A Great Change is Coming

Five years ago, before many were talking about artificial intelligence and its practical applications to the field of battle, retired Gen. John Allen and I began a journey to not only investigate the art of the possible with AI, but also to identify its likely implications on the character and conduct of war.

In 2017, we wrote about how developments in AI could lead to what we referred to as “hyperwar” — a type of conflict and competition so automated that it would collapse the decision action loop, eventually minimizing human control over most decisions. Since then, my goal has been to encourage the organizational transformation necessary to adopt safer, more explainable AI systems to maintain our competitive edge, now that the technical transformation is at our doorstep. 

Software, AI, autonomy — these are the ultimate weapons. These technologies are the difference between hundreds of old Mig-19 and Mig-21 fighter jets lying in scrap yards, and their transformation to autonomous, maneuverable, and so-called “attritable,” or expendable, supersonic drones built from abundant air frames, equipped with swarm coordination and the ability to operate in contested airspaces. Gone are the days when effectiveness and capability can be ascribed to individual systems and platforms. Now, it’s all about the network of assets, how they communicate, how they decide to act, and how efficiently they counter the system that is working in opposition to them. An individual aircraft carrier or a squadron of strategic bombers are no longer as independently meaningful as they once were.

In the emerging environment, network-connected, cognitive systems of war will engage each other. They will be made up principally of software, but also of legacy weapons platforms, humans, sometimes in combat, and newer assets capable of autonomous decision and action. The picture of the environment in which they operate across time and space will only be made clear by intelligent systems capable of fusing massive amounts of data and automatically interpreting them to identify and simulate forward the complex web of probabilities that result. Which actions are likely to be successful? With what degree of confidence? What are the adversary’s most likely counter-moves? The large scale, joint application of autonomously coordinated assets by a cognitive system will be unlike anything that has come before. It is this fast-evolving new paradigm, powered by artificial intelligence at every level, from the tactical to the strategic, that demands our attention. We must no longer focus on individual platforms or stand-alone assets, but on the cognitive system that runs an autonomous “Internet of War”.

As Allen and I have taken this message to our defense community — that a great change is coming and one that might see us lose our pole position — I have noticed a concern: Artificial intelligence has been broadly misunderstood as a product or a feature. It is not. It is a science, much like physics or mathematics. Its applications will lead not merely to incremental enhancements in weapon systems capability but require a fundamental recalculation of what constitutes deterrence and military strength.

For example, the combination of AI elements — visual recognition, language analysis, the automated extraction of topical hierarchies (or ontologies), control of systems with reinforcement learning, simulation-based prediction, and advanced forms of search — with existing technologies and platforms, can rapidly yield entirely new and unforeseen capabilities. The integration of new AI into an existing platform represents a surprise in its own right. But the complex interactions of such platforms with others like them can create exponential, insurmountable surprise.

Integrating the “LEGO bricks” of intelligence and autonomy into conventional platforms results in unconventional upgrades. A Chinese-built Shenyang J-6 Farmer fighter jet with autonomy isn’t just a 1950s era write-off. It becomes a system with new potential, diminished logistics dependencies, and an enhanced efficacy that goes far beyond an engine or radar upgrade. Broadly, the consequences of the use of AI to revitalize and reinvent conventional platforms will be transformative.

Despite the change occurring globally in value shifting from the physical to the digital, and the tremendous latent potential of AI, our Defense Department has not traditionally shown its best when it comes to understanding, acquiring, or deploying software capabilities. Hardware platforms come far more naturally to our acquisition professionals. We can hope for a change of heart and perspective, but absent that, in order for AI to be meaningful to them in the near term, we must reinvent, enhance, and reimagine existing platforms just as we build new ones, so that we can cost-effectively fulfill needs and create significant capabilities that open the door to even greater future potential. Briefing after briefing on the potential of AI, or distributing primers on machine learning inside the confines of the Pentagon won’t lead to critical adoption; the performance that results when AI is integrated into platforms will be the proverbial proof that lies in the eating of the pudding. 

To compete in this new era of exponential technologies, the U.S. military and our intelligence agencies need both digital and physical systems powered by artificial intelligence. Imbued with synthetic cognition, such systems can make a meaningful difference to every branch of our armed services and our government organizations. A serious effort to fuel the development of such systems will lay the groundwork for true, full-spectrum AI adoption across government. But for any of this to become reality, long held views and processes in the Defense Department must change. An aggressive and fast-track effort to incorporate AI into existing and new platforms will have to be adopted. In the age of hyperwar, our willingness to embrace commercial innovation, our decisiveness in acknowledging that we live in a post-platform era, and most importantly, the speed with which we operationalize new investments, will be the attributes that lead to victory.

Amir Husain is founder and CEO of SparkCognition. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Sentient Machine: The Coming Age of Artificial Intelligence” and a co-author of the compilation “Hyperwar: Conflict and Competition in the AI Century.

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tianze.zhang@graduateinstitute.ch