BALTIMORE — Generative artificial intelligence, software capable of carrying a convincing, human-like conversation or crafting content like computer code with little prompting, will make hackers more sophisticated, ultimately raising the bar for U.S. safeguards, according to the leader of the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Director Lt. Gen. Robert Skinner said the technology is one of the most disruptive developments he’s seen in a long time, and has serious security implications. A similar warning was issued by the National Security Agency’s cybersecurity boss, Rob Joyce, earlier this year.

“Those who harness that, and can understand how to best leverage it, but also how to best protect against it, are going to be the ones who have the high ground,” Skinner said May 2 at the AFCEA TechNet Cyber conference in Baltimore. “We in this room are thinking about how this applies to cybersecurity. How does it apply to intelligence? How does it apply to our warfighting capabilities?”

Generative AI in recent months was popularized by OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which accrued more than 1 million users within a week of its launch. Sam Altman, OpenAI’s CEO, in March told ABC News he worries about how these models could be used for widespread disinformation and “could be used for offensive cyberattacks.”

Skinner on Tuesday predicted generative AI would not be a significant tool for “high-end adversaries.” Rather, the tech “is going to help a whole bunch of other individuals get up to that level in a much faster manner.”

“So how do we have the protective systems, the security and the network capabilities to support protecting that data and support our folks?” he said.

The U.S. considers China and Russia top-tier threats in the virtual world. Other foes include Iran and North Korea, according to the Biden administration’s cybersecurity strategy, which promised the use of all instruments of national power to fend off cyber misbehavior.

Mastery of AI is thought key to enduring international competitiveness in defense, finance and other sectors. At least 685 AI projects, including several tied to major weapons systems, were underway at the Pentagon as of early 2021, the latest public tally.

DISA added generative AI to its tech watch list this fiscal year. The inventory of cutting-edge topics and gear, refreshed every six months or so, in the past featured 5G, edge computing and telepresence.

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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