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US ready to embrace artificial intelligence “to meet future global security challenges”

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Lt. Gen. John Shanahan, Director of the US military’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center. 

By Guido Lanfranchi.

As new technologies emerge in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), militaries around the world are increasingly considering using this technology to tackle security challenges. The United States aims at being at the forefront of such process – said Lt. Gen. John Shanahan, Director of the US military’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center.  

“We are entering a new era of global technological disruption, one that is fueled by data, software, AI, cyber, and cloud, with 5G soon to explode globally. The pace of change is breathtaking. With no end in sight to the speed or scope of change, the United States understands that we must embrace this technological transformation to meet future global security challenges”. These are the words employed by Lt. Gen. John Shanahan, Director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) at the United States Department of Defense (DoD). His message is clear: the technology is out there, the stakes in terms of security are significant, and the United States’ military must be a leader in this new technological transition. 

The JAIC was established by the Pentagon in June 2018, with the aim of providing “a critical mass of expertise to help the Department of Defense harness the game-changing power of AI”. In order to do so, the Center relies on the cooperation between the military and the commercial sector, where most AI technologies are currently developed. The JAIC’s aim – Director Shanahan explained – is to leverage existing AI-enabled technologies in order to develop and deliver new capabilities. While up to now projects have focused on issues such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, the priority project for next year concerns joint warfighting – the Director explained. However, the Center is also set to serve other goals, such as enabling the wider adoption of AI technology throughout the US military, as well as examining how to use AI-enabled capabilities “safely, lawfully, and ethically”. 

While the use of AI-based technologies in the military has been met with skepticism by some analysts, Lt. Gen. Shanahan outlined his – and his country’s – “pragmatic” view on the issue: “Like electricity, AI is a transformative, general purpose technology. AI is capable of being used for good or for bad, but it is not a thing unto itself”. From a military perspective, for instance, AI-based technologies could help commanders in the field making better decisions, or they could enable the streamlining of the military’s office functions – Director Shanahan explained, stressing that AI is the “number one technology modernization priority” for US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. 

Addressing some concerns on the use of AI-based technology for autonomous, unsupervised, independent weapon systems, Director Shanahan clarified that “that’s not something we’re interested in”. “We have humans that will be at some point in the loop, or on the loop, or outside the loop” – he added, stressing that “accountability” for mistakes will remain a crucial element of any AI-based system that will be developed by the US. Moreover – he reassured – due attention is being placed by the US on preventing the adoption of AI-enabled technology by malicious actors, including non-state-actors. 

One further factor shaping the US military’s willing to develop and deliver AI-powered capabilities is the adoption of this technology by other powers, such as China and Russia.

“We are keenly aware that our strategic competitors are embracing this technological revolution” – Director Shanahan said, stressing that “many of the AI applications of both Russia and China […] raise serious questions regarding international norms, human rights, and preserving a free and open international order”. On China’s side, Lt. Gen. Shanahan mentioned China’s use of AI technology to strengthen censorship, as well as the sale of AI-enabled autonomous weapons, while for Russia he mentioned the use of “machine learning and autonomation for its global disinformation campaigns as well as lethal autonomous weapons”. 

By contrast – Director Shanahan stressed – the US is willing to start a dialogue with the European Union and NATO on how to use AI-based technologies in a common framework, grounded in an “ethics-based discussion” and with a “human-centric approach”. “AI, like the major technology innovations of the past, has enormous potential to strengthen the NATO alliance” – the Director noted, expressing positive feelings on the upcoming meetings to be held by US, EU, and NATO leaders on the use of AI technologies for military purposes. 

In short – Lt. Gen. Shanahan concluded – AI is “one of the most important technologies that we’ve seen in a long time. It is just an enabling technology. It is up to us to figure out how really that we use it to make it the most effective and efficient capabilities that we can put into our respective militaries”. 

About the author:

Guido Lanfranchi is a student and young professional in the field of international affairs. He has pursued his studies both at Leiden University and Sciences Po Paris, where he is currently enrolled. In parallel, he has been gaining professional experience through internships (first at the Council of the European Union, and currently at Clingendael Institute), as well as by working as reporter and associate editor for Diplomat Magazine The Netherlands. His research and work focus on the Middle East and Africa, and especially on conflict situations in these regions.

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