions and strategic intents, remarked Paul Scharre, an expert in military artificial intelligence and writer of “Four Battlegrounds.”

Companies such as Anduril and Shield AI, both bolstered by substantial sums of venture capital, compete for governmental contracts.

Nathan Michael, the head of technology at Shield AI, predicts that within a year they will debut a self-directed cluster of no fewer than three pilotless aircraft, employing their V-BAT drone. Presently, the V-BAT is utilized by the U.S. military — in absence of an AI system — aboard naval vessels, during anti-narcotic operations, and aiding Marine Expeditionary Units, as stated by the firm.

Deploying larger contingents in a dependable manner will necessitate a gradual approach, Michael remarked. “It’s a phased progression — start slowly, then advance, or you’re bound to stumble.”

The sole automated armaments systems that Michael Shanahan, the original chief of AI for the Pentagon, places his faith in for autonomous operation are strictly defensive, such as the Phalanx counter-missile mechanisms on maritime crafts. His concerns lean less towards independently functioning weaponry and more towards technologies that fail to perform as guaranteed, or that mistakenly harm civilians or allied troops.

The department’s present top official for digital strategy and AI, Craig Martell, is firm on preventing such occurrences.

“No matter the level of autonomy, there will invariably be an accountable individual familiar with the system’s constraints, adeptly trained with it, having bona fide certainty of its operational parameters — this person will invariably assume responsibility,” declared Martell, former leader of machine learning at LinkedIn and Lyft. “This will perpetually be the case.”

On the subject of AI’s dependability for mortal autonomy, Martell suggests it’s imprudent to speculate broadly. He relies on his vehicle’s adaptive cruise feature but distrusts the mechanism meant to prevent inadvertent lane shifts. “As the one accountable, I would only utilize this in highly specific scenarios,” he declared. “Consider applying that logic to military contexts.”

Martell’s division is canvassing potential applications for generative AI – establishing a dedicated team for this endeavor – yet it primarily concentrates on examining and testing AI technologies that are under development.

A pressing concern, as voiced by Jane Pinelis, the lead AI engineer at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and former head of AI assurance in Martell’s team, is attracting and keeping the necessary talent to scrutinize AI solutions. The Pentagon struggles to offer competitive salaries. Individuals with a doctorate in computer science and expertise in AI can command salaries exceeding those of the military’s highest-ranked officers.

Furthermore, standards for testing and assessment are still in their infancy, as underscored in a recent evaluation by the National Academy of Sciences regarding the Air Force’s AI endeavors.

Does this imply that the U.S. may ultimately reluctantly deploy autonomous armaments that haven’t been thoroughly vetted?

“We are operating with the premise that we have adequate time to undertake this process with the utmost thoroughness and care,” Pinelis expressed. “Should we be unprepared and the moment to act arrives, an individual will be compelled to decide.”

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