View From the US | Human in the Loop

Cognitive Time’s takeaways from General Robert Neller’s presentation at Time Machine Interactive 2022

Fatima Natasha Razi

At Time Machine Interactive 2022, the 37th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps and the Chairman of the Marine Corps Scholarship Programme, General Robert Neller, took to the stage to discuss how artificial intelligence plays a role in defence. The very nature of his business—war—is not one to be taken lightly. “War,” he said, “is a human endeavour, and it is categorised by violence. A violence that originates from humans trying to submit or impose their will on other humans.”

Will machines be fighting wars? Will machines be imposing their will on other machines? And what would the human role be in that fight? What will the accountability be to society?

As a history major who eventually came to command brave men and women in the Marine Corps, General Neller has had a keen interest in understanding how exponential technologies impact the defence industry. He attended San Francisco’s Singularity University and came face to face with the advancements made in bio-genetics, autonomous vehicles, additive manufacturing, and virtual reality, setting him on the path to wanting to operationalise these technologies for the military.

Stemming from his own insatiable curiosity and a friend’s recommendation, he went on to explore Ray Kurzweil’s work and Moore’s Law. Through his findings, General Neller concluded that our world is fundamentally changing. At Time Machine Interactive, he spoke of how it is not only changing the essence of his own institution, the Marine Corps, but the approach to combat.

General Neller went on to explain that he didn’t look at the technology as autonomous machines flipping burgers or moving goods in warehouses but rather as human partners, co-pilots, companions, and aids.

It’s no secret that AI contributed to the development of the Covid-19 vaccine, which worked towards minimizing the devastation caused by the pandemic. Acknowledging the importance of being able to sort through all the possible combinations to come up with a workable vaccine, he emphasized how a breakthrough vaccine like this was possible because AI worked in collaboration with human intelligence.

Building on the positive aspects of how AI is a tool to aid mankind, General Neller is very clear in affirming that even in the military, the role of AI has been to assist human endeavours in accordance with their mission parameters.

Apart from the combat assistance, General Neller raises many ways AI assists the industry that many may not think of. For example, AI assists in the military recruiting process, from personnel assessment and classification according to skill to, eventually, promotions. Or how it helps recruiters fit personnel to specific jobs and how it could help with maintenance.

While General Neller believes AI is a game changer in many ways, he notes that it is not always a simple solution. When it comes to the military, the question is not as simple as deploying a drone to secure the perimeter. It’s also about who will go out and verify if there is an anomaly. Who will remove the threat? Who will decide if further recon is required, or what action, if any, must be implemented?

“There’s still going to be a human in the loop,” he said. To General Neller, safeguarding a human’s life is the reason why AI and automation should be applied. It is the reason the US military goes to great lengths to employ technologies—to keep their people safe.

Even if computing can run rapidly through a million scenarios and test them, even game them against each other to determine the best possible strategy for success, he believes that a human being is needed in the loop. For him, the perfect AI would be a Star Trek holodeck, where they could run through the simulation of the mission to determine the best course of action. Where groups of people get together to find a solution with the assistance of AI. At Time Machine, he pointed out that ‘Data’ from Star Trek was a staff officer and not a commander, saying, “we’re not going to allow the machine to make decisions about the lives of other human beings,” but rather AI being a facilitator to the work of the commander.

In his opinion, AI-powered war machines have a long way to go. Even though there are laws in place, even though there are regulations, there are other things to consider, according to General Neller.

International treaties need to be kept in mind. Parties need to agree to sign them mutually; to follow the rules. Rules like: how laws of war help with conduct for soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines; how to treat prisoners; and how to use deadly force. When it comes to deploying machines, he emphasized that accountability should be exercised judiciously, as is expected of every US citizen. While there are many questions still to answer and many technological breakthroughs to unfold, General Neller is clear that the partnership between AI and people should not be avoided.

(This article has been reproduced with permission from Cognitive Times)


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