Wanted: military “ethicist”. Skills: data crunching, machine learning, killer robots. Must have: cool head, moral compass and the will to say no to generals, scientists and even presidents.
The Pentagon is looking for the right person to help it navigate the morally murky waters of artificial intelligence (AI), billed as the battlefield of the 21st century.
“One of the positions we are going to fill will be someone who’s not just looking at technical standards, but who’s an ethicist,” Lt Gen Jack Shanahan, director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) at the US defense department, told reporters last week.
“I think that’s a very important point that we would not have thought about this a year ago, I’ll be honest with you. In Maven [a pilot AI machine learning project], these questions really did not rise to the surface every day, because it was really still humans looking at object detection, classification and tracking. There were no weapons involved in that.”
Shanahan added: “So we are going to bring in someone who will have a deep background in ethics and then, with the lawyers within the department, we’ll be looking at how do we actually bake this into the future of the Department of Defense.”
The JAIC is a year old and has 60 employees. Its budget last year was $93m; this year’s request was $268m. Its focus comes amid fears that China has gained an early advantage in the global race to explore AI’s military potential, including for command and control and autonomous weapons.
Much as the phrase “military intelligence” has been mocked in the past, some critics might find irony in the notion of the military that waged war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Iraq delving into ethical philosophy. Shanahan insisted that ethics will be at the heart of the US’s advances in AI, if not those of its rivals.
“We are thinking deeply about the ethical, safe and lawful use of AI,” he said. “At its core, we are in a contest for the character of the international order in the digital age. Along with our allies and partners, we want to lead and ensure that that character reflects the values and interests of free and democratic societies. I do not see China or Russia placing the same kind of emphasis in these areas.”
The use of AI in weapons, popularly portrayed in movies such as The Terminator, would not necessarily be top of the official ethicist’s in-tray. They might also have to grapple with issues of data collection and privacy, not unlike those raised in the commercial sector by Amazon, Netflix and social media.
Lindsey Sheppard, an associate fellow with the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) thinktank in Washington, said: “I think it’s important to remember that, when we talk about the Department of Defense using artificial intelligence, it goes beyond just robotics and autonomy.
“AI ethicists at the Pentagon would have to be capable of supporting the entire breadth of AI applications all the way from when is it acceptable to use artificial intelligence in a weapons system to how do we think about the acceptable and appropriate uses of personnel data.”
Sheppard suggested that the new appointee should be willing to “get their hands dirty” by visiting the frontline.
“Particularly for technologies like this, there is immense value in seeing and always staying connected to the end users, if that means going out to the battlefield in Afghanistan where you have men and women directly using the technology. They are driving how we think about using the technology.”
Credit: Google News