war on the rocks

In Search of Ideas: The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence Wants You

July 18, 2019

Americans don’t want to grow old wondering what happened to their country’s place in the world. U.S. global leadership has fostered international institutions, strengthened human rights in international relations, and helped make what President Woodrow Wilson sought more than a century ago: a world “safe for democracy.” But Americans should not take those features of the global order for granted.

After a briefer-than-expected period of unchallenged power and two longer-than-expected unconventional wars, the United States once again finds itself facing state actors with the potential to match its power and ideologies and interests in conflict with its own. Whether or not that results in a new Cold War or a different type of peace remains to be seen. In either case, as with previous competitions, emerging technology will likely play a prominent role.

Artificial intelligence, or AI, has emerged as one of the most important technologies for national security. America’s level of AI competence will affect almost every aspect of American life, from developing more effective ways to educate the people to changing the way we earn wages to defending against cyber-attacks and on the battlefield.

The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, which we co-chair, is an independent federal commission helping the United States government determine what actions to take to ensure America’s national security enterprise has the tools it needs to maintain U.S. global leadership. The commission includes four working groups and three special projects. The working groups focus on maintaining U.S. global leadership in AI research, sustaining global leadership in national security AI applications, preparing the national security workforce for an AI future, and ensuring international cooperation and competitiveness in AI. The three special projects address ethics, data, and public-private partnerships. We will produce two reports to Congress, both intended to elevate awareness and to inform better legislation.

The commission speaks with diverse groups, but we want to have as wide an aperture as possible. We need to hear original, creative ideas that challenge the status quo, shake our assumptions, and will cause us to reconsider the arguments we’ve already heard and hear new arguments in a different light. As with previous War on the Rocks calls for articles, we want detailed, realistic papers from qualified voices, but welcome radical ideas and recommendations. To reinforce how serious we are about hearing from new voices, we guarantee the commission staff will read every article published in this series, and that the authors of at least two papers will have the opportunity to speak directly to the commissioners about their papers and other topics.

With the above in mind, please address one of the following prompts. Normal War on the Rocks submissions guidelines apply, and please identify which prompt you are addressing:

1. One of the commission’s challenges is finding or creating a coherent vision of the future of war and competition, then understanding AI’s role in both. While there’s a lot of conversation about what AI can and will be able to do, most of that conversation is either too abstract or too narrowly technical. With that in mind, consider the following:

(a) How will artificial intelligence affect the character and/or the nature of war? Is AI different than technology developed in the past, and how does the current narrative around AI in war differ from the conversation about the revolution in military affairs after Operation Desert Storm? How will AI impact strategic rivalry, including competition below the threshold of armed conflict?

(b) What might happen if the United States fails to develop robust AI capabilities that address national security issues? Feel free to make arguments, write a descriptive essay, or to tell a short story.

2. Beyond warfare, the American government needs to understand what capabilities it needs to develop and how it should best pursue them. With that in mind, consider the following:

(a) What military and nonmilitary AI capabilities should the U.S. federal government develop to protect American interests? Should different parts of the government develop different capabilities?

(b) What types of AI expertise and skill sets does the national security workforce need? How should the government go about hiring and managing qualified people, and how many of the qualified people should be in uniform, government civilians, or contractors? How might the government create its own AI workforce?

3. We need to know what capabilities we would like to develop, but we also need to consider how institutions, organizational structures, and infrastructure will affect the development and adoption of AI. With that in mind, please consider the following:

(a) What types of artificial intelligence research should the national security community focus on more (or in better ways) than it currently does? Will doing so require the development of new institutions or changes to existing institutions? How should the government, academia, and the private sector work together for research and development?

(b) What type of infrastructure does the United States need to build to sustain leadership in artificial intelligence? Who should create it, how should they create it, and what are the obstacles to doing so? Are there any ethical concerns? How can this be done in ways that complement or leverage other initiatives in cyber, space, computing, and nanotechnology (among others)?

(c) What acquisition and application processes need to change to allow the government to address the AI national security and defense needs of the United States?

(d) What types of data would be most beneficial for developing applications and tools for national security? How should that data be collected, stored, protected, and shared? What ethical and security concerns does this raise?

4. Earlier, we referenced America’s history of global leadership. Part of maintaining that role may include helping establish norms about emerging technology. With that in mind, consider the following:

(a) What international norms for artificial intelligence should the United States lead in developing? Is it possible to create mechanisms for the development and enforcement of AI norms?

(b) Given that many nations around the world are pursuing the development of artificial intelligence systems and capabilities, should the United States pursue entanglement or disentanglement with adversaries when it comes to artificial intelligence? On what issues? What would this look like? What mechanisms could the United States use to minimize the risk of either approach? Is the dichotomy false? If so, what are the alternatives?

5. Congress and the national security community shouldn’t try to tackle challenges related to AI on their own. Success will almost certainly rely on the population’s support and the private sector’s involvement. With that in mind, consider the following:

(a) To what extent can the federal government rely on the private sector to develop its AI capabilities? What capabilities should the government develop internally?

(b) Is it important to educate government leaders about artificial intelligence? Which government leaders should be educated, how should they be educated, and what are the benefits of doing so and consequences of failing to do so?

(c) What are approaches for educating U.S. citizens and the workforce for a future in which AI is increasingly prevalent — and likely disruptive to norms, institutions, and expectations?

(d) What measures should the government take to ensure AI systems for national security are trusted — by the public, end users, strategic decision-makers, and/or allies?

The commission will submit its report to Congress, the executive branch, and the American people. Send us your ideas!


Dr. Eric Schmidt is the chair of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence and the former CEO and chairman of Alphabet.

Robert O. Work is the vice-chair of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence and the former Deputy Secretary of Defense.

Image: Mike MacKenzie, www.vpnsrus.com, CC