U.S. Plans to Expand Drone Fleet The Pentagon has a $1.8 billion AI budget for 2024.

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An unpiloted drone flies over fields and mountains

The United States military aims to field a multitude of autonomous vehicles.

What’s new: The Department of Defense announced an initiative to develop autonomous systems for surveillance, defense, logistics, and other purposes, The Wall Street Journal reported. The department aims to deploy several thousands of such systems within 18 to 24 months, a timeline motivated by rapid drone development by China.

How it works: The Pentagon shared details about a program called Replicator that it had announced in August.

  • Replicator will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The Pentagon requested a total of $1.8 billion for AI in its 2024 defense budget.
  • Defense Department officials will consult with military personnel and determine a list of initial investments by year’s end. The program may build swarms of surveillance drones that gather information in the air, on land, and at sea. Other products could include ground-based logistics and automated missile defense.
  • These products are intended as stepping stones to more capable systems. The military might use them for three to five years before upgrading.
  • The program follows previous initiatives including Task Force 59, which deployed a network of sensors and surveillance systems in the waters off Iran, and Sea Hunter, an autonomous ship developed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Behind the news: The U.S. is not alone in pursuing autonomous military applications. The Russian invasion of Ukraine spurred a homegrown Ukrainian drone industry and encouraged government and independent researchers to harness face recognition systems for identifying combatants. China is developing autonomous ships designed to carry fleets of air, surface, and submarine drones.

Why it matters: Replicator marks a significant, very public escalation of military AI. Other nations are certain to follow suit.

We’re thinking: We’re concerned about the potential for an international AI arms race, and we support the United Nations’ proposed ban on fully autonomous weapons. Yet the unfortunate state of the world is that many countries — even large, wealthy democracies — have little choice but to invest in defenses against aggressors both actual and potential. The ethics of military AI aren’t simple. We call on the AI community to help ensure that they encourage a safer and more democratic world.


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