Defense Innovation Board to Explore the Ethics of AI in War

Laurent T/

The advisory group will provide the Pentagon with recommendations after hearing from academics, industry and the public.

As artificial intelligence mature, the Defense Department wants to make sure it is deploying the technology effectively and ethically. To ensure this, the department is looking to one of its public liaisons: the Defense Innovation Board.

During its quarterly public meeting on Oct. 10, the advisory board—made of up representatives from the defense industry and academia that works directly with the Defense Department—discussed the latest advances in AI and moved to formalize a review of how the military can and should use the technology.

The work began in July when Defense Secretary James Mattis asked the board to begin work on a set of AI principles the department can follow as it develops this nascent technology and begins to deploy it in the Pentagon and on the battlefield.

“It is abundantly clear from the discussions thus far, the department’s experts on AI already have a deep appreciation, even a healthy skepticism for the limitations of AI, as well as its promise,” said Joshua Marcuse, the board’s executive director and adviser to the Defense Department’s chief management officer, reading what would become the board’s official description of its review work. “I myself witnessed how deeply committed the women and men who work in the department are to ethical standards, starting with the secretary of defense.”

The promise of AI is huge but so are the potential pitfalls if the technology is misused, such as introducing implicit biases during the development phase, as Defense and academic experts noted during the meeting.

“The stakes are high in the field of medicine and in banking. But nowhere are they higher than in national security,” Marcuse said. “This process will involve law, policy, strategy, doctrine and practice… We are taking care to include not only experts who often work with the department, but AI skeptics, department critics and leading AI engineers who have never worked with DOD before.”

The very nature of AI and related technologies will likely lead to disagreements, Marcuse added, which the group plans to encourage.

“Respectful and forthright dialogue should lead to meaningful understanding on all sides,” he said. “And a robust contest of ideas should generate new insight.”

The board has already begun working with ethicists within the Defense Department and is in the process of bringing together more relevant experts.

“The entire purpose of the DIBs component in this exercise is to gather voices to give input to the department,” said board member Michael McQuade, a former senior executive with United Technologies Corporation. Specifically, the board is looking for “voices that stretch across society that have something to say about the impact of AI in society.”

In the coming months, the board will be holding a series of open meeting across the country to get feedback from any interested parties, especially private citizens. They will also be hosting roundtables with academia, industry and international groups.

The board plans to have a formal set of recommendations for Secretary Mattis to review within nine months.