Pentagon updates autonomous weapons policy to account for AI advances

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s policy shop released updated guidelines for developing and operating autonomous weapons that incorporates the Defense Department’s vision for ethical artificial intelligence and requires additional reviews for new systems.

The Autonomy in Weapon Systems policy directive was originally issued in 2012, setting guidelines and responsibilities for developing, testing and using these systems. The department’s Director of Emerging Capabilities Policy Michael Horowitz told reporters in a Jan. 25 call that after a decade, the document was due for an update.

While describing the changes as “relatively minor clarifications and refinements,” he said they offer a level of transparency about the department’s use of autonomy and its processes for making sure the technology is used responsibly.

“One of the biggest things that the document now accounts for is the dramatic, expanded vision for the role of artificial intelligence in the future of the American military,” Horowitz said.

DoD is prioritizing AI investments, particularly in light of China’s goal to be the world leader in this area by 2030. The department released its Responsible Artificial Intelligence Strategy and Implementation Pathway framework last summer, detailing its plan to mitigate the effect of unintended consequences that could arise as AI plays a greater role in military technologies. The document focuses on building trust between human decision-makers and AI systems.

Horowitz said the update ensures that DoD’s policy for developing systems that incorporate AI is aligned with that strategy and reflects the department’s commitment to developing responsible systems. He noted that the update doesn’t prohibit certain autonomous capabilities, but instead dictates that new systems undergo a comprehensive testing and review process.

The update also directs the creation of an autonomous weapons system working group. Chaired by the undersecretary of defense for policy, the group will advise senior DoD leaders as they consider approving new systems and serve as a resource if issues arise, Horowitz said.

“Our belief is that the creation of this working group will facilitate the safe and responsible pursuit of autonomous weapon systems,” he said.

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