US Risks Losing Artificial Intelligence Arms Race to China and Russia

CNN/ Newswire | 11/29/2017, 8:47 a.m.
More than 60 years after a space race rivalry with the Soviet Union ushered in a new era of ballistic ...
Both China and Russia have recently highlighted the importance of artificial intelligence to the future of the global economy and military power

By Zachary Cohen, CNN

(CNN) -- More than 60 years after a space race rivalry with the Soviet Union ushered in a new era of ballistic missile development, the US is facing another "Sputnik moment" amid a rapidly escalating international competition over artificial intelligence, according to former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work.

The idea that rapid advances in artificial intelligence will define the next generation of warfare -- a concept known as the "Third Offset Strategy" -- was first articulated by former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in 2014.

Possible AI applications for the military include: creating more nimble systems, possibly at lower cost; developing more effective training systems; software that processes mountains of data from surveillance systems or for "pattern-of-life" surveillance; improved facial recognition capabilities; war games support and automated combat in so-called manned-unmanned operations, according to a September report from the RAND Corporation.

But a new report published Wednesday and provided exclusively to CNN by Work and Govini, a data and analytics firm that conducts government analysis, warns that the US military must now decide if it wants to "lead the coming revolution, or fall victim to it" amid emerging challenges from China and Russia.

"This stark choice will be determined by the degree to which the Department of Defense (DoD) recognizes the revolutionary military potential of AI and advanced autonomous systems," the report said.

Specifically, the White House and Pentagon must determine the extent to which the US will ramp up research and development in technologies associated with artificial intelligence -- including advanced computing, artificial neural networks, big data, machine learning, unmanned systems and robotics, it said.

The US must also determine a national strategy for how aggressively it will develop new systems, operational concepts and organizational constructs that exploit artificial intelligence advancements in warfare, according to the report.

An important part of that strategy relates to "autonomy" which results "from delegation of a decision to an authorized entity to take action within specific boundaries," Work told CNN.

The technology

While critics have often warned against the development of autonomous offensive weaponry for fear of losing operational control, Work told CNN that the US pursuit of "narrow AI" will always prioritize human control but allow the machine to "independently compose and select among different courses of action to accomplish assigned goals based on its knowledge and understanding of the world, itself, and the situation."

"They are worried about the Terminator, but the US view is more like the Iron Man," Work said in reference to the Marvel superhero who is a man equipped with a powerful and adaptable suit of armor.

The US has already begun to apply elements of AI to military platforms and strategy -- a move perhaps no more evident than in its investment in the $400 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Combining an array of sensors and software used to quickly collect data and interpret data, the F-35 "is the key example of human elaboration," Work told CNN.

"It sucks up data and portrays that to the pilot in a way they couldn't have done on their own," he added, calling the aircraft a "perfect example of human-machine collaboration" that should be applied to other military platforms.