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Today's arms race is all about AI and it's China vs America, says US defense secretary

Machines will function more as colleagues than tools, and we're spending $1.5bn to get there

The world is entering a new stage of AI and the race to get there is between China and the United States, US defense secretary Lloyd Austin has said.

He was speaking at the Global Emerging Technology Summit of The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence earlier this week.

"Tech advances like AI are changing the face and the pace of warfare," said Austin.

China is of specific concern when it comes to AI warfare, in Austin's view. The Middle Kingdom has set a goal to be globally dominant in the technology by 2030.

"In the AI realm, as in many others, we understand that China is our pacing challenge," said Austin, reminding his audience that China was already using AI for surveillance, cyberattacks, and autonomous weapons.

Austin described DARPA's $2m multi-year campaign "AI Next" as paving the way for the "third wave" of AI technology. The first was rooted in 1960s research, and the second wave is, presumably, now.

Austin described a future where AI will be less tool-driven, and more like a colleague:

Done responsibly, leadership in AI can boost our future military tech advantage – from data-driven decisions to human/machine teaming.

He claimed there were more than 600 AI efforts currently ongoing within his department, with DARPA spearheading more than 60 AI-inclusive programmes – including some that detect and patch cyber vulnerabilities.

Among the 600 efforts are the Artificial Intelligence and Data Acceleration initiative, which uses AI on operational data; Project Salus, a predictive tool for finding patterns in COVID-19 data; and the Pathfinder project, an algorithm-driven system to detect airborne threats.

Outside of government organisations and their projects, partnerships with universities and small business were lauded, respectively referred to as "powerhouses" and "brimming with good ideas."

The department plans to spend $1.5bn on efforts to further accelerate AI adoption, said Austin – presumably to realise the bold vision of AI-as-a-colleague doing the coffee run.

With lofty rhythmic rhetoric, Austin claimed the US would not cut corners on safety, security or ethics, and would rely on democratic values – while warning that the country was willing to fight when necessary.

"AI is going to change many things about military operations, but nothing is going to change America's commitment to the laws of war and the principles of our democracy," said Austin.

He ended the speech with a catchy soundbyte:

But we're going to get this done. And we're going to get it done right. And we're going to get it done together.

Things have heated up recently between the US and China, with each nation afraid of the other receiving large quantities of citizen data, and thus imposing limitations on homegrown or their adversary's technologies. ®

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