Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says the Defense Department needs to create new career paths and is looking to add technology skills to its basic training programs in order to prepare the agency for the opportunities and threats raised by artificial intelligence.
The National Security Commission on AI, in its final report released in March, urged DoD and the intelligence community to become “AI-ready” by 2025. To reach that goal, NSCAI commissioners urged the national security community to accelerate funding for AI research and improve the tech literacy of its overall workforce.
Austin, speaking Tuesday at a conference hosted by NSCAI, said DoD is asking Congress for $112 billion to fund R&D in fiscal 2022 — its largest R&D request in history — and called AI one of the department’s top modernization priorities. About 25% of that budget request would go toward emerging technologies.
“We are renewing our efforts to posture ourselves for what I would call the future fight,” Austin said. “Obviously, if it comes down to fighting, we will do so. We will win, and we will win decisively. But our first goal should be to prevent conflict — to deter adversaries — and that demands of us a new vision for deterrence in this century.”
However, Austin said DoD still needs to upskill and train its workforce on AI and adjacent technologies necessary to retain a tech advantage over competitors like China.
To recruit and retain personnel with these in-demand skills, he said DoD will need to think of new incentives to attract the attention of college graduates and newly minted PhDs “who would never think about a career in the department,” Austin said.
“Emerging technologies must be central to our strategic development. We need to tackle our culture of risk aversion. We need to smarten up our sluggish pace of acquisition, and we need to more vigorously recruit talented people, not scare them away,” Austin said.
Austin said DoD has more than 600 AI efforts in progress, a significant uptick within the past year. Those efforts include the AI and Data Acceleration initiative the department announced last month that will help the DoD harness its data at scale and speed.
DoD is also working on its Pathfinder project, an algorithm-driven system that helps the department detect airborne threats by combining real-time data from military, commercial and government sensors.
In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, DoD also launched Project Salus, a predictive tool for finding patterns in COVID-19 data that was built with support from top Silicon Valley companies.
To accelerate these partnerships with the private sector, DoD in June launched the Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve, which helps get promising tech across the “valley of death” and into new prototypes, capabilities and concepts.
Austin said these and other AI-focused initiatives fall under a new strategy of “integrated deterrence,” focused on pivoting DoD’s current capabilities, launching new operational concepts for work it already does and investing in cutting-edge capabilities for all conflict domains.
“Tech advances like AI are changing the face and the pace of warfare. But we believe that we can responsibly use AI as a force multiplier, one that helps us to make decisions faster and more rigorously, to integrate across all domains, and to replace old ways of doing business,” Austin said.
Austin said AI and related technologies will give DoD a strategic advantage, but only if it can stay ahead of countries like China, which is looking to achieve global dominance in AI by 2030, and deploy these breakthroughs in everything from surveillance to cyberattacks.
Austin called the AI space-race a “pacing challenge” that requires immediate action from the U.S., but said the federal government can’t afford to skip critical steps, such as making AI algorithms trustworthy and transparent.
“We’re going to compete to win, but we’re going to do it the right way. We’re not going to cut corners on safety, security or ethics. Our watchwords are responsibility and results, and we don’t believe for a minute that we have to sacrifice one for the other.”
NSCAI Vice Chairman Robert Work, the former deputy defense secretary, said that the commission’s final report and its more than 100 recommendations are focused on ensuring the U.S. deploys AI with these ethical principles in mind.
“Our report is not primarily about national defense, or even national security in the traditional sense, and neither is the AI competition. At its core, the AI competition is a values competition,” Work said.
DoD’s investment in AI research dates back to the 1960s, when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency led groundbreaking work on “first wave” AI. In 2018, DARPA launched a $2 billion, multi-year investment called AI Next.
Austin said he recently visited DARPA to review the agency more than 60 ongoing projects focused on applying AI to detect and patch cyber vulnerabilities.
Per the NSCAI’s recommendations, DoD recently elevated its Joint AI Center so that it reports directly to the deputy defense secretary. Over the next five years, DoD will invest nearly $1.5 billion into the JAIC’s efforts to accelerate the department’s adoption of AI.
“Done responsibly, leadership in AI can boost our future military tech advantage — from data-driven decisions to human-machine teaming. And that could make the Pentagon of the near future dramatically more effective, more agile, and more ready,” Austin said.