In its quest to maintain a United States military advantage, the Pentagon is aggressively turning to Silicon Valley’s hottest technology — artificial intelligence.
On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter made his fourth trip to the tech industry’s heartland since being named to his post last year. Before that, it had been 20 years since a defense secretary had visited the area, he noted in a speech at a Defense Department research facility near Google’s headquarters.
The Pentagon’s intense interest in Artificial intelligence (A.I.) — and by connection the Silicon Valley companies specializing in that technology — has grown out of the “Third Offset” strategy articulated by Mr. Carter last fall. Concerned about the re-emergence of China and Russia as military competitors, he stated that computer-based, high-tech weapons would give the American military an edge in the future.
Third Offset is a reference to two earlier eras when Pentagon planners turned to technology to compensate for a smaller military. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower emphasized nuclear weapons as a deterrence to larger Warsaw Pact armies. A second “offset” occurred in the 1970s and ’80s when military planners turned to improved technology in conventional weapons to again compensate for smaller numbers.
This time, Mr. Carter acknowledged, the United States faces significant challenges in translating civilian innovation into a military advantage, since the country will neither control nor determine the path of artificial intelligence.
“That’s different than 30 or 40 or 50 years ago when we expected to control the pace of technology,” he said on Wednesday in a speech at the Pentagon’s nearly year-old Defense Innovation Unit Experimental facility, otherwise known by the techie acronym DIUx. “That’s not true anymore, but we still can stay the best military with respect to applications of A.I.”
In recent weeks, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work has repeatedly emphasized the importance of A.I.-related technologies that he believes will help create a new class of “Iron Man”-style fighters armed with increasingly smart weapons.
He has invoked the concept of “Centaur Warfighting” — systems that combine A.I. with the capabilities of humans, resulting in faster responses than humans alone could achieve.
The Defense Department will need Silicon Valley’s help with that technology. And Mr. Carter indicated that bridge building with local companies was a key reason the new Pentagon office he visited on Wednesday will now report directly to him.
The Defense Department has always had a close relationship with some of tech’s biggest companies. The Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, for example, served as deputy secretary of defense in the Nixon administration.
Many companies still count the Pentagon and intelligence agencies among their biggest customers. A venture fund backed by the Central Intelligence Agency has been investing in tech companies since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s.
Video below: Defense Secretary Ashton Carter discusses the Pentagon’s push to develop artificial intelligence applications. Watch in Times Video »
The depiction of defense weapons that fire without a human operator raised alarms among arms control advocates and some military strategists who worry that the line between offensive and defensive uses of smart weapons will be difficult to maintain.
“We need to figure out where to draw the line and we need to stay on the right side of it,” said Stuart J. Russell, an A.I. specialist at the University of California, Berkeley who is a leader in a movement to ban autonomous weapons.
In fact, turning over killing decisions to machines is seen by some technologists and military strategists as inviting a new and possibly destabilizing arms race.
“I’m not as confident that we can clearly delineate between offensive and defensive weapons, in general,” said Paul Scharre, a weapons analyst at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based policy group. “If there was an easy way to do that, nations would have agreed long ago to only build ‘defensive’ weapons.”
Despite skepticism among some in the tech community, the Pentagon has played a key role in one of the best-known examples of A.I., the self-driving vehicle concepts now championed by companies like Google and Uber.
Beginning in 2004, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s advanced research agency, tried to speed progress in autonomous vehicles by hosting a series of three autonomous vehicle “Grand Challenges.” The effort set off a wave of commercial research and development, but it fell short of a goal to remove United States soldiers from hazardous roles on the battlefield.
Military contractors say that self-driving technology has now advanced to the point where a human soldier could sit in the driver’s seat in the last vehicle in a truck convoy, safely controlling a series of vehicles. Despite technology demonstrations, however, the American military has not yet committed to converting existing trucks to such a system.
Mr. Carter’s background could provide him with cachet among Silicon Valley’s tech elite. He received a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University and has been a lecturer at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a visiting fellow at the university’s Hoover Institution, just a few miles from where he gave his speech on Wednesday.
In addition to changing the reporting structure of the Defense Innovation Unit – Experimental group, which occupies a sprawling facility opposite a NASA wind tunnel and adjacent to Silicon Valley’s busy Highway 101, Mr. Carter pointed to a range of initiatives that he was undertaking in an effort to make the Defense Department’s culture more like that of Silicon Valley.
“We’re taking a page straight from the Silicon Valley playbook, we’re iterating rapidly to make DIUx even better,” he said. Borrowing a bit of tech industry lingo, he said the Pentagon planned to create additional organizations in other regions of the country that the Defense Department considered to be “innovation hubs.” He said the next office would be opened in the Boston area, another hotbed of A.I. research centered on Harvard and M.I.T.
“I’ve been pushing the Pentagon to think outside our five-sided box and invest aggressively in change and innovation,” he said, adding that the Defense Department’s proposed research and development budget for the 2017 fiscal year was more than double the combined R&D. spending of Apple, Google and Intel in the last year.