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Ethics Key to AI Development, Austin Says

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China — along with the United States and partners — are all hoping to come out on top when it comes to the mastery and application of artificial intelligence. But the Defense Department and its partners don't just aim to be masters of AI, they aim to do it ethically, said the secretary of defense.


"China's leaders have made clear they intend to be globally dominant in AI by the year 2030," Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said during remarks to the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. "Beijing already talks about using AI for a range of missions — from surveillance to cyberattacks to autonomous weapons."

The U.S. military has its sights on the same target, Austin said. But its approach is going to be different.

"In the AI realm as in many others, we understand that China is our pacing challenge," he said. "We're going to compete to win, but we're going to do it the right way. We're not going to cut corners on safety, security or ethics. And our watchwords are 'responsibility' and 'results.' And we don't believe for a minute that we have to sacrifice one for the other."

A man stands on a stage and speaks at a podium in front of a room of people.
Austin Remarks
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks to the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence at its summit on global emerging technology in Washington, July 13, 2021.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders, DOD
VIRIN: 210713-D-XI929-1009D

The department's "responsible AI" effort, Austin said, is at the center of ensuring the DOD does AI the right way.

"Responsible AI is the place where cutting-edge tech meets timeless values. You see, we don't believe that we need to choose between them, and we don't believe doing so would work," he said. "Our use of AI must reinforce our democratic values, protect our rights, ensure our safety, and defend our privacy."

The Defense Department's use of AI, Austin said, will enhance its military operations, which is why those efforts are being pursued.

"But nothing is going to change America's commitment to the laws of war and the principles of our democracy," he said.

We're going to compete to win, but we're going to do it the right way. We're not going to cut corners on safety, security or ethics.''
Lloyd J. Austin III, Secretary of Defense

Right now in the department, Austin said, there are more than 600 efforts underway to enhance the nation's defense using artificial intelligence.

"[That is] significantly more than just a year ago," he said. "And that includes the Artificial Intelligence and Data Acceleration initiative, which brings AI to bear on operational data."

Also included there is Project Salus, which began in March 2020 in partnership with the National Guard, Austin said. Project Salus used artificial intelligence to help predict shortages for things like water, medicine and supplies used in the COVID fight.

Also included in the current AI efforts is the Pathfinder Project, which Austin said is an algorithm-driven system to help the department better detect airborne threats by using AI to fuse data from military, commercial and government sensors in real time.

Increasing the department's AI capability and providing tools to better enable warfighters will mean getting the right people on board to make it happen, Austin said.  That's not just civilian experts on the topic; it means service members, as well, he said.

A graphic depicting a human hand touching a computer-generated image of a hand.
Artificial Intelligence
The Joint Artificial Intelligence Center and the Defense Innovation Unit hope to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to help the Army reduce the amount of time it takes to correct financial errors.
Photo By: Courtney Maxson, Army
VIRIN: 201005-A-ZZ999-003

Austin said DOD is going to have to do a lot better at recruiting, training and retaining talented people — which are often young people — who can lead the department into and through the AI revolution. "That means creating new career paths and new incentives. And it means including tech skills as a part of basic-training programs."

Emerging technologies, he said, are going to be at the center of the department's strategic development, Austin said, and the department must overcome its ingrained culture of risk aversion. 

"We need to smarten up our sluggish pace of acquisition," he said. "And we need to more vigorously recruit talented people and not scare them away. In today's world, in today's department, innovation cannot be an afterthought. It is the ballgame.''

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