The Pentagon's AI Chief Prepares for Battle

Nearly every day, in war zones around the world, American military forces request fire support. By radioing coordinates to a howitzer miles away, infantrymen can deliver the awful ruin of a 155-mm artillery shell on opposing forces. If defense officials in Washington have their way, artificial intelligence is about to make that process a whole lot faster.The effort to speed up fire support is one of a handful initiatives that Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan describes as the “lower consequence missions” that the Pentagon is using to demonstrate how it can integrate artificial intelligence into its weapons systems. As the head of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, a 140-person clearinghouse within the Department of Defense focused on speeding up AI adoption, Shanahan and his team are building applications in well-established AI domains—tools for predictive maintenance and health record analysis—but also venturing into the more exotic, pursuing AI capabilities that would make the technology a centerpiece of American warfighting.
Shanahan envisions an American military that uses AI to move much faster. Where once human intelligence analysts might have stared at a screen to identify and track a target, a computer would do that task. Today, a human officer might present options for what weapons to employ against an enemy; within 20 years or so, a computer could present “recommendations as fast as possible to a human to make decisions about employing weapons,” Shanahan told WIRED in an interview this month. Multiple command and control systems that track battlefield conditions are to be unified into one.
It’s not a vision for killer robots deciding who lives and dies. It’s more like Waze, but for war. Or as Shanahan put it: “As much machine-to-machine interaction as is possible to allow humans to be presented with various courses of actions for decision.”

The hurdles for implementing that plan are legion. The massive data sets needed to build those computer vision and decisionmaking algorithms are rarely of the necessary quality. And algorithms are only as good as the data sets upon which they are built.

Perhaps more profoundly, the military integration of intelligent computer systems raises questions about whether some realms of human life, such as the violent taking of it, should be computer-enabled. “That loss of human control moves us into questions of authorization and accountability we haven't worked out yet,” says Peter Singer, a defense analyst and coauthor of the forthcoming techno-thriller Burn-In.These ethical questions have exposed a divide within Silicon Valley about working with the Pentagon on artificial intelligence initiatives. Before he headed up the JAIC, Shanahan ran Project Maven , the computer vision project that aimed to take reams of aerial surveillance footage and automate the detection of enemy forces. Facing an employee uproar, Google pulled out of that project in 2018, but that hasn’t stopped the initiative from moving forward. Just last week, Business Insider reported that Palantir, Peter Thiel’s data analytics company, has taken over the contract.
The sheer size of Pentagon spending on AI—difficult to determine exactly but estimated at $4 billion for fiscal year 2020—makes it unlikely any of the tech giants will stay away for long. Despite having pulled out of Maven, Google executives maintain that their company would very much like to work with the Pentagon. “We are eager to do more,” Google senior vice president Kent Walker told a National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence conference last month. Meanwhile, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is using the issue to distinguish his company as one that won’t shy from the controversy of taking on military work. “If Big Tech is going to turn their backs on the Department of Defense, this country is in trouble,” he said during remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum earlier this month.