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Pentagon Eyes Deep Machine Learning in Fight Against ISIS

During a recent talk in Washington, D.C., Pentagon Deputy Secretary Robert Work said that the use of deep learning machines will allow for a better understanding of ISIS as a network — and how to target it precisely and lead to its defeat.

There is huge potential for deep machine learning to become a valuable asset in the intelligence gathering space, according to Pentagon Deputy Secretary Robert Work — it could ultimately allow U.S. forces to get an edge in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, ISIL, IS) by providing greater insights into their networks and practices.   

Work made the statement during a roughly hour-long talk called Securing Tomorrow, held March 30 by the Washington Post, where he addressed some of the threat concerns facing the United States and the strategy the Department of Defense is deploying to overcome them.

Moderated by Post columnist David Ignatius, the discussion also focused on how the behemoth agency is approaching new technologies and the perceived threats being seen from top international competitors, like Russia and China.

“Without question, we are absolutely certain, that the use of deep learning machines is going to allow us to have a better understanding of ISIS as a network and a better understanding of how we can target it precisely and lead to its defeat.”

The evaluative capabilities and intelligence gathering promise of deep machine learning, Work said, has already shown great potential through the use of publicly available materials on social media, which paint a clearer picture of the events surrounding the downing of Malaysian passenger airliner MH17. 

Work said a private company was able to use the technology to pull a vast array of public images from social media feeds to effectively reconstruct the controversial incident. Ignatius referred to the tool as “interrogating the data.”

The government’s partnerships and engagement with Silicon Valley and the private sector was also a topic touched on by the Pentagon’s No. 2 man. As defense departments works to adopt new and innovative solutions to their problems, Work said both legacy and smaller contractors will have a place on the stage.

Work said the efforts of Planet Labs, a company focused on satellite imagery, and their mission to photograph the earth on a daily basis for signs of change could be a useful resource for the intelligence gathering, which could bolster DoD’s own capabilities.

“By using the combination of commercial technologies, plus disaggregating our own constellation, we’re confident we are going to be able to survive any type of concerted attack and continue to provide the support our warfighters need.”

The deputy secretary also spoke to the vast potential for artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics systems in the military and defense space. 

“This is much more like the inter-war period, where any competitor can take these things and make them in a way that could really cause us problems on the battlefield,” Work said. “So, the strategy part is, it has to be temporal, we can’t expect to have a 40-year advantage.”

Growing tensions between Russia and China were also discussed as a point of concern around the potential for machines to be given lethal authority and how the U.S. might respond in such a case.

Though Work said the U.S. would not designate that kind of authority to a machine, he expressed fears that an authoritarian power might not have the same reservations.

“There are two things that really keep me up at night about this competition; the first is adversaries who will give machines lethal authority and how will we respond to that," he said. "The second thing is, we talk in terms of human-assisted operations … as you said, some of our adversaries might not be too deterred from saying, ‘Let’s give a machine lethal authority.'"

With regard to the U.S.’ competitive relationship with the likes of China and Russia, the top official said the competitive strategy does not come down to the tank-for-tank or airplane-for-airplane strategy of the Cold War, but rather “offsetting” their strengths as an American advantage.

As for the future of autonomous vehicles and their developing role within the military and defense, the deputy secretary said airplane and aquatic vehicles would likely become automated before their terrain-based counterparts. 

He pointed to difficulties in negotiating unpaved roads and challenging environments as the main barriers to the technology, but ultimately said, “This is something that is inexorable, it is going to happen.”

“I would expect us to see unmanned wingman in the air before we would see unmanned convoys on the ground. In fact, the Air Force has concept called the Loyal Wingman, where you take an F-16 and make it totally unmanned, F-16 is a fourth-generation fighter, and pair it with an F-35, a fifth generation — what I would call battle network node, and those two operating together.”

Eyragon Eidam is the web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at