The Pentagon is lagging behind the tech industry when it comes to tapping artificial intelligence (AI) for national security, according to US defense secretary James Mattis. On a recent tour that included visits to Amazon and Google, Mattis spoke about his desire to better harness the technology for military purposes, according to a report from Wired.

“It’s got to be better integrated by the Department of Defense, because I see many of the greatest advances out here on the West Coast in private industry,” Mattis told Wired.

The tech sector has tapped AI for everything from data management to hiring to photography in recent years. The Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), an organization founded in 2015 to work within the DoD, aims to make it easier for small tech companies to work with the DoD and the military. The unit has invested $100 million into 45 contracts, Wired noted, including those with companies developing autonomous drones that could investigate buildings during military raids, and a headset and microphone that can be mounted on a tooth.

Mattis told Wired that he hopes to see DIUx continue to gain expertise from the tech industry. “There’s no doubt in my mind DIUx will continue to exist; it will grow in its influence on the Department of Defense,” he said.

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However, in June, China announced plans to become a world leader in AI by 2030, investing heavily in the technology for its government, military, and companies to stay at the cutting edge and surpass their rivals. The US does not have a similar public, overarching strategy, Wired said. Further, the White House’s budget proposal includes cuts to the National Science Foundation, which has long supported AI research.

A July report from Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, conducted on behalf of the director of the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), determined that “advances in machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) represent a turning point in the use of automation in warfare,” but that “many of the most transformative applications of AI have not yet been addressed.”

And most AI research advances are occurring in the private sector and academia, with private sector funding dwarfing that of the US government, the report found.

Current AI capabilities could have a significant impact on national security, the report noted: For example, existing machine learning technology could allow for more automation in labor-intensive activities such as satellite imagery analysis and cyber defense.

Future progress in AI has the potential to transform national security technology, “on a par with nuclear weapons, aircraft, computers, and biotech,” the Harvard report stated.

“The DoD needs to pursue AI solutions to stay competitive with its Chinese and Russian counterparts,” said Roman Yampolskiy, director of the Cyber Security Laboratory at the University of Louisville. “Unfortunately, for the humanity that means development of killer robots, unsupervised drones and other mechanisms of killing people in an automated process. As we know all computer systems have bugs or can be hacked. What happens when our killer robots get hijacked by the enemy is something I am very concerned about.”

At the enterprise level, 62% of security experts said they believe that AI will be weaponized and used for cyberattacks within the next 12 months, according to a recent survey from Cylance.

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The power of machine learning

Machine learning in particular has seen some very important advances in recent years, as evidenced by work from tech giants such as Google and Amazon, including voice recognition, search correlation, and personalisation, according to Engin Kirda, professor of computer science at Northeastern University. This technology is also increasingly used in computer security applications, in distinguishing normal behavior from attack-related behavior, and detecting breaches, Kirda said.

“Seeing these advances, I think the Department of Defense is realizing the potential of machine learning (and AI in general), and is considering to invest more resources into catching up with some of the advances in consumer software,” Kirda said. “That is a very smart thing to do, because it is clear that AI has great application potential for some of the application scenarios that the Department of Defense is interested in (e.g., anti-terror scenarios).”

From an IT standpoint, the DoD is the largest and most complex enterprise in the world, with over 10,000 networks and 4 million desktop computers, and millions of mobile computing devices, according to Bob Gourley, co-founder of the cyber security consultancy Cognitio and former CTO of the Defense Intelligence Agency. All of this IT exists to do one thing: Help execute the missions of national security.

“All DoD missions will always be human guided, but new AI approaches are already enhancing decision-making in military missions,” Gourley said. “Machine learning algorithms are improving the ability of commanders to understand the environment and helping leaders assess best options. This will only improve.”

However, leaders still lack the ability to choose the right AI for the right task, Gourley said. For example, thousands of models exist for search and discovery, and it is suboptimal to hard code a single algorithm into a solution. “Why not enable decision-makers to decide which code to use for the problem at hand?” Gourley said. “This will improve decision making and battlefield results.”