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Artificial Intelligence goes to war

Uh… gulp… you thought it was bad when that experienced pilot ejected from one of the Air Force’s hottest “new” planes, the F-35 combat fighter, near — no, not China or somewhere in the Middle East — but Charleston, South Carolina. The plane then flew on its own for another 60 miles before crashing into an empty field. And that was without an enemy in sight.

Perhaps we should just be happy that an F-35 ever even made it into the air, given its endless problems in these years. After all, as Dan Grazier of the Center for Defense Information wrote, it’s now “the largest and most expensive weapons program in history.” Yet when it comes to something as significant as “mission availability,” according to the Congressional Budget Office, only about 26% of all F-35s, each of which now costs an estimated $80 million to produce and $44,000 an hour to fly, are available at any moment. Not exactly thrilling, all in all.

As TomDispatch regular and Pentagon expert William Hartung makes clear today, if that’s what happens with the Air Force’s least intelligent fighter plane, what should we expect of its just arriving artificial-intelligence-driven fleet of drones or “robot wingmen” that could be deployed, as he suggests, in a future war with China? Given the history of the U.S. military’s three-decade-old drone warfare program, which caused such havoc among civilian populations during this country’s Global War on Terror, what could the future hold in store? After all, non-AI drones were “roughly thirty times more likely to result in a civilian fatality than an airstrike by a manned aircraft.” And remember, that fleet of aircraft was still, at least officially, run by human intelligence, not the artificial variety. Who knows what may occur when such drones, freed from the human brain, are let loose on this planet? While you’re considering that possibility, let Hartung take you on a quick flight to the Pentagon and then to China.  ~ Tom Engelhardt

On August 28th, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks chose the occasion of a three-day conference organized by the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), the arms industry’s biggest trade group, to announce the “Replicator Initiative.” Among other things, it would involve producing “swarms of drones” that could hit thousands of targets in China on short notice. Call it the full-scale launching of techno-war.

Her speech to the assembled arms makers was yet another sign that the military-industrial complex (MIC) President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about more than 60 years ago is still alive, all too well, and taking a new turn. Call it the MIC for the digital age.

Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex

Hicks described the goal of the Replicator Initiative this way:

“To stay ahead [of China], we’re going to create a new state of the art… leveraging attritable, autonomous systems in all domains which are less expensive, put fewer people at risk, and can be changed, upgraded, or improved with substantially shorter lead times… We’ll counter the PLA’s [People’s Liberation Army’s] with mass of our own, but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, and harder to beat.”

Think of it as artificial intelligence (AI) goes to war — and oh, that word “attritable,” a term that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue or mean much of anything to the average taxpayer, is pure Pentagonese for the ready and rapid replaceability of systems lost in combat. Let’s explore later whether the Pentagon and the arms industry are even capable of producing the kinds of cheap, effective, easily replicable techno-war systems Hicks touted in her speech. First, though, let me focus on the goal of such an effort: confronting China.

Target: China

However one gauges China’s appetite for military conflict — as opposed to relying more heavily on its increasingly powerful political and economic tools of influence — the Pentagon is clearly proposing a military-industrial fix for the challenge posed by Beijing. As Hicks’s speech to those arms makers suggests, that new strategy is going to be grounded in a crucial premise: that any future technological arms race will rely heavily on the dream of building ever cheaper, ever more capable weapons systems based on the rapid development of near-instant communications, artificial intelligence, and the ability to deploy such systems on short notice.

The vision Hicks put forward to the NDIA is, you might already have noticed, untethered from the slightest urge to respond diplomatically or politically to the challenge of Beijing as a rising great power. It matters little that those would undoubtedly be the most effective ways to head off a future conflict with China.

Such a non-military approach would be grounded in a clearly articulated return to this country’s longstanding “One China” policy. Under it, the U.S. would forgo any hint of the formal political recognition of the island of Taiwan as a separate state, while Beijing would commit itself to limiting to peaceful means its efforts to absorb that island.

There are numerous other issues where collaboration between the two nations could move the U.S. and China from a policy of confrontation to one of cooperation, as noted in a new paper by my colleague Jake Werner of the Quincy Institute: “1) development in the Global South; 2) addressing climate change; 3) renegotiating global trade and economic rules; and 4) reforming international institutions to create a more open and inclusive world order.” Achieving such goals on this planet now might seem like a tall order, but the alternative — bellicose rhetoric and aggressive forms of competition that increase the risk of war — should be considered both dangerous and unacceptable.

Full article: Artificial Intelligence Goes to War

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