Tue. Dec 7th, 2021

The author was previously the first chief software officer at the U.S. Air Force and Space Force. He is now chief technology officer at the cyber security firm Prevent Breach

When I resigned from the Pentagon in September, I warned that without urgent action we would lose the artificial intelligence war against China within a year. Because of our complacency, we have watched the Chinese Communist Party not only overtake the US in many warfare capabilities, but, worse, lead in some of the most important ones such as AI and cyber security. Pentagon leaders like to call China a “close peer opponent,” but it demonstrates how much they underestimated Beijing.

I do not, and you should not. Whoever wins the AI ​​race will control the planet. When the U.S. conducted virtual exercises to pit AI-powered jets against top pilots, the AI ​​systems triumphed. China’s hypersonic missiles will only be stopped using AI-enabled defense.

The solutions to this threat are clear. The Pentagon needs to embrace agility and understand that innovation involves failure. It should set up a joint IT office, centralizing all functions such as IT sourcing, cloud services, data warehousing, AI, cybersecurity and training in a dedicated Technology and Information Mergers business, which reports directly to the Department of Defense’s Deputy Secretary report. The department should also boost public-private partnerships, be more accountable to the taxpayer and spend at least 10 percent of its budget on developing lean and autonomous methods of warfare.

However, as I have noticed, defense leaders often fail to understand the technology themselves, and refuse to empower those who do. If you are a leader and you do not know the subject, then teach yourself and be willing to take advice, or step out of the way. We must instruct employees in continuous learning for at least one hour a day. The other common mistake is to create more hidden AI and data teams or worse, a “cyber force”. We do not need specialist units rushing in to save the day. Software, cyber and AI need to be embedded in every DoD team. Concepts such as the Pentagon’s Defense Digital Service, apparently designed to deliver new technology across the DoD, have failed in part because they exist in a vacuum. We also need to create respected career paths for software, cybersecurity, data science, AI and machine learning, with payment advancement and titles so that it is not seen as a dead end.

To update its workforce, the Pentagon needs to work more closely with industry. The US has incredible companies innovating in all sectors, from self-driving cars to space exploration and quantum computers. Unfortunately, the DoD continues to overclassify information. This prevents it from informing industry partners about the extent of China’s aggressions – ranging from embedding spies in our companies to stealing intellectual property and carrying out cyber attacks. As a result, many U.S. companies are still refusing to cooperate with the Pentagon. I believe that if it could share more about the nature of the threat, more would want to work with the military to win this battle.

Bringing in expertise from outside defense means correcting the clearance processes so that people can move in and out of government to gain skills and experience. We need to allow DoD people to spend time with start-ups and innovative companies like Tesla and SpaceX, and return to implement their knowledge for the military. Without enough talent, American defense can not succeed.

Finally, we must stop preparing for the wrong battles. The next war will be software-defined, it will not be won with a $ 1.7tn program of fifth-generation F35 fighter jets or $ 12bn aircraft carriers. China can take down our power network without firing a single shot, due to cyber security at the kindergarten level in our critical national infrastructure. It shows us investing in the wrong defensive abilities. As we have recently seen with the Colonial pipeline hack, the risk is tangible. We must now act to exchange some F35 jets for scalable autonomous systems such as drone swarms, self-flying jets and ships, hypersonic and cyber capabilities, and military advances in space.

Reports claiming that the US has as many as 10 years to take meaningful steps in AI are just wrong. Analysts forget that AI innovation is advancing exponentially, based on the speed of deployment and the volume of data available to train its models. As China has more experts involved in this field, and more data, the US is already at a disadvantage. By this time next year it will be too late to catch up.

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