New Pentagon ‘Algorithmic Warfare’ team to ‘open Pandora’s box’ of A.I.



Late last month, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work announced the launch of an “Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team” under a new program called Project Maven.

“As numerous studies have made clear, the Department of Defense (DoD) must integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning more effectively across operations to maintain advantages over increasingly capable adversaries and competitors,” Work stated. “Although we have taken tentative steps to explore the potential of artificial intelligence, big data, and deep learning, I remain convinced that we need to do much more, and move much faster, across DoD to take advantage of recent and future advances in these critical areas.”

Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, who has been put in charge of the new “Algorithmic Warfare” team, is enthusiastic about the potential of artificial intelligence.

“There are a thousand things we want to do with artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning, computer vision, but everybody has cautioned us, don’t take on too much the first time you do this,” Shanahan reportedly said. “You have to go after a manageable problem, solve it, show early wins and then start to open Pandora’s box and go after all of these other challenges across the department.”

The military’s new effort to increase the use of A.I. was previously alluded to back in March, when it was being called the “Go Big Project.” At that time, Shanahan commented on the so-called “third offset,” following the first and second offsets, which were Cold War efforts to “offset” the Soviets first by implementing a new nuclear deterrence strategy and later developing technologies such as stealth and GPS.

“The third offset seeks to pair human and machine to offset adversarial gains over the last decade and a half,” C4ISRnet‘s Mark Pomerleau wrote in March. “Now in the world of the third offset, the military is not just counting tanks, airplanes and ballistic missiles in an adversary’s territory, Shanahan said. Today there is even more, causing an overflow of data — everything from publicly available data to open-source intelligence to the most sensitive classified material. With all of that coming in, Shanahan wondered how the DoD can deal with the flow and utilize the intel.”

One approach to the problem that Shanahan appears to admire is Silicon Valley’s. When it comes to data “processing, exploitation and dissemination,” Pomerleau paraphrased Shanahan as “describing industry as light-years ahead of DoD on this front”. Others who will be working closely with Shanahan on Project Maven appear to agree.

The new “Algorithmic Warfare” team “is working hand in hand with the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office,” an organization led by another Silicon Valley admirer, William Roper, which works to “modify existing weapons and technology to make them more versatile and lethal,” according to Defense One.

While Roper, like other Defense Department officials, maintains that Pentagon efforts to harness A.I. (such as Project Maven) do not aim to replace human decision-making, he is simultaneously keenly interested in the potential of autonomous machines.

“Almost nowhere do I see a technology that’s current that offers as much as autonomy,” he reportedly said in March. “We’re working very hard to produce a learning system.”

Although Shanahan, in publicly discussing the rationale for increased military use of A.I., has stuck to talking points like the technology’s capability to free analysts from things like the “mundane, administrative tasks associated with staring at full-motion video,” the learning systems the Pentagon is presently working on actually go much further.

While unclassified information and press coverage relating to its efforts typically focuses on applications for things like prosthetic limbs, for example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has long been interested in the kind of “brain-computer interface” technology recently hyped by celebrity billionaire Elon Musk. At the same time, the military is reportedly harnessing the brainwaves of soldiers to teach machines to identify targets.

As Shanahan noted back in March, there are many simple and mundane tasks that computers can now do for us, such as watching a video feed from a drone for 12 hours a day to see if a pickup truck leaves a compound or not. Yet as Shanahan more recently pointed out, there are also “a thousand things we want to do,” and probably can do, with A.I.

We are often told that the supposed threat posed by artificial intelligence is overblown. The only real threat of a sci-fi style robot apocalypse stems from the potential development of “artificial general intelligence,” according to a January report from the JASON group of scientists, which advises the Defense Department.

“To most computer scientists, the claimed ‘existential threats’ posed by AI seem at best uninformed,” according to the report. “They do not align with the most rapidly advancing current research directions of AI as a field, but rather spring from dire predictions about one small area of research within AI, Artificial General Intelligence (AGI).” Yet despite its offering advice to the Pentagon on an area of research where much is obviously classified, the JASON report was entirely based on unclassified sources.

With the idea of implementing brain-computer interface technology gaining mainstream attention, the possibility of developing artificial general intelligence — perhaps even inadvertently — should not be discounted. Shanahan and his higher-ups at the Pentagon appear eager to open Pandora’s box when it comes to A.I. According to that ancient Greek myth, though, when Pandora opened her box she unleashed all the evils of the world, leaving only the lonely spirit of Hope at the bottom, and was unable to close it again.

The military strategists in charge of Project Maven do not appear to be giving much thought to the long term consequences of their new plan to open the A.I. Pandora’s box, though they couldn’t have picked a better metaphor. At least we can still have Hope that they’ll realize its implications before they fully remove the lid.



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