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A.I. Won’t Transform War. It’ll Only Make Venture Capitalists Richer.

The U.S. government is worried about falling behind in the literal A.I. arms race—and Silicon Valley is cashing in with ludicrous promises.

Palantir co-founder and chairman Peter Thiel holds money
Marco Bello/Getty Images
Palantir co-founder and chairman Peter Thiel at a conference in 2022

Earlier this month, the techno-optimists of the military-industrial complex convened in downtown Washington, D.C., to plot a brave new world of war. At the AI Expo for National Competitiveness, sponsored by defense firm Palantir (of Peter Thiel fame), developers and policymakers heralded artificial intelligence as not only the inescapable future of international conflict but also the savior of mankind. You see, these A.I.-powered weapons of war, which are already in use, will actually save us from global destruction—and anyone who predicts otherwise is the real warmonger. “The peace activists are war activists,” said Palantir CEO Alex Karp, according to The Guardian. “We are the peace activists.” 

The “peace activists” is Karp’s derogatory term for A.I. skeptics, who, as the technology has proliferated from chatbots to the weapons industry, have become understandably worried about its potentially apocalyptic consequences. Foreign policy experts routinely express fears of robot wars, endless wars, and unregulated wars where the ethics and laws of war don’t apply. “The unconstrained development of autonomous weapons could lead to wars that expand beyond human control, with fewer protections for both combatants and civilians,” defense analyst Paul Scharre wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this year. 

These dual perspectives—the faith in A.I. to liberate humans from the battlefield and the fear of a doomsday scenario—have created a lucrative environment for venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, including Palantir. They’re winning significant defense contracts based not only on their rosy promises of a war without human casualties but also on the government’s anxiety about falling behind in the A.I. race among the world’s other major military powers. 

The Department of Defense wants to support a new generation of venture capital start-ups that will purportedly give America a substantial edge over China in an era of “great-power competition.”  The Pentagon believes that the ingenuity of Silicon Valley will give the United States the technological prowess to deter Beijing from taking aggressive action in Taiwan—or the South China Sea—for fear it will be unable to win a potential confrontation with the U.S. 

This notion was promoted most forcefully in a speech that Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks gave last year in front of members of the arms industry’s largest trade group, the National Defense Industrial Association. She took the occasion to announce the Replicator initiative, an ambitious plan to produce a new generation of weapons driven by artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies. The goal is to develop systems that can be produced relatively cheaply and in large quantities, while also being able to be replaced in short order if large numbers are lost in battle.  

There is a seductive logic to this new approach. America’s military arsenal is composed mostly of large weapons platforms like aircraft carriers and F-35 combat aircraft. These systems are expensive, hard to maintain, and difficult to replace without many months, or even years, of work. Major platforms like aircraft carriers are also increasingly vulnerable to next-generation missile systems. Given this reality, the idea of a more cost-effective, dispersed, and replicable set of weapons systems makes sense.

But the Replicator initiative is unlikely to yield such systems. It is just the latest example of how faith in technology can generate false hope in the ability of the Pentagon and the arms industry to produce systems that can actually transform the face of warfare or bestow a decisive advantage to the nation that develops new, “revolutionary” systems first.

Technological optimism is nothing new in U.S. defense planning. From nuclear weapons of the 1950s onward to the “electronic battlefield” in Vietnam, to Ronald Reagan’s dream of an impenetrable Star Wars missile defense shield, to the networked warfare developed as part of the so-called “revolution in military affairs” in the 1990s, U.S. military history is littered with tales of miracle weapons that either didn’t perform as advertised or were ill suited to the wars our military was actually called upon to fight. 

There are strong reasons to think that emerging A.I. military technologies could not only fail to pay off in superior capabilities but actually make the world a more dangerous place. 

On the performance front, a military system built around complex software will be vulnerable to malfunctions or cyberattacks. As longtime military analyst Michael Klare has noted, many experts fear that “AI-enabled systems may fail in unpredictable ways, causing unintended human slaughter or uncontrolled escalation.” The poor performance of small drones built by U.S. tech start-ups in the war in Ukraine could be a cautionary tale about setting unrealistic expectations about the next round of purported miracle systems. An investigation by The Wall Street Journal found that “most small drones from U.S. startups have failed to perform in combat, dashing companies’ hopes that a badge of being battle-tested would bring the startups sales and attention.” 

The second risk is that these technologies will dramatically reduce the “kill chain”—the time from the identification of a target to its destruction. This will put enormous pressure on human operators of these new weapons and could easily lead to the development of robotic systems that operate without human intervention. While the Pentagon has so far ruled out such an approach, the realities of operating these systems in real-life situations may override that restriction.

All of the above suggests that we should proceed with caution before rushing to center the U.S. arsenal on A.I.-driven systems and other emerging technologies. But there is money to be made in going full speed ahead, and that could undermine the U.S. government’s ability to take a deliberate approach to fielding next-generation systems.

As we lay out in a new issue brief for the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a handful of leaders in the venture capital community—including firms like Founders Fund and Andreesen Horowitz—have led the charge to throw billions in investment funds at emerging tech start-up companies. How large these investments are is not entirely clear, but figures cited have ranged from $6 billion to over $100 billion in the past few years alone. And that’s before Saudi Arabia concludes a proposed deal to work with Andreesen Horowitz to invest $40 billion in the A.I. sector, a move that should be carefully scrutinized by Congress and executive branch regulators. 

The new V.C.-funded emerging tech sector is urging the Pentagon to move rapidly to develop and deploy its products, pressing for more funding, and, perhaps more importantly, less rigorous monitoring procedures in the development of military uses for A.I. and other new technologies. And, as The New York Times has reported, Silicon Valley defense producers and funders are adopting traditional lobbying methods to get their way, including the hiring of large numbers of former military officers and senior government officials to go to bat for them in Washington. There is a danger that the growing power of military-oriented V.C. firms and the companies they support will succeed in accelerating the process of integrating emerging technologies into the U.S. military without adequate safeguards, to the detriment of our safety and security.

If we want to head off a profit-driven rush toward a dangerous new technological arms race, it will be up to interested members of Congress, working with the Biden administration, to craft concrete proposals and regulations to manage the role of private money in the development of emerging military technologies, including ensuring that the growing political clout of these new arms profiteers doesn’t distort policy outcomes. For starters, this should mean the revival of the Office of Technology Assessment, which provided crucial advice to lawmakers on the budgetary and security implications of new inventions until it was eliminated as part of the “Gingrich revolution” of the 1990s. 

More transparency about who is investing in this sector should also be part of a new regulatory framework. And it is essential that the revolving door between government and the arms industry be more strictly regulated, through measures like longer “cooling off” periods before government officials are allowed to lobby for weapons firms, and the elimination of loopholes that allow too many ex-government officials to avoid revolving-door strictures by adopting misleading titles like “strategic adviser.”  

The goal of these efforts should be twofold: preventing a new wave of corruption and shoddy work enabled by a headlong rush to deploy new systems without adequate safeguards; and carefully assessing the strategic benefits and dangers of militarized A.I. and other emerging tech, with an eye toward limiting or prohibiting the deployment of certain technologies if the risks outweigh any potential gains.

There is no doubt that A.I. is a prominent feature of modern warfare, one that poses risks and dangers to global security. But it is unlikely that A.I. will transform the landscape of war anytime soon. Terminator-style wars are not on the horizon. In the meantime, venture capitalists will continue to seek profits from untested technology that may pose dire consequences to humanity.