Intelligence Director Coats sees ‘Great Leap’ for AI and Warfare

Dan Coats is the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, so his primary concern is the world’s state of war and security as it exists today. Tomorrow’s military and security issues, however, were on his mind during a recent visit to Purdue University.

Coats, a former U.S. senator and House of Representatives member from Indiana, appeared on campus May 14 as part of the University’s Dan CoatsSymposium on Ethics, Technology and the Future of War and Security. The day’s events, including Coats’ keynote, focused on the national security challenges posed by rapid advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and other emerging technologies.

The daylong symposium was an Ideas Festival event, hosted by Discovery Park and the Purdue Policy Research Institute, that asked the question, “What IF artificial intelligence wages war?” Ideas Festival events, which connect world-renowned speakers with Purdue expertise in a conversation on the most critical problems facing the world, form the centerpiece of Purdue’s Giant Leaps sesquicentennial campaign.

While much of the symposium was about the diverse implications of using AI on the physical battlefield, much of Coats’ focus was on the idea that AI can be used as a weapon in a global information war.

“We believe our abilities to collect and analyze intelligence data are unsurpassed by any ally or adversary. But our collection of data has improved so much over the years that we continue to be challenged in our ability to actually process this data, analyze it and derive meaning from it for our policymakers. We run the risk of simply being buried by all of it,” Coats said. “Harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning, in terms of processing all this data, is a revolutionary capability that will allow our analysts to produce the most relevant intelligence and give us a huge advantage as we make our decisions.”

Discovery Park vice president Tomás Díaz de la Rubia spearheaded the symposium’s organization and was among the 12 Purdue experts who took part in the event.

“It was an honor to include Director Coats as a keynote for this very important and timely discussion,” de la Rubia said. “Being able to harness our rapidly expanding technological capabilities effectively, in consideration of their implications holistically, is crucial to defense and security. We heard this clearly in his talk and thematically through the entire event.”

Coats: ‘A Leap Forward’

Appearing at the Buchanan Club in Ross-Ade Stadium, Coats spoke for 20 minutes and then sat for a brief fireside chat with Purdue President Mitch Daniels. Coats addressed the future of AI in security and warfare, while also praising Purdue, its ambitious campaign and the example it sets among private-sector and academic institutions to excel and innovate.150 Giant Leaps IF Dan Coats Mitch Daniels

Referring to both Purdue and the development of AI technology for national defense, Coats said, “I’m familiar with this university and your great leap forward. We have a leap forward of our own that we’re trying to put in place.”

Using reports of outside interference in recent U.S. elections as an example, Coats revealed the ethical implications of AI usage in international relations, global politics and war.

“We are not alone in working on this challenge. As we saw in 2016 and 2018, some of our greatest adversaries are already using artificial intelligence and learning machines to focus foreign-influence campaigns against the American people and the electoral processes,” Coats said. “Whether it’s against foreign influence campaigns or different kinds of influence, we are making great strides in extracting every bit of performance from our capabilities, always pushing the envelope for advanced capabilities. But this awesome ability to collect information on the scale we’re talking about comes with awesome responsibilities.”

Coats emphasized the importance of collaboration between government agencies, private-sector companies and academic institutions in developing AI and machine-learning technologies as the country strives to thwart global adversaries in this emerging area of warfare.

“We are making a concerted effort to reach out to the private sector, including the academic sector, and that brings in, of course, Purdue University,” he said. “I can’t think of a better place for us to take our leap and put together a bright, agile workforce than here at Purdue University. Some universities are (contributing) and there are some that are not, that we wish would give us the ability to work with them to maintain that balance point between privacy and keeping our people safe. Many universities understand that’s necessary — Purdue is one of them.”

Liberal Democracy on the Defensive

Coats then broadened his focus. Saying that U.S. intelligence was being “transformed” by AI, and that this transformation had ethics “embedded” in it, he claimed that the future of liberal democracy was at stake.

“Today, we are witnessing a liberal order, unfortunately, that is eroding. Autocratic states and stateless groups are employing new technologies, together with old technologies, to expand their reach and take aim at individual liberty,” Coats said. “Liberal democracy is on the defensive. The liberal world order is facing growing challenges from authoritarian regimes, human ingenuity and innovations that are producing technological advances that are revolutionary. As individuals, as a nation and among partners that share our liberal values, we are either striving forward toward something better or falling toward something worse. “Regardless of what may transpire, or all of the troubling churning of events in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, I regularly remind our intelligence community that our purpose and our mission is to seek the truth and to speak the truth.”

In a question-and-answer session that followed his speech, Coats was asked about his statement regarding the erosion of global order so soon after liberal democracy seemed to emerge from the Cold War as strong as ever.

“We’re getting a little nostalgic about the Cold War. As we look around the world at what’s happening today — the diversity of threats, the breakdown of rule of law and all the things that I have mentioned — it almost wants us to take back to the Cold War, where we thought there was a fine line between dividing the good guys from the bad guys. We don’t see that anymore,” Coats said.

“People always say, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ It is the fact that the marriage between a perverted theology and ideology that we see with these jihadist movements, the marriage of that with weapons of mass destruction. Had the planes that went into the Twin Towers and killed 3,000 people in New York (on Sept. 11, 2001) had a radiological bomb or a nuclear weapon or a biochemical ability to spread or start a pandemic, we would have been talking about 3 million or more casualties. So, I think that is a risk coming from ungoverned states, loosely governed states, wrongly governed states or non-state entities and others that have been allowed to flourish or grow and provide major threats to us and our way of life.”

‘Algorithmic’ Warfare

Coats’ appearance was the highlight of a day full of speeches and panel discussions featuring thought leaders, practitioners and stakeholders from government, industry and academia. Rosalee Clawson, interim director of the PPRI and an event organizer, served as one of the panelists.

“Artificial intelligence and autonomous technology are developing at an ever-increasing pace,” Clawson said. “It is critical to understand the ethical, legal and social implications of these tech advances now. This Ideas Festival event brought together experts from a range of perspectives to examine the ethics of future war and security.”

Other keynote speakers included Heather Roff, a Brookings Institute fellow; Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security; strategist P.W. Singer of the think tank New America; and Robert Work, a former deputy secretary of defense at the U.S. Department of Defense.

Many critical questions were addressed during the free event, including:

  • Will wars become more humane?
  • What needs to be done to keep the human decision-making element alive?
  • Will future enemies comply with a similar set of moral standards as us?

Work, who served in his Department of Defense role from 2014-17, spoke just before Coats and touched on many of these topics. In short, he described the development of AI and machine learning for future conflicts as “algorithmic.”

These algorithmic systems, Work said, represent the next step in the development of increasingly “determinate” arms systems. Unguided, indeterminate bombs evolved into guided bombs, which — thanks to ever-increasing machine learning capabilities — will give way to algorithmic arms that improve human decision-making on the battlefield.

“We think it’s more ethical. It would lead to less loss of life,” Work said. “Events like this are good. The debate is good. The DOD welcomes this discussion because we believe we have the time to get it right.”

Gathering Input

An essay contest also was part of the symposium, and Purdue graduate student Muriel Eaton was among the winners. A doctoral student from Leawood, Kansas, who is studying medicinal chemistry and molecular pharmacology, she also is interested in military history as well as the cultural implications of AI usage in warfare.

“I’m on the medicine side of things but I’m also interested in science policy. Specifically, because I’m on the medical side of things, my essay talked about the idea of removing the physical aspects from war — eliminating the pain and the psychology effects of war,” Eaton said. “The event as a whole, it was really interesting to see the sides of everyone from every different discipline, especially director Coats, who’s trying to get input from this whole diverse community.”

For those interested in viewing the symposium in its entirety, it is available through YouTube.

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