Future wars may depend as much on algorithms as on ammunition

The Pentagon is increasingly focused on the notion that the might of U.S. forces will be measured as much by the advancement of their algorithms as by the ammunition in their arsenals. And so as it seeks to develop the technologies of the next war amid a technological arms race with China, the Defense Department has steadily increased spending in three key areas: artificial intelligence, big data and cloud computing, according to a recent report.

Investment in those areas increased to $7.4 billion last year, up from $5.6 billion five years ago, according to Govini, a data science and analytics firm, and it appears likely to grow as the armed services look to transform how they train, plan and fight.

“Rapid advances in artificial intelligence — and the vastly improved autonomous systems and operations they will enable — are pointing toward new and more novel warfighting applications involving human-machine collaboration and combat teaming,” Robert Work, the former deputy secretary of defense, wrote in an introduction to the report. “These new applications will be the primary drivers of an emerging military-technical revolution.”

The United States “can either lead the coming revolution, or fall victim to it,” he added.

In an interview, Work, who serves on Govini’s board, said the advancements in technology are transforming war just as the advent of the rifle, telegraph and railroad did generations ago. Much of the current work is being driven by companies with large presences in the Washington area, including Leidos, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, CACI and SAIC, according to the report.

Service members are using virtual reality to simulate battle conditions in training. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been investing in better computing power designed to handle vast amounts of data, including quantum computing and what’s known as neuromorphic engineering, helping develop incredibly complex computing systems designed to mimic biological systems.

There are signs that AI and human-machine collaboration are already making their way into American weaponry and its intelligence apparatus. The Pentagon is working toward using drones as the wingmen of fighter jets and ships, which can probe into enemy territory on their own. The Marine Corps has been testing cargo helicopters that can fly autonomously and that would allow Marines, using a tablet, to “easily request supplies even to austere or dangerous environments,” according to the Office of Naval Research.


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