Venture capital and military startup firms in Silicon Valley have begun aggressively selling a version of automated warfare that will deeply incorporate artificial intelligence (AI). Those companies and their CEOs are now pressing full speed ahead with that emerging technology, largely dismissing the risk of malfunctions that could lead to the slaughter of civilians, not to speak of the possibility of dangerous scenarios of escalation between major military powers. The reasons for this headlong rush include a misplaced faith in “miracle weapons,” but above all else, this surge of support for emerging military technologies is driven by the ultimate rationale of the military-industrial complex: the potential to make vast sums of money.

The New Techno-Enthusiasts

While some in the military and the Pentagon are indeed concerned about the risks of AI weaponry, the leadership of the Defense Department is on board fully. Its energetic commitment to emerging technology was first broadcast to the world in an August 2023 speech delivered by Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks to the National Defense Industrial Association, the largest arms industry trade group in the country. She used the occasion to announce what she termed “the Replicator Initiative,” an umbrella effort to help create “a new state of the art — just as America has before — leveraging attritable, autonomous systems in all domains — which are less expensive, put fewer people in the line of fire, and can be changed, updated, or improved with substantially shorter lead times.”

This surge of support for emerging military technologies is driven by the ultimate rationale of the military-industrial complex: the potential to make vast sums of money.

Hicks was anything but shy about pointing to the primary rationale for such a rush toward robotic warfare: outpacing and intimidating China. “We must,” she said, “ensure the PRC [People’s Republic of China] leadership wakes up every day, considers the risks of aggression, and concludes, ‘today is not the day’ — and not just today, but every day, between now and 2027, now and 2035, now and 2049, and beyond.”

Hick’s supreme confidence in the ability of the Pentagon and American arms makers to wage future techno-wars has been reinforced by a group of new-age militarists in Silicon Valley and beyond, spearheaded by corporate leaders like Peter Thiel of Palantir, Palmer Luckey of Anduril, and venture capitalists like Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz.

Patriots or Profiteers?

These corporate promoters of a new way of war also view themselves as a new breed of patriots, ready and able to successfully confront the military challenges of the future.

A case in point is “Rebooting the Arsenal of Democracy,” a lengthy manifesto on Anduril’s blog. It touts the superiority of Silicon Valley startups over old-school military-industrial behemoths like Lockheed Martin in supplying the technology needed to win the wars of the future:

“The largest defense contractors are staffed with patriots who, nevertheless, do not have the software expertise or business model to build the technology we need. … These companies built the tools that kept us safe in the past, but they are not the future of defense.”

In contrast to the industrial-age approach it critiques, Luckey and his compatriots at Anduril seek an entirely new way of developing and selling weapons:

“Software will change how war is waged. The battlefield of the future will teem with artificially intelligent, unmanned systems, which fight, gather reconnaissance data, and communicate at breathtaking speeds.”

At first glance, Luckey seems a distinctly unlikely candidate to have risen so far in the ranks of arms industry executives. He made his initial fortune by creating the Oculus virtual-reality device, a novelty item that users can strap to their heads to experience a variety of 3-D scenes (with the sensation that they’re embedded in them). His sartorial tastes run toward sandals and Hawaiian shirts, but he has now fully shifted into military work. In 2017, he founded Anduril, in part with support from Thiel and his investment firm, Founders Fund. Anduril currently makes autonomous drones, automated command and control systems, and other devices meant to accelerate the speed at which military personnel can identify and destroy targets.

Thiel, a mentor to Luckey, offers an example of how the leaders of the new weapons startup firms differ from the titans of the Cold War era. As a start, he’s all in for Donald Trump. Once upon a time, the heads of major weapons makers like Lockheed Martin tried to keep good ties with both Democrats and Republicans, making substantial campaign contributions to both parties and their candidates and hiring lobbyists with connections on both sides of the aisle. The logic for doing so couldn’t have seemed clearer then. They wanted to cement a bipartisan consensus for spending ever more on the Pentagon, one of the few things most key members of both parties agreed upon. And they also wanted to have particularly good relations with whichever party controlled the White House and/or the Congress at any moment.

The Silicon Valley upstarts and their representatives are also much more vocal in their criticisms of China. They are the coldest (or do I mean hottest?) of the new cold warriors in Washington, employing harsher rhetoric than either the Pentagon or the big contractors. By contrast, the big contractors generally launder their critiques of China and support for wars around the world that have helped pad their bottom lines through think tanks, which they’ve funded to the tune of tens of millions of dollars annually.

Thiel’s main company, Palantir, has also been criticized for providing systems that have enabled harsh border crackdowns by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as well as “predictive policing.” That (you won’t be surprised to learn) involves the collection of vast amounts of personal data without a warrant, relying on algorithms with built-in racial biases that lead to the systematic unfair targeting and treatment of people of color.

To fully grasp how the Silicon Valley militarists view next-generation warfare, you need to check out the work of Christian Brose, Palantir’s chief strategy officer. He was a long-time military reformer and former aide to the late Senator John McCain. His book Kill Chain serves as a bible of sorts for advocates of automated warfare. Its key observation: that the winner in combat is the side that can most effectively shorten the “kill chain” (the time between when a target is identified and destroyed). His book assumes that the most likely adversary in the next tech war will indeed be China, and he proceeds to exaggerate Beijing’s military capabilities while overstating its military ambitions and insisting that outpacing that country in developing emerging military technologies is the only path to future victory.

The Silicon Valley upstarts and their representatives are very vocal in their criticisms of China.

And mind you, Brose’s vision of shortening that kill chain poses immense risks. As the time to decide what actions to take diminishes, the temptation to take humans “out of the loop” will only grow, leaving life-and-death decisions to machines with no moral compass and vulnerable to catastrophic malfunctions of a sort inherent in any complex software system.

Much of Brose’s critique of the current military-industrial complex rings true. A few big firms are getting rich making ever more vulnerable huge weapons platforms like aircraft carriers and tanks, while the Pentagon spends billions on a vast, costly global basing network that could be replaced with a far smaller, more dispersed military footprint. Sadly, though, his alternative vision poses more problems than it solves.

First, there’s no guarantee that the software-driven systems promoted by Silicon Valley will work as advertised. After all, there’s a long history of “miracle weapons” that failed, from the electronic battlefield in Vietnam to President Ronald Reagan’s disastrous Star Wars missile shield. Even when the ability to find and destroy targets more quickly did indeed improve, wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, fought using those very technologies, were dismal failures.

A recent Wall Street Journal investigation suggests that the new generation of military tech is being oversold as well. The Journal found that small top-of-the-line new U.S. drones supplied to Ukraine for its defensive war against Russia have proved far too “glitchy and expensive,” so much so that, irony of ironies, the Ukrainians have opted to buy cheaper, more reliable Chinese drones instead.

Finally, the approach advocated by Brose and his acolytes is going to make war more likely as technological hubris instills a belief that the United States can indeed “beat” a rival nuclear-armed power like China in a conflict, if only we invest in a nimble new high-tech force.

The result, as my colleague Michael Brenes and I pointed out recently, is the untold billions of dollars of private money now pouring into firms seeking to expand the frontiers of techno-war. Estimates range from $6 billion to $33 billion annually and, according to the New York Times$125 billion over the past four yearsWhatever the numbers, the tech sector and its financial backers sense that there are massive amounts of money to be made in next-generation weaponry and aren’t about to let anyone stand in their way.

Meanwhile, an investigation by Eric Lipton of the New York Times found that venture capitalists and startup firms already pushing the pace on AI-driven warfare are also busily hiring ex-military and Pentagon officials to do their bidding. High on that list is former Trump Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Such connections may be driven by patriotic fervor, but a more likely motivation is simply the desire to get rich. As Ellen Lord, former head of acquisition at the Pentagon, noted, “There’s panache now with the ties between the defense community and private equity. But they are also hoping they can cash in big-time and make a ton of money.”

The Philosopher King

Another central figure in the move toward building a high-tech war machine is former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. His interests go far beyond the military sphere. He has become a virtual philosopher king when it comes to how new technology will reshape society and, indeed, what it means to be human. He has been thinking about such issues for some time and laid out his views in a 2021 book modestly entitled The Age of AI and Our Human Futurecoauthored with the late Henry Kissinger. Schmidt is aware of the potential perils of AI, but he’s also at the center of efforts to promote its military applications. Though he forgoes the messianic approach of some up-and-coming Silicon Valley figures, whether his seemingly more thoughtful approach will contribute to the development of a safer, more sensible world of AI weaponry is open to debate.

Let’s start with the most basic thing of all: the degree to which Schmidt thinks that AI will change life as we know it is extraordinary. In the book, he and Kissinger assert that it would spark “the alteration of human identity and the human experience at levels not seen since the dawn of the modern age,” arguing that AI’s “functioning portends progress toward the essence of things, progress that philosophers, theologians and scientists have sought, with partial success, for millennia.”

AI is coming, and its impact on our lives, whether in war or peace, is likely to stagger the imagination.

On the other hand, the government panel on artificial intelligence on which Schmidt served fully acknowledged the risks posed by the military uses of AI. The question remains: Will he, at least, support strong safeguards against its misuse? During his tenure as head of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board from 2017 to 2020, he did help set the stage for Pentagon guidelines on the use of AI that promised humans would always “be in the loop” in launching next-gen weapons. But as a tech industry critic noted, once the rhetoric is stripped away, the guidelines “don’t really prevent you from doing anything.”

In fact, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and other good government advocates questioned whether Schmidt’s role as head of the Defense Innovation Unit represented a conflict of interest. After all, while he was helping shape its guidelines on the military applications of AI, he was also investing in firms that stood to profit from its development and use. His investment entity, America’s Frontier Fund, regularly puts money in military tech startups, and a nonprofit he founded, the Special Competitive Studies Project, describes its mission as to “strengthen America’s long-term competitiveness as artificial intelligence (AI) [reshapes] our national security, economy, and society.” The group is connected to a who’s-who of leaders in the military and the tech industry and is pushing, among other things, for less regulation over military-tech development. In 2023, Schmidt even founded a military drone company, White Stork, which, according to Forbes, has been secretly testing its systems in the Silicon Valley suburb of Menlo Park.

The question now is whether Schmidt can be persuaded to use his considerable influence to rein in the most dangerous uses of AI. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm for using it to enhance warfighting capabilities suggests otherwise:

“Every once in a while, a new weapon, a new technology comes along that changes things. Einstein wrote a letter to Roosevelt in the 1930s saying that there is this new technology — nuclear weapons — that could change war, which it clearly did. I would argue that [AI-powered] autonomy and decentralized, distributed systems are that powerful.”

Given the risks already cited, comparing militarized AI to the development of nuclear weapons shouldn’t exactly be reassuring. The combination of the two — nuclear weapons controlled by automatic systems with no human intervention — has so far been ruled out, but don’t count on that lasting. It’s still a possibility, absent strong, enforceable safeguards on when and how AI can be used.

AI is coming, and its impact on our lives, whether in war or peace, is likely to stagger the imagination. In that context, one thing is clear: we can’t afford to let the people and companies that will profit most from its unbridled application have the upper hand in making the rules for how it should be used.

Isn’t it time to take on the new-age warriors?

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