US defense must have foundations for AI integration by 2025, new report says

By on 04/02/2021 | Updated on 04/02/2021
Military intelligence: the DoD ‘is now trying to make the leap to a software-intensive enterprise’ says the new report from the NSCAI.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) must set “an ambitious goal” to have the foundations for widespread integration of artificial intelligence (AI) across defence in place by 2025, according to a draft of the final report from the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence (NSCAI).

This should include “a common digital infrastructure that is accessible to internal AI development teams and critical industry partners, a technically literate workforce, and modern AI-enabled business practices that improve efficiency”.

The draft report was published last month; the final version will be released on 1 March 2021.

The Commission has advocated for greater investment and uptake in AI in the defence and security sectors. It frames the US’s efforts in AI similarly to an arms race, as hostile actors develop their own capabilities in autonomous weaponry, cyber tools and disinformation.

“The magnitude of the technological opportunity coincides with a moment of strategic vulnerability. China is a competitor possessing the might, talent, and ambition to challenge America’s technological leadership, military superiority, and its broader position in the world,” the introduction notes.

“AI is deepening the threat posed by cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns that Russia, China, and other state and non-state actors use to infiltrate our society, steal our data, and interfere in our democracy,” it adds.

The Commission

The NSCAI was established in August 2018 as part of the annual defence spending settlement, with a mission to scope out how to advance AI, machine learning and associated technologies in relation to US national security and defence needs.

It is chaired by former Google chief executive Dr Eric Schmidt. The vice chair is Robert Work, a former Deputy Secretary of Defense from 2014 to 2017, under both the Obama and Trump administrations.

Its fifteen commissioners, supported by a secretariat of 25 staff, have completed five interim reports and memos since July 2019, informed by submissions from a wide range of experts.  The commission is scheduled to be wound up in October 2021.

Previous reports have urged policies such as creating a national digital corps, setting up a military cyber academy, and increasing the federal budget for research and development into AI and associated technologies, according to US government news website Fedscoop.

The draft final report is in two halves. The first, Defending America in the AI Era, focuses on the defence applications of AI, and what the US should do to respond to the “spectrum of AI-related threats” from state and non-state actors.

In the second part, Winning the Technology Competition, the commission looks at AI as part of a wider global competition around new technologies and recommends policies to promote innovation in AI and create a critical and competitive advantage for the US. 

In the slow lane

The introduction paints a picture of a nation at risk of slipping behind competitor states, which, in future, could include small nations and actors able to exploit affordable, off-the-shelf hardware and readily available algorithms.

The report is also blunt about China’s capability. “In some areas of research and applications, China is already an AI peer, and it is more technically advanced in some applications. Within the next decade, China could surpass the United States as the world’s AI superpower,” it notes.

It warns that US citizens have also not “recognised the assertive role the government will have to play in ensuring the United States wins this innovation competition” or the public investment needed. “Despite our private sector and university leadership in AI, the United States remains unprepared for the coming era,” the commission writes.

On the other hand, capabilities in AI could ensure the US can respond with greater agility to new or emerging vulnerabilities. “Global crises exemplified in the global pandemic and climate change are expanding the definition of national security and crying out for innovative solutions. AI can help us navigate many of these challenges,” the introduction says.

Talent is essential

The authors argue that AI development and implementation requires a “stack” of interconnected elements containing including talent, data, hardware, algorithms, applications, and integration.

“We regard talent as the most essential requirement because it drives the creation and management of all the other elements,” the report says, recommending a focus on improving the government technology talent pipeline, both through new recruiting practices and retraining current employees.

“If government agencies do not have enough of the right talent, every AI initiative will struggle and most will fail,” said commissioner Dr José-Marie Griffiths, president of Dakota State University, according to Fedscoop.

Changing military teams

While the US armed forces might already deploy, and be able to counter, drones and autonomous weapons, the NSCAI warns that rapidly advancing capabilities could change the dynamic within human-machine “teams”.

“In the past, computers could only perform tasks that fell within a clearly defined set of parameters or rules programmed by a human. As AI becomes more capable, computers will be able to learn and perform tasks based on parameters that humans do not explicitly program, creating choices and taking actions at a volume and speed never before possible.”

The report therefore sees the construction of an AI infrastructure as the first step to creating new defence capabilities. “DoD has long been hardware-oriented toward ships, planes, and tanks. It is now trying to make the leap to a software-intensive enterprise,” it notes.

About Elaine Knutt

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