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CIA: Understanding Tech’s Battlefield Potential Needs ‘Humility’

Geopolitical hotspots are reshaping how government is approaching issues in innovation, technology and war.

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Sgt. Sabrina Moore pilots a Common Robotics System-Individual (CRS-I) to place a ball on top of a safety cone. Photo Credit: USASA Fort Dix Training Division/DVIDS

Geopolitical hotspots and innovative technologies on the battlefield requires U.S. leadership to rethink its position on the world stage and how it will innovate to stay ahead of adversaries, government leaders said at the 2024 AI Expo for National Competitiveness last week.

CIA Deputy Director David Cohen said that today’s climate is “transformative, … is a fraught, somewhat fractious world, but one where I think there is promise. A bunch of the promise comes from technology. Since the end of the Cold War, we are now in a phase where the United States is not the only big kid on the geostrategic block anymore. It is more contested. It is more complicated.”

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said that robotics will become a prevalent emerging technology in use by the military within the next decade.

“You’re going to see within 10 to 15 years about a third of the U.S. military is going to be robotic, sailing ships, pilotless aircraft, crewless tanks,” Milley said. “The big one, which is coming to a theater near us really fast, is the ability to go through the observe, orient, decide and act loop, and to make these things autonomous through the use of artificial intelligence and to crunch massive amounts of data to software faster relative than your enemy. That’s going to be potentially decisive.”

While technology like autonomous vehicles have the potential to be game-changing on the battlefield, Cohen warned that no amount of technology could ever fully protect humans. He added that people must be “humble” in assessing tech’s potential.

“As we think about technology in the world today, particularly technology and intelligence, we do need to have a little bit of humility about where and what technology can do and where it’s going in order to protect us,” Cohen said.

Eric Schmidt, chair of the Special Competitive Studies Project, said innovation combines the savvy use of technology, military power and ingenuity. As an example, Schmidt pointed to the ways Ukraine adapted to Russia’s invasion of the country.

“The rate of innovation is like nothing I’ve ever seen in my work in tech because people’s lives are at stake,” Schmidt said. “All of this proves that war is the crucible for innovation. The ultimate judge, in my view, will be the country that uses its mass and power innovation together.”

Alex Karp, co-founder and CEO of Palantir, said innovation and collaboration with the government can only happen once Silicon Valley fully embraces working with the U.S. military and government.

“One of the most important things large institutions of any kind can do is develop taste around tech people. Some of those people you don’t like will save your lives,” Karp said. “We’re entering an environment where likability is just not the relevant category, and we have to accept that and learn to like the person who’s saving your life.”

Cohen said that on its side, agencies like the CIA are looking to work with industry more as the onus of innovation shifts away from historical power centers like government and onto private companies.

“One of the things that we’ve been leaning in hard to do is expand our relationships with the tech sector. We have seen a much more welcoming environment,” Cohen said. “The balance [of American innovation] has shifted dramatically to the private sector. For us to be able to continue to have access to leading-edge technology is going to require us to be even more engaged with the private sector.”

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