DoD Seeks AI Alliance to Counter China, Russia

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Illustration: Getty

Facing growing threats from Russia and China, the Defense Department wants to increase its collaboration with European allies as it pursues new artificial intelligence technology.

Lt. Gen. John N.T. “Jack” Shanahan, director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, said global security challenges and technological innovations are changing the world rapidly. That reality means partner nations must work more closely together in areas such as artificial intelligence.

“AI — like the major technology innovations of the past — has enormous potential to strengthen the NATO alliance,” he said in January during a call with reporters. “The deliberate actions we take in the coming years with responsible AI adoption will ensure our militaries keep pace with digital modernization and remain interoperable in the most complex and consequential missions.”

A stronger alliance between the United States and Europe on AI research is particularly important as Russia and China collaborate in their pursuit of new tech, he said.
Both Beijing and Moscow are cooperating on artificial intelligence in ways that threaten the United States and NATO’s shared values and risk accelerating digital authoritarianism, Shanahan said.

China is using the technology to strengthen its censorship over its citizens and quash freedom of expression and human rights, he said. It is also facilitating the sale of AI-enabled autonomous weapons in the global arms market, which lowers the barrier of entry for potential adversaries and could place AI systems in the hands of non-state actors, he added.

“Perhaps most concerning, Chinese technology companies, including Huawei, are compelled to cooperate with its Communist Party’s intelligence and security services no matter where the company operates,” Shanahan said.

Meanwhile, Russia has shown a “greater willingness to disregard international ethical norms and to develop systems that pose destabilizing risks to international security,” he said. Moscow is using automation for global disinformation campaigns and to develop lethal autonomous weapon systems, he noted.

“These security challenges and the technological innovations that are changing our world should compel likeminded nations to shape the future of the international order in the digital age, and vigorously promote AI for our shared values,” he said.

However, he recognized that on both sides of the Atlantic there are concerns about the military application of artificial intelligence.

“AI is capable of being used for good or for bad,” Shanahan said. “For the U.S. and our allies, our most valuable contributions will come from how we use AI to make better and faster decisions and optimize human-machine teaming.”

At a time when allied nations need to keep pace with global adversaries, the United States is concerned that some countries in Europe are at risk of becoming “immobilized by debates about regulation and the ethics of the military use of AI,” he said.

Michael Kratsios, the White House’s chief technology officer, echoed a similar sentiment in an op-ed he penned for Bloomberg in January.

“Governments elsewhere are co-opting companies and deploying their AI technology in the service of the surveillance state, where they monitor and imprison dissidents, activists and minorities,” he said. “The best way to counter this dystopian approach is to make sure America and our allies remain the top global hubs of AI innovation. Europe and our other international partners should adopt similar regulatory principles that embrace and shape innovation and do so in a manner consistent with the principles we all hold dear.”

Shanahan noted that the U.S. government is taking a “light-touch” approach for AI regulation wherever possible.

“The last thing we want to do in this field of emerging technology moving as fast as it is, is to stifle innovation,” he said. “Over-regulating artificial intelligence is one way to stifle innovation and do it very quickly.”

Self-regulation won’t always work, so the Defense Department is mulling over what is the right combination of self-regulation and government-enforced regulation, as well as how it can work with NATO and European Union allies to find common ground, he said.

“Just in the discussions we’ve had in the last two days, there are far more commonalities than there are differences, especially when we talk about principles of artificial intelligence and the ethical and safe lawful use of it,” Shanahan said while in Brussels for meetings.

But despite an eagerness to work more closely, there are some potential roadblocks. For example, the United Kingdom recently announced it will allow Huawei to build the country’s next generation of super-fast 5G wireless networks, which has been a point of contention between London and Washington, with U.S. officials fearing the Chinese company could pose national security risks.

Shortly before the United Kingdom’s decision, Shanahan was cautious to say the agreement could undermine U.S.-U.K. artificial intelligence cooperation.

“5G and AI will have a future that will be inextricably linked,” he said. “What our concerns are is access to data. … If you have access to data, you basically have access to algorithms and can defeat the models. And then how is the data being shared, who is it being shared with?”

If the United Kingdom were to move forward with Huawei, discussions would need to be held at both the policy and technical levels to understand the ramifications of having the company in a network that was interacting with allied and partner systems, he added.

“There are a lot of unknowns about this right now,” Shanahan said. “What safeguards could be put in place if that were to happen? And if there weren’t sufficient safeguards, what could we do to ensure that technology wasn’t stolen and given away to an adversary without even us understanding how it took place?” 

Topics: Global Defense Market, International, Robotics and Autonomous Systems

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