The U.S. The Department of Defense has peeked into the future, and it sees a world rife with automated weapons of war. In its first update since 2012, DoD’s guidance overseeing the development, testing, and use of autonomous and semi-autonomous weapons warned of artificial intelligence’s “increasing role” in wars to come.
More than a decade has passed since the Pentagon last updated its policy directive on these weapons, titled “Autonomy in Weapons Systems,” but that changed this week. DoD officials expressed their commitment towards pursuing autonomous systems and integrating advanced artificial intelligence into future military efforts. With the policy update, U.S. military solidifies its stance as all in on autonomy even as other countries and activists band together to restrict its proliferation.
The new update takes into consideration advancements in AI over the past 10 years and introduces a new senior level oversight group. Now, in most cases, autonomous weapons will need to gain formal approval from the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, undersecretary of defense for policy, and undersecretary of defense for research and engineering before they can enter formal development.
“The directive now specifies that they, like any system that uses artificial intelligence, whether a weapon system or not, would need to follow those guidelines as well,” DoD Director of Emerging Capabilities Policy Office Michael Horowitz said in a recent interview with Breaking Defense. “This is part of what we view as good governance.”
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The new directive also takes the Pentagon’s responsible AI ethics principles, first unveiled in 2020, and applies them to autonomous weapons systems. Those principles, in short, require DoD’s AI tools to be “responsible, equitable, traceable, reliable, and governable.” The Pentagon released a follow-up document last year outlining the path it could take to make those principles a reality while remaining competitive with perceived threats from foreign global powers (read: China.) Outside of those and other oversight updates, the new directive mostly resembles its predecessor, with one DoD official calling it a “clarification, not a major change.”
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While not a complete overall, the update does state, in stark terms, the department’s tech-focused vision for the future. In a statement accompanying the directive, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said the Pentagon was committed to “developing and employing all weapon systems, including those with autonomous features and functions, in a responsible and lawful manner.”
Looking forward to the future, Hicks acknowledged AI enabled systems are, “likely to play an increasing role in a range of systems and capabilities.” In a previous interview with Gizmodo, Hicks spoke about what she views as the importance of maintaining a “human in the loop” approach where a human operator still maintains a final role in deciding when an AI system carries out their objective.
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Not everyone shares the Pentagon’s rosy outlook towards autonomous weapons. In total, at least 30 countries have already voiced support for banning the tech outright. Those calls even gained the support of UN Secretary-General António Guterres who, in 2019 released a statement saying such systems should be prohibited under international law.
“Autonomous machines with the power and discretion to select targets and take lives without human involvement are politically unacceptable and morally repugnant,” Guterres said.
Similarly, a majority of the 125 states represented in the U.N’s Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons expressed interest in new laws essentially banning autonomous weapons development during a conference last year. Those efforts failed, CNBC notes, due to opposition from Russia, China, the United States, and a handful of other countries positioned at the forefront of autonomous weapons tech.
Critics of autonomous weapon systems, from Amnesty International to Human Rights Watch, have compared their development to that of nuclear weapons and gunpowder before them. They fear its unchecked expansion could lead to a dangerous arms race that could increase the risk of geopolitical conflict.