DARPA Chief Touts Artificial Intelligence Efforts

Assertions push back on private sector worries about lagging behind

The head of the Pentagon's top research section says the United States is competitive when it comes to artificial intelligence research and development. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The United States is no laggard on investment and advances in artificial intelligence technologies, Steven Walker, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, told reporters on Thursday, disputing assertions by top U.S. technology executives that China was racing ahead.

“I think I’d put our AI, our country’s efforts, up against anybody,” Walker said at an event hosted by the Defense Writers Group. DARPA “helped create the field in the early 1960s” and since then has consistently invested in the three waves of artificial intelligence technologies, Walker said.

DARPA is “investing pretty heavily” in so-called third-wave AI systems, where machines understand the context and the environment in which they operate and are able to explain their reasoning and decision making to human operators, Walker said. “These are very nascent efforts but they’re going to be important if you want the warfighter to trust the machine and help him or her make decisions.”

Walker’s assertions of U.S. strengths in AI come as Eric Schmidt, CEO of Alphabet, the parent of Google, has been warning in recent weeks about China overtaking the United States in artificial intelligence-enabled technologies across the board. At a Washington event in November, Schmidt said that the United States’ edge in the field could be quickly eclipsed by Beijing, which has announced a goal of becoming a global leader in AI by 2030.

The first wave of artificial intelligence refers to strictly rules-based efforts by machines to mimic human thinking such as playing chess or computing taxes. The second wave refers to pattern recognition where computers learn to identify objects and patterns after being trained on extremely large data sets of images.

Walker said the second-wave technologies that are already in use, such as facial recognition technologies or image processing of drone video by the U.S. military, are still brittle and can be easily tricked. “If you put new data into the database they’ll start to fail,” Walker said, adding that DARPA was investing in technologies to make such pattern-recognition systems more robust.

Second-wave AI technologies are also being applied on the battlefield, allowing computers to control the use of the electro-magnetic spectrum, Walker said.

Walker became director of the agency in November after previously serving as its deputy director for about four years. The agency is seeking a budget of $3.44 billion in fiscal 2019, an increase of 8.5 percent compared with its request for fiscal 2018.

The request includes a big boost to advancing hypersonic missiles that are capable of flying at more than five times the speed of sound, Walker said.

DARPA’s budget request 2019 includes $256.7 million for hypersonic missile development, a 136 percent increase compared to its fiscal 2018 request, DARPA spokesman Jared Adams said. In fiscal 2018, the agency sought $108.6 million, which was a 27 percent increase over the previous year.

Walker said DARPA officials met with former Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work last year to convince him and other Pentagon officials that “we need a national initiative in hypersonics,” and “pushed for a comprehensive initiative” in this year’s budget proposal.

Developing hypersonic, air-launched weapons is a top priority for the agency, Walker said. Working with Air Force research labs, the agency will start flight demonstrations in 2019, he said. DARPA also is working with the Army and Navy to develop their respective hypersonic missile programs, Walker said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that his country’s armed forces already have hypersonic weapons and on Thursday declared that Russia’s long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles also are hypersonic-capable and can defeat U.S. missile defense systems.

China also has said it is developing hypersonic weapons and in recent months has claimed to have tested high-speed missiles that can overcome U.S. theater missile defense systems deployed in the region.

Walker said the agency also is focusing on technologies to take on future counterinsurgency missions.

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In addition, DARPA is working on technologies related to information warfare, Walker said. It’s an area that many U.S. military experts say Washington needs to advance in light of Russia meddling in the 2016 elections.

The research agency also is developing technologies that can help U.S. troops fight in congested urban environments where adversaries may not necessarily operate above ground, Walker said. DARPA has a program called “the subterranean challenge” to develop technologies that can do three-dimensional assessments of urban terrain and detect buried tunnels and caves where adversaries may be hiding, he said

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