Esper announces new initiatives to boost U.S. position in AI race

DOD officials have spoken ad nauseam about their hopes and dreams for AI. Wednesday, its top official said those dreams would become reality.
Mark Esper
Mark T. Esper speaks during his Full Honors Welcome Ceremony at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., July 25, 2019. (DOD / Lisa Ferdinando)

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper issued a warning to adversaries Wednesday: the U.S. military will adopt artificial intelligence first, and do so ethically.

Department of Defense officials have spoken ad nauseam about their desires to harness the power of AI in an ethical manner. Esper himself previously said it could “change the character of warfare.” But Wednesday, during the Joint AI Center’s AI Symposium, Esper spoke on the matter with more conviction, declaring that the U.S.’s goal to field AI for military use before competitors will indeed become a reality.

The stakes are high, Esper said. If America isn’t the first to adopt AI for military use, it risks letting other world powers with flawed morals use the technology in unethical ways. “We cannot afford to cede the high ground to revisionist powers intent on bending, breaking or reshaping international rules or norms in their favor,” he said of the need to field AI first.

During his remarks, Esper announced new initiatives the department has undertaken to boost its development of AI, including the planning of full-fledged live tests of AI-controlled warfighting aircraft, building off recent virtual tests. These tests implementing AI into dogfights would put algorithms in the cockpit of a tactical plane — a major step toward a future where AI is more deeply intertwined into the so-called “kill chain.”


Esper added that the DOD is intent on thinking about the ethics and implications of these moves. “AI’s role in our lethality is to support human decision-makers, not replace them,” he said.

Other initiatives Esper spoke of focused on ensuring the ethical development and use of AI both in the U.S. and abroad. He said the U.S. will lead the way with its ethical principles for AI and take allies along with it.

Next week, the JAIC will launch a 10-country initiative with allies for military-to-military engagements that focus on incorporating ethical principles into the AI development pipeline, Esper said. He called it the “AI Partnership for Defense.”

“The principles make clear to the American people, and the world, that the United States will once again lead the way with the responsible development and application of emerging technologies,” Esper said, adding that the department intends to grow the program and invite more countries over time.

The DOD is also looking internally to grow its ethical bona fides. Esper reiterated the importance of JAIC initiatives, like the Responsible AI Champions program and other DOD-wide ethics initiatives that the center is working to scale across the military services and components.


The JAIC, along with the Defense Acquisition University and Naval Postgraduate School, will also offer a six-week intensive course on applying AI and data science to a range of military operations and logistical challenges. The course is in the pilot stage now but falls in line with announcements from the military branches to increase AI-specific educational opportunities for service members.

“We see AI as a tool to free up resources, time and manpower so our people can focus on higher priority tasks and arrive at the decision point … faster and more precise than the competition,” Esper said.

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