Can the Pentagon Win the AI Arms Race?

Why the U.S. Is in Danger of Falling Behind

A General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper stands on the runway during "Black Dart", a live-fly, live fire demonstration of 55 unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, at Naval Base Ventura County Sea Range, Point Mugu, near Oxnard, California July 2015.  Patrick T. Fallon / REUTERS

When the stingray-shaped object took off and landed lightly on the deck of the USS George H. W. Bush in July 2013, some hailed it as a moment in aviation history to rank with the first heavier-than-air powered flight, at Kitty Hawk, in 1902. The X-47B drone flew itself, decided its own flight path, and completed on its own a mission given to it by humans. The dawn of autonomous weapons systems seemed undeniable. Yet the drone was hardly independent, as humans still programmed all its possible decisions, leaving it to choose from a menu of options. Half a decade later, experts are making new claims that the future of warfare is about to change. Today, artificial intelligence (AI) is the new frontier of military competition, and with China and Russia making headway in the field, the Pentagon is starting to rush, some say belatedly, into the new era.


In a move that reflects the reliability of current machine learning capabilities, the U.S. Department of Defense recently awarded Booz Allen Hamilton a contract worth $885 million over five years to introduce the first large-scale use of AI systems to analyze the flood of data provided by drones, as well as to diagnose diseases from medical data. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), meanwhile, is building the Machine-Assisted Analysis Rapid-Repository System (MARS), an information database to make the interaction between human analysts, the cloud, and automated data processing systems more efficient.

In September, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which helped kick-start the AI revolution back in the 1960s, announced an even more ambitious initiative: a $2 billion program to foster the next era of AI technologies, or “third wave” of AI. Unlike the first two waves of AI, which made possible first narrowly defined machine-conducted tasks and later statistical pattern recognition based on large data sets, the new initiative, which DARPA is dubbing AI Next, will focus on making it “possible for machines to adapt to changing circumstances.” The goal, according to the

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