In January, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said that artificial intelligence (AI) would have a “more profound” impact than even electricity. He was following a long tradition of corporate leaders claiming their technologies are both revolutionary and wonderful.
The trouble is that revolutionary technologies can also revolutionize military power. AI is no exception. On 1 June, Google announced that it would not renew its contract supporting a US military initiative called Project Maven. This project is the military’s first operationally deployed ‘deep-learning’ AI system, which uses layers of processing to transform data into abstract representations — in this case, to classify images in footage collected by military drones. The company’s decision to withdraw came after roughly 4,000 of Google’s 85,000 employees signed a petition to ban Google from building “warfare technology”.
Such recusals create a great moral hazard. Incorporating advanced AI technology into the military is as inevitable as incorporating electricity once was, and this transition is fraught with ethical and technological risks. It will take input from talented AI researchers, including those at companies such as Google, to help the military to stay on the right side of ethical lines.
Last year, I led a study on behalf of the US Intelligence Community, showing that AI’s transformative impacts will cover the full spectrum of national security. Military robotics, cybersecurity, surveillance and propaganda are all vulnerable to AI-enabled disruption. The United States, Russia and China all expect AI to underlie future military power, and the monopoly enjoyed by the United States and its allies on key military technologies, such as stealth aircraft and precision-guided weapons, is nearing an end.
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