Pentagon Adopts Ethical Principles for Using AI in War

February 25, 2020 Updated: February 25, 2020

The Pentagon announced on Feb. 24 it has adopted new ethical principles for the use of artificial intelligence (AI) technology on the battlefield.

The principles, developed over 15 months, include responsibility, equity, and governability, and call for personnel to “exercise appropriate levels of judgment and care” when using AI systems, the Department of Defense said.

Decisions made using AI systems, such as those that search for targets by scanning aerial imagery, should be traceable and governable, the Pentagon said. If the systems demonstrate “unintended behavior,” there must be a way to either disengage or deactivate them, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center.

The new approach follows recommendations made last year by the Defense Innovation Board, a group led by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement the United States and its international partners must push forward to develop AI for battlefield use.

“The United States, together with our allies and partners, must accelerate the adoption of AI and lead in its national security applications to maintain our strategic position, prevail on future battlefields, and safeguard the rules-based international order,” Esper said.

AI technology will change much about the battlefield of the future, but nothing will change America’s steadfast commitment to responsible and lawful behavior.

“The adoption of AI ethical principles will enhance the department’s commitment to upholding the highest ethical standards as outlined in the DOD AI Strategy, while embracing the U.S. military’s strong history of applying rigorous testing and fielding standards for technology innovations.”

The Pentagon’s push to speed up its AI capabilities has fueled a fight between tech companies over a $10 billion cloud computing contract known as the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI. Microsoft won the contract in October but hasn’t been able to work on the 10-year project because Amazon sued the Pentagon, arguing that President Donald Trump’s antipathy toward Amazon and its chief executive, Jeff Bezos, hurt Amazon’s chances of winning the bid.

While an existing 2012 military directive requires humans to be in control of automated weapons, it doesn’t address broader uses of AI. The new U.S. principles are meant to guide both combat and non-combat applications, from intelligence-gathering and surveillance operations to predicting maintenance problems in planes or ships.

The department’s announcement comes after Google in 2018 was pressured by its employees to drop out of the military’s Project Maven, which used algorithms to interpret aerial images from conflict zones. This caused the Pentagon to hit a roadblock in its AI efforts.

“If we had had the AI ethics principles three years ago (when launching Maven), and we were transparent about what we were trying to do and why we were trying to do it, maybe we would have had a different outcome,” Shanahan told reporters.

Shanahan also said the guidance helps secure America’s technological advantage as China and Russia pursue military AI with little attention paid to ethical concerns.

Ethics will “remain at the forefront” of everything the Pentagon does with AI technology, Dana Deasy, the Pentagon’s chief information officer, said in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.