CAMP EDWARDS, Mass. — The small drone, with its six whirring rotors, swept past the replica of a Middle Eastern village and closed in on a mosque-like structure, its camera scanning for targets.
No humans were remotely piloting the drone, which was nothing more than a machine that could be bought on Amazon. But armed with advanced artificial intelligence software, it had been transformed into a robot that could find and identify the half-dozen men carrying replicas of AK-47s around the village and pretending to be insurgents.
As the drone descended slightly, a purple rectangle flickered on a video feed that was being relayed to engineers monitoring the test. The drone had locked onto a man obscured in the shadows, a display of hunting prowess that offered an eerie preview of how the Pentagon plans to transform warfare.
Almost unnoticed outside defense circles, the Pentagon has put artificial intelligence at the center of its strategy to maintain the United States’ position as the world’s dominant military power. It is spending billions of dollars to develop what it calls autonomous and semiautonomous weapons and to build an arsenal stocked with the kind of weaponry that until now has existed only in Hollywood movies and science fiction, raising alarm among scientists and activists concerned by the implications of a robot arms race.
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The Defense Department is designing robotic fighter jets that would fly into combat alongside manned aircraft. It has tested missiles that can decide what to attack, and it has built ships that can hunt for enemy submarines, stalking those it finds over thousands of miles, without any help from humans.
“If Stanley Kubrick directed ‘Dr. Strangelove’ again, it would be about the issue of autonomous weapons,” said Michael Schrage, a research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management.
Defense officials say the weapons are needed for the United States to maintain its military edge over China, Russia and other rivals, who are also pouring money into similar research (as are allies, such as Britain and Israel). The Pentagon’s latest budget outlined $18 billion to be spent over three years on technologies that included those needed for autonomous weapons.
A Drone With a Brain
“China and Russia are developing battle networks that are as good as our own. They can see as far as ours can see; they can throw guided munitions as far as we can,” said Robert O. Work, the deputy defense secretary, who has been a driving force for the development of autonomous weapons. “What we want to do is just make sure that we would be able to win as quickly as we have been able to do in the past.”
Just as the Industrial Revolution spurred the creation of powerful and destructive machines like airplanes and tanks that diminished the role of individual soldiers, artificial intelligence technology is enabling the Pentagon to reorder the places of man and machine on the battlefield the same way it is transforming ordinary life with computers that can see, hear and speak and cars that can drive themselves.
The new weapons would offer speed and precision unmatched by any human while reducing the number — and cost — of soldiers and pilots exposed to potential death and dismemberment in battle. The challenge for the Pentagon is to ensure that the weapons are reliable partners for humans and not potential threats to them.
At the core of the strategic shift envisioned by the Pentagon is a concept that officials call centaur warfighting. Named for the half-man and half-horse in Greek mythology, the strategy emphasizes human control and autonomous weapons as ways to augment and magnify the creativity and problem-solving skills of soldiers, pilots and sailors, not replace them.
The weapons, in the Pentagon’s vision, would be less like the Terminator and more like the comic-book superhero Iron Man, Mr. Work said in an interview.
“There’s so much fear out there about killer robots and Skynet,” the murderous artificial intelligence network of the “Terminator” movies, Mr. Work said. “That’s not the way we envision it at all.”
When it comes to decisions over life and death, “there will always be a man in the loop,” he said.