A.I. To Make US War Drones Deadlier, Less Accountable

The Pentagon's new 'algorithmic warfare' unit will use machine learning to sift through countless hours of aerial drone footage

Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
May 19, 2017 at 11:28 AM ET

U.S. military drones are already infamous for their widespread use — and for the number of civilians who have been killed in the hunt for enemy targets. Now, they’re about to become even more efficient at hunting humans — thanks to machine learning.

Under an initiative called Project Maven, the Pentagon has created a dedicated “algorithmic warfare” unit, which aims to use AI and machine learning to “turn the enormous volume of data available to DoD into actionable intelligence and insights at speed,” according to a memo written in April by Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work.

The unit — officially called the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team — will be tasked with implementing machine learning algorithms that sift through countless hours of aerial video gathered by aerial drones, providing automated “object detection, classification, and alerts” for human analysts on the ground. That means potentially freeing up analysts who would normally be left to watch drone cameras and manually review footage for hours at a time.

“We have to tackle the problem a different way. We’re not going to solve it by throwing more people at the problem. That’s the last thing that we actually want to do,” Air Force Lt. Gen. John N.T. Shanahan, who is heading the unit, told Defense One.

The effort seems to be an attempt by the military to catch up with commercial computer visions systems, many of which are capable of detecting faces and objects in real-time. Axon, the police tech company formerly known as Taser, recently announced plans to add automated analysis capabilities to its cloud-based police body cameras, allowing recognize people or objects that come into the officer’s view.

But further automating drone operations will undoubtedly raise concerns by human rights advocates. U.S. drone operations expanded exponentially under President Obama and have killed thousands of civilians, frequently choosing targets without knowing who it is they’re killing. In March, the Trump administration opened the way for even more civilian deaths by eliminating Obama-era drone rules that previously required “near certainty” that innocents would not be killed before a strike could take place.