The dust lay thick upon the ruins of bombed-out buildings. Small groups of soldiers, leaden with their cargo of weaponry, bent low and scurried like beetles between the wrecked pillars and remains of shops and houses. Intelligence had indicated that enemy troops were planning a counterattack, but so far, all was quiet across the heat-shimmered landscape.  The allied soldiers gazed intently out at the far hills and closed their weary, dust-caked eyes against the glare coming off the sand. Suddenly, the men were aware of a low humming sound, like thousands of angry bees, coming from the northeast.  Getting louder, this sound was felt, more than heard, and the buzzing was intensifying with each passing second. The men looked up as a dark, undulating cloud approached, and found a swarm of hundreds of drones, dropped from a distant unmanned aircraft, heading to their precise location in a well-coordinated group, each turn and dip a nuanced dance in close collaboration with their nearest neighbors…

Although it seems like a scene from a science fiction movie, the technology already exists to create weapons that can attack targets without human intervention, according to defense analyst and former U.S. Army Ranger Paul Scharre.  In his book Army of None, Scharre explores the future of battlefield technology utilizing autonomous weapons and artificial intelligence, or A.I.

The prevalence of this technology is pervasive and A.I. as a transformational technology shows virtually unlimited potential across a broad spectrum of industries.  In healthcare, for instance, robot-assisted surgery allows doctors to perform complex procedures with fewer complications than surgeons operating alone, and A.I.-driven technologies show great promise in aiding clinical diagnosis and automating workflow and administrative tasks, with the benefit of potentially saving billions in healthcare dollars.  In a different area, we are all aware of the emergence of autonomous vehicles and the steady march toward driverless cars being a ubiquitous sight on American roadways. We trust that all this technology will be safe and ultimately in the best interest of the public.

Warfare, however, is a different animal.

In his book, Paul Scharre asks, “Should machines be allowed to make life-and-death decisions in war? Should it be legal? Is it right?”  It is with these questions in mind and in light of the advancing A.I. arms race with Russia and China that the Pentagon has announced the creation of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), which will have oversight of most of the A.I. efforts of U.S. service and defense agencies.  The timeliness of this venture cannot be underestimated; as Robert Latiff states in his book Future War, “Battles of the future will not necessarily be fought on battlefields as we know them, but in cities, in ungoverned areas, in cyberspace, and in the realm of the electromagnetic spectrum.  Even outer space will be a contested environment.” Automated warfare has become a “not if, but when” scenario.

In the fictional account above, it is the enemy combatant that, in a “strategic surprise,” uses advanced A.I.-based autonomous robots to attack the presumably victorious U.S. troops and their allies. Only a few years ago, we may have dismissed such a scenario — an enemy of the U.S. having more and better advanced technology for use in the battlefield — as utterly unrealistic. Today, however, few would question such a possibility. Technology development is global, and accelerating worldwide. China, for example, has announced that it will overtake the U.S. within a few years and will dominate the global A.I. Market by 2030. Given the pace and scale of investment the Chinese government is making in this (and other advanced technology spaces such as quantum information systems), such a scenario is patently feasible.

But, one may ask, why is this important in a fully globalized world? Those groups and nations that innovate most effectively and dominate the A.I. technology landscape will not only control commercial markets, but will also hold a very significant advantage in future warfare. In many respects, the threat of general A.I.-based weapons to national security is perhaps as existential a threat to the future national security of the United States and its allies as nuclear weapons were at the end of World War II.

Fortunately, the U.S. government and Congress are rising to the challenge. Anticipating these trends and challenges, the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy announced, in a recent memo, that the nation’s top four research and development priorities would encompass defense, A.I., autonomy, and quantum information systems. This directly feeds into the job of the aforementioned JAIC, which is to establish a repository of standards, tools, data, technology, processes, and expertise for the Department of Defense, as well as coordinate with other government agencies, industry, U.S. allies, and academia.  It is this last piece of the puzzle that I believe is in fact extremely important, and which Purdue University and other top academic institutions in the U.S. are uniquely positioned to provide.

It cannot be incumbent upon any one area to provide all the answers, so Purdue University’s Discovery Park has positioned itself as a paragon of collaborative, cutting-edge research which extends into the A.I. arena by the integration of several cross-cutting departments.  The Institute for Global Security and Defense Innovation (i-GDSI) is already answering JAIC needs for advanced A.I. research by delving into areas such as biomorphic robots, automatic target recognition for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and autonomous exploration and localization of targets for aerial drones. i-GSDI recognized the need to converge core AI technologies with mission applications and designed the investments through an ‘AI+ Rapid Innovation’ internal RFP. ‘AI+’ motivates this very important aspect of converging technologies and operational imperatives — exactly what the JAIC is charged to do across the Department of Defense mission space. Complementary to the mission of the JAIC, the Purdue Policy Research Institute (PPRI) is actively investigating the ethical, legal, and social impacts of connected and autonomous vehicles (CATV). Some of the topics being researched include privacy and security, workforce disruption, insurance and liability, and economic impact. PPRI is also starting to investigate the question of ethics, technology and the future of war and security.

The bench is already strong for mission-inspired AI research. Purdue University is a key player in the C-BRIC (Center for Brain-Inspired Computing) project, forging ahead on “AI+” mentality by combining neuromorphic computing architectures with autonomous systems applications. The Integrative Data Science Initiative (IDSI) at Purdue transforms data into useable information by taking advantage of the proliferation of low-cost data storage and sensors.  Data science is used by all of the nation’s security agencies and no doubt will be integral to the functioning of the JAIC and its mission. The opportunities for Purdue and Discovery Park to enter into a partnership with the JAIC are vast and span a wide range of disciplines and research areas.  In short, we are primed to play a vital role in the future of the nation’s service and defense agencies and must be relentless in pursuing the opportunities available to us.

It has become apparent that the U.S. is no longer guaranteed top dog status on the dance card that is the future of war.  In order to maintain military superiority the focus must shift from traditional weapons of war to advanced systems that rely on A.I.-based weaponry.  The stakes are just too high and the prize too great to for the U.S. to be left behind.  All the more reason to call upon Purdue University and its inestimable capacity to weave together academia, research, and industry for the greater good. We’re stepping up to secure our place in the future of our country, and there’s much more to come!