Show an ad over header. AMP

The future of AI in the military is not killer robots

For all our fears about Terminator-style killer robots, the aim of AI in the U.S. military is likely to be on augmenting humans, not replacing them.

Why it matters: AI has been described as the "third revolution" in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear weapons. But every revolution carries risks, and even an AI strategy that focuses on assisting human warfighters will carry enormous operational and ethical challenges.

Driving the news: On Tuesday, Armenia accepted a cease-fire with its neighbor Azerbaijan to bring a hopeful end to their brief war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

  • Azerbaijan dominated the conflict in part thanks to the ability of its fleets of cheap, armed drones to destroy Armenia's tanks, in what military analyst Malcolm Davis called a "potential game-changer for land warfare."

An even bigger game-changer would be if such armed drones were made fully autonomous, but for the foreseeable future such fears of "slaughterbots" that could be used to kill with impunity appear overstated, says Michael Horowitz, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.

  • "The overwhelming majority of military investments in AI will not be about lethal autonomous weapons, and indeed none of them may be," says Horowitz.
  • A report released last month by Georgetown's Center for Security and Emerging Technology found defense research into AI is focused "not on displacing humans but assisting them in ways that adapt to how humans think and process information," said Margarita Konaev, the report's co-author, at an event earlier this week.

Details: A version of that future was on display at an event held in September by the Air Force to demonstrate its Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS),which can rapidly process data in battle and use it to guide warfighters in the field.

  • Even though they have extremely expensive hardware at their fingertips, servicemen and -women in a firefight mostly transmit information manually, often through chains of radio transmissions. But ABMS aims to use cloud computing and machine learning to speed up that process, augmenting the abilities of each warfighter.
  • At the September demo, Anduril — a young Silicon Valley startup backed by Peter Thiel and co-founded by Palmer Luckey that focuses on defense — showed off its Lattice software system, which processes sensor data through machine-learning algorithms to automatically identify and track targets likean incoming cruise missile.
  • Using the company's virtual reality interface, an airman in the demo only had to designate the target as hostile and pair it with a weapons system to destroy it, closing what the military calls a "kill chain."

What they're saying: "At the core, our view is that the military has struggled with the question of, how do I know what’s happening in the world and how do we process it," says Brian Schimpf, Anduril's CEO.

  • What Anduril and other companies involved in the sector are aiming to do is make AI work for defense in much the same way it currently works for other industries: speeding up information processing and creating what amounts to a more effective, human-machine hybrid workforce.

Yes, but: Even though people still decide whether or not to pull the trigger, experts worry about the accuracy of the algorithms that are advising that decision.

  • "If like Clausewitz you believe in the fog of war, how could you ever have all the data that would actually allow you to simulate what the battlefield environment looks like in a way that would give you confidence to use the algorithm?" says Horowitz.
  • Just as it's not fully clear who would be responsible for an accident involving a mostly self-driving car — the human inside or the technology — "who owns the consequences if something goes wrong on the battlefield?" asks P.W. Singer, a senior fellow at New America.

Be smart: The strength of AI is also its vulnerability: speed.

  • It's bad enough when malfunctioning trading algorithms cause a stock market flash crash. But if faulty AI systems encourage the military to move too quickly on the battlefield, the result could be civilian casualties, an international incident — or even a war.
  • At the same time, the Armenia-Azerbaijan war underscores the fact that warfare never stands still, and rivals like China and Russia are moving ahead with their own AI-enabled defense systems.

The bottom line: Two questions should always be asked whenever AI spreads to a new industry: Does it work and should it work? In war, the stakes of those questions can't get any higher.

Salesforce rolls the dice with likely acquisition of Slack

Salesforce's likely acquisition of workplace messaging service Slack — not yet a done deal but widely anticipated to be announced Tuesday afternoon — represents a big gamble for everyone involved.

For Slack, challenged by competition from Microsoft, the bet is that a deeper-pocketed owner like Salesforce, with wide experience selling into large companies, will help the bottom line.

Keep reading... Show less

Eleven border cities have combined a violent crime rate below the national average

Data: FBI, Kansas Bureau of Investigation; Note: This table includes the eight largest communities on the U.S.-Mexico border and eight other U.S. cities similar in population size and demographics; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

U.S. communities along the Mexico border are among the safest in America, with some border cities holding crime rates well below the national average, FBI statistics show.

Why it matters: The latest crime data collected by the FBI from 2019 contradicts the narrative by President Trump and others that the U.S.-Mexico border is a "lawless" region suffering from violence and mayhem.

Keep reading... Show less

The rise of military space powers

Nations around the world are shoring up their defensive and offensive capabilities in space — for today's wars and tomorrow's.

Why it matters: Using space as a warfighting domain opens up new avenues for technologically advanced nations to dominate their enemies. But it can also make those countries more vulnerable to attack in novelways.

Keep reading... Show less

Governors in the vaccine hot seat

Governors are preparing to face one of the toughest moral choices they'll confront in office: how to allocate limited stocks of coronavirus vaccine among outsized shares of vulnerable Americans.

Why it matters: Everyone agrees health care workers need to be at the front of the line. But after that things get tricky, as New Mexico's Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham explained in an interview with Axios.

Keep reading... Show less

Slavery ancestorial project to use crowdsourcing in expansion

A database that gathers records about the lives of enslaved Africans and their descendants is undergoing a massive, crowdsourcing-powered expansion to unlock Black Americans' genealogical histories, organizers tell Axios.

Why it matters: The initiative to be unveiled today by is the latest to reconstruct lost or incomplete timelines and records from the 1600s-1800s, as the U.S. and other nations reckon with systemic racism.

Keep reading... Show less

Scoop: FDA chief called to West Wing

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has summoned FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn to the West Wing for a 9:30am meeting Tuesday to explain why he hasn't moved faster to approve the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, two senior administration officials told Axios.

Why it matters: The meeting is shaping up to be tense, with Hahn using what the White House will likely view as kamikaze language in a preemptive statement to Axios: "Let me be clear — our career scientists have to make the decision and they will take the time that’s needed to make the right call on this important decision."

Keep reading... Show less

Scoop: Schumer's regrets

Chuck Schumer told party donors during recent calls that the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the fact that Cal Cunningham "couldn’t keep his zipper up” crushed Democrats' chances of regaining the Senate, sources with direct knowledge of the conversations tell Axios.

Why it matters: Democrats are hoping for a 50-50 split by winning two upcoming special elections in Georgia. But their best chance for an outright Senate majority ended when Cunningham lost in North Carolina and Sen. Susan Collins won in Maine.

Keep reading... Show less

Trump's COVID-19 adviser Scott Atlas resigns

Scott Atlas, a controversial member of the White House coronavirus task force, handed in his resignation on Monday, according to three administration officials who discussed Atlas' resignation with Axios.

Why it matters: President Trump brought in Atlas as a counterpoint to NIAID director Anthony Fauci, whose warnings about the pandemic were dismissed by the Trump administration. With Trump now fixated on conspiracy theories about election fraud, Atlas' detail comes to a natural end.

Keep reading... Show less



Get Goodhumans in your inbox

Most Read

More Stories