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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Artificial intelligence will "change the nature of war," according to Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defense.

Why it matters: Success on the battlefield will increasingly come down to the ability to make algorithmically aided decisions faster, and while the U.S. has long maintained a decisive technological advantage in warfare, its lead in AI is much narrower.

What they're saying: The ability to harness large numbers of intelligent systems crunching huge amounts of data from the battlefield will "take out some of the uncertainty around war," says Work, who served under President Obama and briefly President Trump, and who is now an advisory board member to the AI company SparkCognition Government Systems.

  • "The battle networks of the future will feature human-machine collaboration, and these things will operate at extremely high speed," he tells Axios. "These are going to make battle networks that do not have AI obsolete."

How it works: Think of AI less as a general than as the ultimate aide-de-camp, making sense of data from sensor networks and offering recommendation actions to commanders.

  • "You're going to have machine-to-machine communication once those plans are made, it will populate through the forces really fast," says Work.

The big picture: Speed kills in modern warfare, and the ability to analyze data and issue commands faster than your opponent can ensure battlefield dominance.

  • Work points to a recent Pentagon war game that pitted a group of veteran officers working on their own against less-seasoned officers assisted by AI.
  • Despite the experience gap, the younger officers — with AI — came out ahead, a sign that humans working in concert with machines can be more effective than either on their own.

The catch: Even with humans remaining in the loop, it's not clear how free flesh-and-blood commanders will be to reject AI recommendations if war is fought at the speed of AI rather than human beings.

  • Speed itself can also be dangerous, increasing the risk that a military conflict could spin out of control.
  • Work believes that one key is to train officers on how to work with AI "to get the best features of both humans and machines."

What to watch: The growing competition in algorithmic warfare with China, which Work says is ahead of the U.S. in several areas on AI, including access to data.

"The side with the best algorithms is going to have a decisive advantage."
— Robert Work, former deputy secretary of defense

Go deeper

Dec 15, 2021 - Economy & Business

Mud in your eye: Self-driving cars tackle dirt on sensors

Argo AI's mud cannon flings dirt at the sensors on a self-driving car. Image: Argo AI

Autonomous vehicle developers are deliberately blinding their cars to perfect various sensor-cleaning strategies.

Why it matters: Like humans, self-driving cars must be able to actually see the world around them to make decisions. But rain, dirt, debris and even insects can obscure their vision, requiring systems that can automatically clean the sensors.

  • Companies have been testing a variety of cleaning methods, from blowing small puffs of air on cameras and lidar sensors to squirting them with liquids and then wiping them with tiny squeegees.

What's happening: To help with the research, engineers at one company, Argo AI, even jerry-rigged a "mud cannon" to splatter its test cars with a pudding-like substance.

  • The goal was to simulate mud splashing from a passing car — without damaging the sensors.
  • During six weeks of trial and error, Argo AI constructed a hood-mounted gizmo from PVC pipe, sprinkler valves and a portable air compressor that could fling a carefully crafted mix of water and scratch-proof dust at the car's sensors.
  • The end result is like a "simple potato gun, with a sprinkler valve."  

What to watch: 3M is developing a replaceable, superhydrophobic film that would act like a waterproof screen protector for lidar systems and other vehicle sensors.

  • 3M scientist Jonah Shaver, who developed the film as a side project, says the company is targeting several industries, including transportation, drones, agriculture and mining.
  • "We really think of it for use in any place you want a machine to see a little better."

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Satellite imagery of the Northeastern U.S. taken by NOAA on Jan. 17. Photo: NOAA

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The latest: The Weather Prediction Center said in a storm summary Monday that winter storm warnings are still in effect for portions of the Central Appalachians, Ohio Valley, interior Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, while portions of the Central Appalachians and coastal New England are under high wind warnings.

Colleyville Rabbi credits survival to active-shooter training

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, one of the people taken hostage in a synagogue outside Fort Worth on Saturday, said in an interview with CBS Monday that he initially took in the man because he thought he needed shelter.

The big picture: Cytron-Walker said he spoke to the hostage taker, identified by the FBI as 44-year-old British national Malik Faisal Akram, for several minutes and made him tea before Akram took the rabbi and three other people hostage during Shabbat services for around 11 hours in Colleyville, Texas.