The Challenges and Possibilities of AI in Naval Applications

Cryptologic Technician (Technical) 2nd Class Jonathan Morel, assigned to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Michael Murphy (DDG 112), uses a radar tracking system to track surface contacts. The Navy is refocusing efforts to develop and d

Published Nov 13, 2019 1:37 PM by Navy Live

At a U.S. Naval War College conference in late October, a group of defense experts examined key concerns about the use of AI in naval applications. Who is accountable when an autonomous warship fires its weapons? What are the nation’s adversaries working on today, and how can the U.S. compete?

In the keynote speech, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work told the group that he is concerned that when discussing AI, military leaders are becoming “enthralled by the technology and technologists.” Work also suggested ways to get at what’s been described as a widening gap between U.S. application of artificial intelligence and that of China. Work said a centralized effort - such as a bureau of autonomy or an advanced technology panel - is probably called for.“You are never going to do this by decentralizing innovation. You are never going to get urgent change at significant scale,” Work said.

Sam Tangredi, the director of the Institute for Future Warfare Studies and the conference's organizer, said past history shows that people get excited about a new technology well before it is ready for use. “If you read any of our professional journals, you read articles that say, ‘Whoever has AI is going to rule the world! Legacy systems are dead!’“ Tangredi said. “I think we are heading toward the Department of Defense and others starting to realize that this might not be so easy. It’s going to be hard to apply." He charged the group with helping the Defense Department recognize that artificial intelligence holds great promise but, “there’s a lot of hard work before it actually has practical applications.”

In a panel discussion on applying artificial intelligence to warfighting, Lt. Cmdr. Connor McLemore suggested that automation of weapons or navigation systems will become necessary for the United States to compete in complicated scenarios. “The real question to me is, who is going to be accountable for the consequences of the actions of these AI systems?” said McLemore, an E-2C naval flight officer. He said the likely answer is that a person who understands the system will need to remain “in the loop” for accountability.

“Another tension here is, if you have an opponent who is using AI systems, then if you slow or simplify your systems to make them understandable (to human decision-makers,) the opponent may gain an advantage against you," McLemore added. Some situations may favor what he described as “unrestrained AI" - automation that is allowed to make decisions faster than a human can follow in real time. “If you are in a situation where maybe things are going south, and the humans have lost situational awareness, depending on the operational environment, maybe you want unrestrained AI, but you know that you are not going to be competitive otherwise,” he said.

This article appears courtesy of U.S. Navy news and is published here in edited form. The original may be found here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.