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Pentagon examining the ‘killer robot’ threat

The unmanned aircraft system Predator B in a hangar in Grand Forks, N.D. Tim Gruber/The New York Times

The Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian official said Wednesday that the Defense Department is concerned that adversary nations could empower advanced weapons systems to act on their own, noting that while the United States will not give them the authority to kill autonomously, other countries might.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said the Pentagon hasn’t ‘‘fully figured out’’ the issue of autonomous machines, but continues to examine it. The US military has built a force that relies heavily on the decision-making skills of its troops, but ‘‘authoritarian regimes’’ may find weapons that can act independently more attractive because it consolidates the ability to take action among a handful of leaders, he said.


‘‘We will not delegate lethal authority to a machine to make a decision,’’ Work said. ‘‘The only time we will . . . delegate a machine authority is in things that go faster than human reaction time, like cyber or electronic warfare.’’

Work’s comments came at an event at The Washington Post hosted by columnist David Ignatius. Work said the United States is likely to narrowly use artificial intelligence in the next five to 10 years, pointing, for instance, to self-parking vehicles.

The event focused heavily on how the Pentagon is preparing for the future through what it calls a Third Offset Strategy, in which the military is seeking to counter the military advances of adversaries. The concept gets its name from two earlier ‘‘offsets.’’ In the first, the Pentagon developed tactical nuclear weapons during the Cold War. In the second, the military introduced the use of GPS to precisely guide a variety of bombs and missiles on the battlefield.

The Third Offset Strategy focuses on the introduction of machine learning — networks of machines that work together and the distribution of military force through the use of drone swarms and other technologies. Work said Wednesday that it means the Pentagon will not try to match its adversaries ‘‘tank-for-tank, gun-for-gun, missile-for-missile, person-for-person,’’ and instead will offset enemy strengths in other ways.


‘‘This is a much more dynamic strategy than we had in the Cold War,’’ Work said. ‘‘Then we had one, single opponent. It was a very stable competition, and we kind of understood the way they were going. We knew the areas where we could pick where we would dominate the competition, like in information technologies and precision-guided munitions. This is [a] much more dynamic environment in which a lot of military-relevant technologies are coming from the commercial sector.’’

Asked if the Pentagon needs to prepare for robot warfare, Work said the United States must begin working its ‘‘strategic muscles’’ more than it has in the last 25 years because of the emergence of China and Russia as threats. Part of that is disclosing new military capabilities to give potential enemies pause, he said. One recent example is the public emergence of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, which had worked mostly in the shadows since it was established in 2012. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter wants it to invent new ways to use old weapons, such as having fighter jets, while in flight, deploy drone swarms.

‘‘We will reveal for deterrence, and we will conceal for war-fighting advantage,’’ Work said. ‘‘There are a lot of things in the budget that we don’t talk about because we want to preserve that in case, God forbid, deterrence fails and we do come to a conflict of arms.’’