Developing Autonomous Systems

One of the Defense Department’s top priorities is the development of technology that enables the “partnership of humans and machines to speed the making of decisions,” said Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, during a speech Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. While warning of the dangers of fully autonomous weapons systems, Selva described the ongoing development of semi-autonomous systems, operating at “the confluence of smart machines and smart humans,” as crucial to US response to the “great power competitions” with China and Russia, as well as the fight against “violent extremism.” On ethics, Selva drew a “bright line” at the question of “whether the tools we’re using absolve humans of the decision to execute a military operation.” Still, Selva admitted, “I don’t think it’s impossible that someone will build an entirely autonomous system” and that while the international system “will need to examine the body of law that applies” to these new technologies, the US military needs to “prepare for those who will ignore those conventions.” (See also: The Pointy End of Third Offset and Building Skynet.) (Read “Autonomous Horizons,” released in June 2015 by the USAF chief scientist’s office.)