This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Imagine, for a moment, a country that no longer rebuilds or reinforces its sagging infrastructure but just can't stop pouring money into its military. Oh wait, you don't have to imagine that at all! You just have to look at the United States. This fall, for instance, the president who swore he was going to give us an infrastructure plan that would blow our minds discovered that, after a tax cut for billionaires, a ballooning national debt, and a staggering $716 billion Pentagon budget, there were few dollars left over for much of anything else. In October, Donald Trump began talking about cutting agency spending by 5% across the board and about a possible $700 billion limit on the 2020 Pentagon budget. As December began, he became even more emphatic on that point, tweeting that he should talk to the Chinese and Russian presidents about halting an arms race and so cut down on military spending that was... well, not to put too fine a point on it, "Crazy!"
Hmm... and just how long did that sentiment survive? Well, that was Monday, December 4th. On Tuesday, the newly nominated head of U.S. Central Command, Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee and insisted that any future Pentagon budget below $733 billion would "increase risk and that risk would be manifested across the force." That very day, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, Congressman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) trooped to the White House for a lunch meeting. The next thing anyone knew, the 2020 Pentagon budget was to be a modest $750 billion. "The President fully supports the National Defense Strategy and continuing to rebuild the military," an administration official told CNN. "With the help of Sen. Inhofe and Chairman Thornberry, President Trump agreed to $750 billion topline."
Well, honestly, what can you expect of a Pentagon incapable of auditing itself? How could it possibly solve a total stumper of a division and subtraction problem like: What's 5% less than its 2019 budget? (And here's a little footnote to that change in numbers: Senator Inhofe walked out of that lunch and within the week had purchased "tens of thousands of dollars of stock in one of the nation's top defense contractors." Raytheon, to be exact. When that buy made news, he blamed it all on his "financial adviser," claimed to know nothing about it, and cancelled the order.)
And then, of course, there's always the purely secondary question: What is the U.S. military -- its budget already bigger than of that those of god-knows-how-many-other countries combined -- going to spend all that money on? Fortunately, TomDispatch regular Michael Klare has a thought on the subject. He suggests that, in the years to come, increasing billions of those dollars are going to be invested in creating a future battlespace in which "intelligent" machines fight our wars and, in the end, the only role left for humans may be the dying. In other words, we're heading for a militarized, remarkably automated, artificially intelligent hell on Earth. What about an $850 billion budget, just to ensure that we're the first ones there? Tom
"Alexa, Launch Our Nukes!"
Artificial Intelligence and the Future of War
By Michael T. Klare
There could be no more consequential decision than launching atomic weapons and possibly triggering a nuclear holocaust. President John F. Kennedy faced just such a moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and, after envisioning the catastrophic outcome of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange, he came to the conclusion that the atomic powers should impose tough barriers on the precipitous use of such weaponry. Among the measures he and other global leaders adopted were guidelines requiring that senior officials, not just military personnel, have a role in any nuclear-launch decision.- Advertisement -
That was then, of course, and this is now. And what a now it is! With artificial intelligence, or AI, soon to play an ever-increasing role in military affairs, as in virtually everything else in our lives, the role of humans, even in nuclear decision-making, is likely to be progressively diminished. In fact, in some future AI-saturated world, it could disappear entirely, leaving machines to determine humanity's fate.
This isn't idle conjecture based on science fiction movies or dystopian novels. It's all too real, all too here and now, or at least here and soon to be. As the Pentagon and the military commands of the other great powers look to the future, what they see is a highly contested battlefield -- some have called it a "hyperwar" environment -- where vast swarms of AI-guided robotic weapons will fight each other at speeds far exceeding the ability of human commanders to follow the course of a battle. At such a time, it is thought, commanders might increasingly be forced to rely on ever more intelligent machines to make decisions on what weaponry to employ when and where. At first, this may not extend to nuclear weapons, but as the speed of battle increases and the "firebreak" between them and conventional weaponry shrinks, it may prove impossible to prevent the creeping automatization of even nuclear-launch decision-making.
Such an outcome can only grow more likely as the U.S. military completes a top-to-bottom realignment intended to transform it from a fundamentally small-war, counter-terrorist organization back into one focused on peer-against-peer combat with China and Russia. This shift was mandated by the Department of Defense in its December 2017 National Security Strategy. Rather than focusing mainly on weaponry and tactics aimed at combating poorly armed insurgents in never-ending small-scale conflicts, the American military is now being redesigned to fight increasingly well-equipped Chinese and Russian forces in multi-dimensional (air, sea, land, space, cyberspace) engagements involving multiple attack systems (tanks, planes, missiles, rockets) operating with minimal human oversight.
"The major effect/result of all these capabilities coming together will be an innovation warfare has never seen before: the minimization of human decision-making in the vast majority of processes traditionally required to wage war," observed retired Marine General John Allen and AI entrepreneur Amir Hussain. "In this coming age of hyperwar, we will see humans providing broad, high-level inputs while machines do the planning, executing, and adapting to the reality of the mission and take on the burden of thousands of individual decisions with no additional input."
That "minimization of human decision-making" will have profound implications for the future of combat. Ordinarily, national leaders seek to control the pace and direction of battle to ensure the best possible outcome, even if that means halting the fighting to avoid greater losses or prevent humanitarian disaster. Machines, even very smart machines, are unlikely to be capable of assessing the social and political context of combat, so activating them might well lead to situations of uncontrolled escalation.
It may be years, possibly decades, before machines replace humans in critical military decision-making roles, but that time is on the horizon. When it comes to controlling AI-enabled weapons systems, as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis put it in a recent interview, "For the near future, there's going to be a significant human element. Maybe for 10 years, maybe for 15. But not for 100."- Advertisement -
Even five years ago, there were few in the military establishment who gave much thought to the role of AI or robotics when it came to major combat operations. Yes, remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), or drones, have been widely used in Africa and the Greater Middle East to hunt down enemy combatants, but those are largely ancillary (and sometimes CIA) operations, intended to relieve pressure on U.S. commandos and allied forces facing scattered bands of violent extremists. In addition, today's RPAs are still controlled by human operators, even if from remote locations, and make little use, as yet, of AI-powered target-identification and attack systems. In the future, however, such systems are expected to populate much of any battlespace, replacing humans in many or even most combat functions.
To speed this transformation, the Department of Defense is already spending hundreds of millions of dollars on AI-related research. "We cannot expect success fighting tomorrow's conflicts with yesterday's thinking, weapons, or equipment," Mattis told Congress in April. To ensure continued military supremacy, he added, the Pentagon would have to focus more "investment in technological innovation to increase lethality, including research into advanced autonomous systems, artificial intelligence, and hypersonics."