WASHINGTON — Artificial intelligence and related digital tools can help warn of natural disasters, combat global warming and fast-track humanitarian aid, according to retired Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, a onetime Trump administration national security adviser.

It can also help preempt fights, highlight incoming attacks and expose weaknesses the world over, he said May 17 at the Nexus 22 symposium.

The U.S. must “identify aggression early to deter it,” McMaster told attendees of the daylong event focused on autonomy, AI and the defense policy that underpins it. “This applies to our inability to deter conflict in Ukraine, but also the need to deter conflict in other areas, like Taiwan. And, of course, we have to be able to respond to it quickly and to maintain situational understanding, identify patterns of adversary and enemy activity, and perhaps more importantly, to anticipate pattern breaks.”

Specific applications of AI, McMaster said, include “early warning of hostile actions by enemies and adversaries who possess long-range missile and rocket capabilities,” such as Russia or China. The capability “also applies to North Korea and Iran,” he continued. “It applies to Houthi rebels in Yemen, to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, or Hamas in Gaza.”

The Department of Defense recognizes the importance of AI and considers it a modernization priority. The 2018 AI strategy, for example, hailed the technology as revolutionary to both national defense and economic security.

Allowing foreign competitors to get ahead, then, presents grave risks, according to lawmakers.

“We’ve seen the national report on artificial intelligence that says China absolutely is making the investments to surpass us,” Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican, said in another speech at the event. “That will not only change the way we conduct ourselves in society and our economy, but certainly in warfare. I’m very concerned about that.”

The Pentagon’s unclassified spending on AI and autonomy more than quadrupled to $2.5 billion in fiscal year 2021 from about $600 million in fiscal 2016, according to the Congressional Research Service. The DoD in fiscal 2023 sought a record $130.1 billion research, development and testing fund, and in related documents touted the creation of the chief digital and AI office.

As of April 2021, the Pentagon was handling at least 685 artificial intelligence projects, including a handful for major weapons systems. The full extent of the portfolio is not clear, as some ventures are shielded from public eyes and AI is often a piece of larger programs.

“The exponential growth we’re seeing in data is already contributing to security, defense, economic development and a range of efforts, from the reduction of carbon emissions to natural disaster response,” McMaster said. Seizing on the opportunities presented by AI, analytics and information sharing, he added, can help overcome “some of the most critical challenges we are facing, and help us build a better future.”

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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