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Secretary of Defense Remarks for DOD Artificial Intelligence Symposium and Exposition

Hello, I’m Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and it’s a privilege to join you today as part of the Defense Department’s AI Symposium. I want to thank Nand Mulchandani and his team at the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, or JAIC, for organizing this important event…AND for bringing together the best and brightest minds in the Department who are working to accelerate the adoption of critical emerging technologies.

Today, I’d like to speak to you about why the United States must continue to lead the way in the responsible and ethical development of artificial intelligence – and more specifically, why the Department of Defense must remain at the forefront of the military application of this game-changing technology.

History informs us that those who are first to harness once-in-a-generation technologies often have a decisive advantage on the battlefield for years to come. I experienced this firsthand during Operation Desert Storm, when the United States’ military’s smart bombs, stealth aircraft, and satellite-enabled GPS helped decimate Iraqi forces and their Soviet equipment.

In today’s era of great power competition, as new technologies alter the character of warfare, we must stay ahead of our near-peer rivals – namely China and Russia. Our National Defense Strategy guides us in doing just that, as we modernize the force and protect our competitive advantage across all domains: air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.

Thanks to our largest Research and Development budget in the Department’s history, we are accelerating the development of critical technologies that will enable us to outpace our strategic competitors and maintain our military overmatch. But, unlike advanced munitions or next-generation platforms, artificial intelligence is in a league of its own, with the potential to transform nearly every aspect of the battlefield, from the back office to the front lines. That is why we cannot afford to cede the high ground to revisionist powers intent on bending, breaking, or reshaping international rules and norms in their favor – to the collective detriment of others.

In 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that whichever nation leads in AI will be the “ruler of the world.” He ordered his government to develop a national AI strategy, and called for increased investments. His intent is to employ any possible advantage to expand Russia’s influence and chip away at the sovereignty of others. 

We saw this with Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, when Russian forces used a sophisticated and well-coordinated combination of unmanned aerial vehicles, cyberattacks, and artillery barrage to inflict severe damage on Ukrainian forces. Since then, Moscow has announced the development of AI-enabled autonomous systems across ground vehicles, aircraft, nuclear submarines, and command and control. We expect them to deploy these capabilities in future combat zones.    

Likewise, the Chinese Communist Party recognizes the transformational power of AI, and openly declares its intentions to be the world leader by 2030.

The People’s Liberation Army regards AI as a “leapfrog” technology, which could enable low-cost, long-range autonomous vehicles and systems to counter America’s conventional power projection. At this moment, Chinese weapons manufacturers are selling autonomous drones they claim can conduct lethal targeted strikes. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is advancing the development of next-generation stealth UAVs, which they are preparing to export internationally.

If there is any doubt as to how the CCP would wield AI to influence its agenda abroad, look no further than how it uses this capability at home. Beijing is constructing a 21st century surveillance state designed to wield unprecedented control over its own people. With hundreds of millions of cameras strategically located across the country and billions of data points generated by the Chinese Internet of Things, the CCP will soon be able to identify almost anyone entering a public space, and censor dissent in real time. More troubling is the fact that these systems can be used to invade private lives, leaving no text message, internet search, purchase, or personal activity free from Beijing’s tightening grip.

As we speak, the PRC is deploying – and honing – its AI surveillance apparatus to support the targeted repression of its Muslim Uighur population. Likewise, pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong are being identified, seized, imprisoned, or worse, by the CCP's digital police state – unencumbered by privacy laws or ethical governing principles. As China scales this technology, we fully expect it to sell these capabilities abroad, enabling other autocratic governments to move toward a new era of digital authoritarianism.

The contrast between American leadership on AI and that of Beijing and Moscow couldn’t be clearer. We are pioneering a vision for emerging technology that protects the U.S. Constitution and the sacred rights of all Americans. Abroad, we seek to promote the adoption of AI in a manner consistent with the values we share with our allies and partners: individual liberty, democracy, human rights, and respect for the rule of law, to name a few. 

Indeed, we approach AI as we have other high-tech breakthroughs throughout our Department’s history – with rigorous standards for testing and fielding capabilities, and the highest ethical expectations. Technology may constantly change, but our commitment to our core values does not.

In February, we became the first military in the world to adopt ethical principles for the use of AI, based on core values such as transparency, reliability, and governability. These principles make clear to the American people – and the world – that the United States will once again lead the way in the responsible development and application of emerging technologies, reinforcing our role as the global security partner of choice.

To build on this foundation, we are designing a comprehensive strategy to train and educate all DoD personnel – from AI developers to end-users – so that everyone understands their role in accelerating the Department’s Digital Modernization Strategy.

Over the last six months, for example, the Department has stood up a Responsible AI Committee that brings together leaders from across the enterprise to foster a culture of AI ethics within their organizations. In addition, the JAIC has launched the Responsible AI Champions program, a nine-week training course for DoD personnel directly involved in the AI delivery pipeline. We plan to scale this program to all DoD components over the coming year.

Further, the JAIC, in partnership with the Defense Acquisition University and the Naval Postgraduate School, will launch an intensive six-week pilot course next month to train over 80 defense acquisition professionals of all ranks and grades. These trainees will learn how to apply AI and data science skills to our operations. With the support of Congress, the Department plans to request additional funding for the Services to grow this effort over time and deliver an AI-ready workforce to the American people.

As the Defense Department builds a digital security architecture to promote responsible and ethical AI development, we are also shaping new international norms for the use of this technology. Next week, the JAIC will launch the first-ever AI Partnership for Defense, to engage military and defense organizations from more than 10 nations, with a focus on incorporating ethical principles into the AI delivery pipeline. Over the coming year, we expect to expand this initiative to include even more countries, as we create new frameworks and tools for data sharing, cooperative development, and strengthened interoperability. 

We have come a long way since establishing the JAIC two years ago. Today, more than 200 talented civil service and military professionals work diligently to accelerate AI solutions, and deliver these capabilities to the warfighter. From helping the Joint Force organize, fight, and win at machine speed, to enhancing wildfire and flood responses through computer vision technology, the JAIC is utilizing every aspect of artificial intelligence as a transformative instrument at home and abroad. 

 The JAIC is also lowering technical barriers to AI adoption by building a cloud-based platform to allow DoD components to test, validate, and field capabilities with greater speed, at greater scale. The goal is to make AI tools and data accessible across the force, which will help synchronize projects and reduce redundancy, among many other benefits.

As an example of the tectonic impact of machine learning on the future of warfighting, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) recently conducted its third and final F-16 combat simulation between an AI-controlled system and an experienced Air Force fighter pilot. The AI agent’s resounding victory demonstrated the ability of advanced algorithms to out-perform humans in virtual dogfights. These simulations will culminate in a real-world competition involving full-scale tactical aircraft in 2024.

To be clear, AI’s role in our lethality is to support human decision-makers, not replace them. 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, whether in a lab or on the battlefield, faster and more precise than the competition.

For instance, AI is advancing automated chemistry for a host of national security applications, including the continuous manufacturing of critical pharmaceuticals and the development of novel propellants for spacecraft engines. These advances free up time for our scientists and researchers to focus on next-generation innovation, rather than countless tests and experiments. 

Furthermore, through DARPA’s Spectrum Collaboration Challenge, we are demonstrating the power of machine learning to improve spectrum usage through autonomous collaboration, which has enormous implications for future military and commercial networking, especially with 5G.

Lastly, to fully realize the potential of AI across the Defense Department, we are committed to reforming outdated policies, divesting from legacy systems, modernizing our acquisition practices, and strengthening our partnerships across industry and academia.

Decades ago, the federal government supplied the bulk of research and development funding for many of the Department’s most important hardware capabilities. Today, the private sector leads the way in software. We need to be fast followers of our industry partners, and work hand-in-hand with them to develop AI at the speed and scale needed to stay ahead of the competition. 

During the Department’s coronavirus response, for example, the JAIC worked alongside industry to develop a predictive analytics tool that helped U.S. Northern Command manage supply chains and identify hotspots with the greatest need. And, in academia, the Army AI Task Force at Carnegie Melon University, and the Air Force AI Accelerator, sit at the crossroads of higher education, industry, and defense, rapidly prototyping cutting-edge innovation. Ultimately, these kinds of solutions are vital not only for our Department of Defense missions, but also for the good of the American people.

With each generation come new technologies that fundamentally alter the way we think about, plan, and prepare for war. AI is one such breakthrough with boundless potential – for good or for ill. However, unlike our competitors, we commit to using these capabilities to preserve peace, promote prosperity, respect rights, and maintain the free and open order that benefits all nations.

As the epicenter of groundbreaking innovation, the United States will once again lead the way in developing and governing emerging technologies. We will stay true to our core values and principles. We will remain the global security partner of choice. And together with our allies and partners, we will defend the international rules and norms that have secured our rights and our homeland for generations.

Thank you for your time, and thank you for all that you do to ensure the Department of Defense remains the standard of excellence, at home and abroad.