The killer robot threat: Pentagon examining how enemy nations could empower machines

The Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian official said Wednesday that the Defense Department is concerned that adversary nations could empower advanced weapons systems to act on their own, noting that while the United States will not give them the authority to kill autonomously, other countries might.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work said the Pentagon hasn’t “fully figured out” the issue of autonomous machines, but continues to examine it. The U.S. military has built a force that relies heavily on the decision-making skills of its troops, but “authoritarian regimes” may find weapons that can act independently more attractive because doing so would consolidate the ability to take action among a handful of leaders, he said.

“We will not delegate lethal authority to a machine to make a decision,” Work said. “The only time we will… delegate a machine authority is in things that go faster than human reaction time, like cyber or electronic warfare.”

Work’s comments came during the first of a series of live Washington Post events called “Securing Tomorrow” and hosted by columnist David Ignatius. Work said the United States is likely to narrowly use artificial intelligence in the next five to 10 years, pointing, for instance, to self-parking vehicles.

The event focused heavily on how the Pentagon is preparing for the future through what it calls a Third Offset Strategy, in which the military is seeking to counter the military advances of adversaries. The concept gets its name from two earlier “offsets.” In the first, the Pentagon developed tactical nuclear weapons during the Cold War. In the second, the military introduced the use of GPS to precisely guide a variety of bombs and missiles on the battlefield.

The Third Offset Strategy focuses on the introduction of machine learning — networks of machines that work together and the distribution of military force through the use of drone swarms and other technologies. Work said Wednesday that it means the Pentagon will not try to match its adversaries “tank-for-tank, gun-for-gun, missile-for-missile, person-for-person,” and instead will offset enemy strengths in other ways.

Dr. Hans C. Mumm