Artificial Intelligence “Jolted by Success”

01.11.17 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Since 2010, the field of artificial intelligence (AI) has been “jolted” by the “broad and unforeseen successes” of one of its component technologies, known as multi-layer neural networks, leading to rapid developments and new applications, according to a new study from the JASON scientific advisory panel.

The JASON panel reviewed the current state of AI research and its potential use by the Department of Defense. See Perspectives on Research in Artificial Intelligence and Artificial General Intelligence Relevant to DoD, JSR-16-Task-003, January 2017.

“AI technologies are of great importance to DoD missions. Defense systems and platforms with varying degrees of autonomy already exist. More importantly, AI is seen as the key enabling technology (along with human-computer interactions of various kinds) of a ‘Third Offset Strategy’ that seeks for the U.S. a unique, asymmetric advantage over near-peer adversaries.”

The JASON report distinguishes between artificial intelligence — referring to the ability of computers to perform particular tasks that humans do with their brains — and artificial general intelligence (AGI) — meaning a human-like ability to pursue long-term goals and exercise purposive behavior.

“Where AI is oriented around specific tasks, AGI seeks general cognitive abilities.” Recent progress in AI has not been matched by comparable advances in AGI. Sentient machines, let alone a revolt of robots against their creators, are still somewhere far over the horizon, and may be permanently in the realm of fiction.

While many existing DoD weapon systems “have some degree of ‘autonomy’ relying on the technologies of AI, they are in no sense a step–not even a small step–towards ‘autonomy’ in the sense of AGI, that is, the ability to set independent goals or intent,” the JASONs said.

“Indeed, the word ‘autonomy’ conflates two quite different meanings, one relating to ‘freedom of will or action’ (like humans, or as in AGI), and the other the much more prosaic ability to act in accordance with a possibly complex rule set based on possibly complex sensor input, as in the word ‘automatic’. In using a terminology like ‘autonomous weapons’, the DoD may, as an unintended consequence, enhance the public’s confusion on this point.”

Nevertheless, even if they are more “automated” than genuinely “autonomous,” many existing applications of artificial intelligence “have achieved performance that exceeds what humans typically do.”

And while artificial intelligence can have damaging or disruptive implications in other contexts, that may not be so in the military. “Displacement of soldiers’ jobs by technology is a benefit, not an economic or social harm,” the JASON report said.

Yet the path forward for DoD to adopt new AI applications is not simple or smooth. A major obstacle is the difficulty of validating those applications to establish their safety and reliability.

Current progress in AI “has not systematically addressed the engineering ‘ilities’: reliability, maintainability, debug-ability, evolvability, fragility, attackability, and so forth. Further, it is not clear that the existing AI paradigm is immediately amenable to any sort of software engineering validation and verification. This is a serious issue, and is a potential roadblock to DoD’s use of these modern AI systems, especially when considering the liability and accountability of using AI in lethal systems.”

Deep neural networks function in a manner which is “almost unknowably intricate, leading to failure modes for which — currently — there is very little human intuition, and even less established engineering practice.”

A recent report from the Defense Science Board on Unmanned Undersea Systems observed that “The ability to communicate periodically can reduce some of the technological requirements and risks associated with the autonomous subsystem that often slows the development and subsequent fielding of systems.” See Next-Generation Unmanned Undersea Systems, October 2016.

The JASONs recommended continued DoD investment in basic research on artificial intelligence especially since, in all likelihood, “AI, both commercially derived and DoD-specific, will be integral to most future DoD systems and platforms.”

This week the Department of Defense announced the demonstration of swarms of “autonomous” micro-drones. “The micro-drones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing,” according to a January 9 news release.

A journalistic account of recent breakthroughs in the use of artificial intelligence for machine translation appeared in the New York Times Magazine last month. See “The Great A.I. Awakening” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, December 14, 2016.

See all publications
Nuclear Weapons
New Voices on Nuclear Weapons Fellowship: Creative Perspectives on Rethinking Nuclear Deterrence 

To empower new voices to start their career in nuclear weapons studies, the Federation of American Scientists launched the New Voices on Nuclear Weapons Fellowship. Here’s what our inaugural cohort accomplished.

11.28.23 | 3 min read
read more
Science Policy
Expected Utility Forecasting for Science Funding

Common frameworks for evaluating proposals leave this utility function implicit, often evaluating aspects of risk, uncertainty, and potential value independently and qualitatively.

11.20.23 | 11 min read
read more
Nuclear Weapons
Nuclear Notebook: Nuclear Weapons Sharing, 2023

The FAS Nuclear Notebook is one of the most widely sourced reference materials worldwide for reliable information about the status of nuclear weapons and has been published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1987. The Nuclear Notebook is researched and written by the staff of the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project: Director Hans […]

11.17.23 | 1 min read
read more
Social Innovation
Community School Approach Reaches High of 60%, Reports Latest Pulse Panel

According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ August 2023 pulse panel, 60% of public schools were utilizing a “community school” or “wraparound services model” at the start of this school year—up from 45% last year.

11.17.23 | 4 min read
read more