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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

On the heels of a sweeping new U.S. plan to retain dominance in artificial intelligence, the Pentagon has cast Chinese development of intelligent weapons as an existential threat to the international order.

A day after the release of an executive order by President Trump that omits naming China, the Defense Department, in a new AI strategy document, speaks in stark terms of a "destabilizing" Chinese threat.

"Failure to adopt AI will result in legacy systems irrelevant to the defense of our people, eroding cohesion among allies and partners, reduced access to markets that will contribute to a decline in our prosperity and standard of living, and growing challenges to societies that have been built upon individual freedoms."
— DOD 2018 AI Strategy Summary

The bottom line: The new document, a public summary of a classified strategy developed last year, calls for the Pentagon to realign itself drastically.

  • Sounding at times like a startup pitch deck, the DOD paper promises to deploy AI "rapidly" and "iteratively," and to enable "decentralized development and experimentation."
  • But, but, but: This realignment is a tall order. The Pentagon is not an agile software team but an enormous, slow-moving beast, hobbled with the inertia of outdated technologies and strategies, as we reported last week.

"There remains an obvious tension between the deliberate and sometimes slow processes required to develop ethical principles for AI’s use in military contexts and the kind of rapid iteration and experimentation with 'forward edge' technologies that the strategy also champions," says Charlotte Stanton, a fellow in technology and international affairs at the Carnegie Endowment.

Silicon Valley, not just the old-school military-industrial complex, is a vital audience for the document.

  • Working with tech companies and startups is essential to the military's AI strategy, says Larry Lewis, director of the Center for Autonomy and AI at CNA, a research organization.
  • The document hits all the notes to make tech workers less wary of working with the Pentagon, like ethics, safety and transparency.
  • "It's coming out with a very strong stance saying there are virtuous uses of AI" in war, says Lewis — including to reduce civilian casualties.

A major challenge for the DOD's strategy will be to develop a plan that works with allies, Stanton and Lewis say.

What's next: Forthcoming ethical guidelines from the Pentagon for military use of AI.

Go deeper

10 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.

Updated 12 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: WHO: AstraZeneca vaccine must be evaluated on "more than a press release."
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York COVID restrictions.
  3. World: Thailand, Philippines sign deal with AstraZeneca for vaccine.
  4. Economy: Safety nets to disappear in December Black Friday shopping across the U.S., in photosAmazon hires 1,400 workers a day throughout pandemic.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.