Pentagon Underinvesting in Artificial Intelligence

By Jon Harper

Image: iStock

In recent years, defense officials have been banging the drum about the importance of adopting artificial intelligence to assist with everything from operating autonomous platforms to intelligence analysis to logistics and back office functions. But the Pentagon is not pumping enough money into this technology, according to one expert.

“The critical question is whether the United States will be at the forefront of these developments or lag behind, reacting to advances in this space by competitors such as China,” Susanna Blume, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, said in a recent report titled, “Strategy to Ask: Analysis of the 2020 Defense Budget Request.”

The request includes just $927 million for the Pentagon’s AI efforts, about 0.13 percent of the department’s proposed $718 billion topline, she noted.

“Given the enormous implications of artificial intelligence for the future of warfare, it should be a far higher priority for DoD in the technology development space, and certainly a higher priority than the current No. 1 — development of hypersonic weapons,” she said. “While DoD is making progress in AI … it is, quite simply, still not moving fast enough.”

The Pentagon is hoping to leverage advances in the commercial sector, which is investing far greater amounts of money into AI. It has a number of initiatives aimed at building bridges with companies in tech hubs such as Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin, Texas. However, not everyone in those places is on board with assisting the military, Blume noted.

“While DoD labs and agencies continue to do good and important work in this space, the primary AI innovators are tech companies such as Google,” she said. “Unfortunately, engaging with these companies has sometimes proved challenging for DoD.”

As an example, Blume noted that Google pulled out of Project Maven — which utilizes artificial intelligence to analyze drone footage — after protests from employees who didn’t want their work to be used for warfighting purposes.

On the brighter side, the Pentagon is investing more in unmanned platforms that could use AI, Blume said. The department requested $3.7 billion for autonomous systems in 2020. Plans include acquiring a variety of unmanned aircraft, ships and undersea vehicles.

“These autonomous systems all have the potential to alleviate many of the services’ readiness and manning woes, while generating additional capacity and capability,” she said.

“They also create opportunities for innovative operational concepts that can help the U.S. military maintain and extend a position of dominance against its most challenging competitors.”

Topics: Robotics, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Research and Development, Science and Engineering Technology, Defense Department

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