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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 The Pentagon is not an agile software team but an enormous, slow-moving beast, hobbled with the inertia of outdated technologies and strategies, as we reported last week.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

DOJ cites discrimination in lawsuit against Texas over voting districts

Attorney General Merrick Garland. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Department of Justice on Monday filed a lawsuit against Texas, alleging Republican state lawmakers discriminated against Black and Latino voters and has "again diluted the voting strength of minority Texans" when they approved new redistricting maps.

Why it matters: A DOJ assessment of the new districts found that they violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a press conference.

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Biden to warn Putin U.S. will add troops in Eastern Europe if Russia invades Ukraine

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President Biden will warn Russian President Vladimir Putin when they speak on Tuesday that if Russia invades Ukraine, the U.S. is prepared to increase its troop presence, capabilities and military exercises on NATO's "eastern flank," a senior administration official told reporters.

Why it matters: The administration believes it's increasingly likely that Putin will order an invasion.

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U.S. announces diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics

An Olympic-themed sculpture in Beijing on Dec. 1. Photo: Hou Yu/China News Service via Getty Images

The U.S. announced Monday that it will not send officials to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in protest of human rights abuses committed by the Chinese Communist Party.

Why it matters: The diplomatic boycott — which won't prevent American athletes from competing — marks a major escalation between the U.S. and China amid already heightened tensions over the CCP's treatment of Muslim minorities, military threats to Taiwan and economic tariffs.