In a time when money seems to be nothing but tight for the Federal Government, it surprises me in some ways that the US Department of Defense is going to put $2 billion towards artificial intelligence research. Steven Walker, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), announced the plan today at a symposium outside of Washington, DC. He said the agency wants to look into “how machines can acquire human-like communication and reasoning capabilities” and will fund dozens of new research projects going forward. I’m not saying that this kind of research is a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s necessary. But when you see headlines that suggest the government won’t be funded past October, this kind of announcement startles you.
Gregory Allen from the Center for a New American Security had this to say:
“This is a massive deal. It’s the first indication that the United States is addressing advanced AI technology with the scale and funding and seriousness that the issue demands. We’ve seen China willing to devote billions to this issue, and this is the first time the US has done the same.”
He’s right. This is something that is much needed when it comes to a basic sense of security, but why now and why this much? DARPA said it’s looking to fund AI projects tackling a range of issues including security clearance vetting, reducing power needs for military machines and explainable AI, which will allow individuals to better understand the AI they’re using. The move follows the recent establishment of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, created to help the Department of Defense “pursue AI applications with boldness and alacrity while ensuring a strong commitment to military ethics and AI safety.”
Maybe this is happening for a different reason? Over the last few years, we have seen a lot of headlines that examine and even exploit the efforts made by some tech companies to work alongside the Federal Government. Why? Because they’re seen as enabling the Federal Government’s in some way, and it’s typically a bad press story. Most notably, Google’s Project Maven generated a ton of backlash within the company and they ultimately decided not to renew that contract with the Pentagon. Which makes you wonder if they will be able to get any organization on board to help with research?
So why now? The short answer is North Korea. That said, 5 years ago we weren’t as concerned about North Korea as we are now. Where I’m going with this is that it might be too late to put together all this research now. I’m not suggesting that anything is going to happen, but typically governments attempt to prepare for a threat in advance of it happening. Or they at least see the correlation that the technology could have and they start to think about it in those terms. We’re now knee deep in a will he/won’t he situation with Donald Trump and North Korea. Not to mention there are tensions brewing with other countries. Regardless though, this shows that the U.S. military is getting more serious about artificial intelligence, but how it will be used is another matter.