Home PublicationsCommentary Europe and the United States should cooperate more on AI for defense

Europe and the United States should cooperate more on AI for defense

by Benjamin Mueller

After a shaky four years for transatlantic relations, the Biden Administration has shown itself determined to re-engage America’s allies. With respect to the EU, several thorny issues need to be addressed: from a new data transfer agreement and resolving tariff and subsidy disputes, to finding a joint position on WTO reform or addressing the problematic issue of digital services taxes, the laundry list is long. Another area for cooperation is defense, especially in the fast-moving domain of artificial intelligence (AI).

Both the EU and the United States recognize the importance of AI for defense. In Europe, however, negative attitudes concerning the U.S. approach to AI prevail. A quote from Denmark’s national strategy for AI embodies a widely held European sentiment: “The US and China are investing heavily in artificial intelligence, but with little regard for responsibility, ethical principles and privacy. Europe should not copy [them].” The implication that the United States has the same respect for human rights, ethics, and privacy as the Chinese government is false, nowhere more so than in AI for defense.

The U.S. Department of Defense has not only adopted robust ethical principles for AI but is also determined to operationalize them. In 2012, the Department of Defense issued a binding directive on the development and use of autonomous weapons which mandates that all AI systems “allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force.” Last year the Pentagon’s Joint AI Command appointed its first Head of AI Ethics Policy. This month the National Security Commission on AI sensibly proposed that DOD involve humans in kill decisions but without requiring oversight at every step. And the United States is one of only eight countries the International Committee of the Red Cross recognizes for sharing its review mechanism for emerging technologies and ensuring it complies with international law. The upshot is that the United States has one of the most transparent review processes regarding the development and fielding of military AI systems in the world.

There is, at last, a growing realization in Europe that China, far from being a benighted and kindly new trading behemoth with which the EU can do worry-free business, is increasingly aggressive in defending the systematic human rights abuses and denials of basic freedoms that define its very system. When it comes to cyberspace, China’s ambitions to become the dominant superpower are clear. China is rapidly increasing its military spending, including in AI, hypersonic missiles, and space weapons.

This leaves the EU with a choice. It can try to restrict the use of AI for defense, something that would only hamstring allies while allowing adversaries like China to gain an advantage. Or the EU can partner with the United States in developing autonomous, AI-enabled defense systems, developed and operated based on ethical principles, something, as noted above, the United States is already doing.

There are promising indications that policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic recognize the need for more cooperation regarding emerging technologies. In December, Commission President Ursula van der Leyen introduced an EU-US agenda for global change which prominently features AI. The initiative foresees a new Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council to develop mutually compatible standards and regulations for new technologies and reduce trade barriers. In the United States, a bipartisan group of senators has introduced the Democracy Technology Act. It calls for a new State Department body to partner with allied democracies in conducting joint research and coordinating export controls and investment screening. The National Security Commission on AI has called for CFIUS exemptions on European investments into defense technologies and for the EU to be involved in a new Multilateral AI Research Institute. Both sides of the Atlantic need to work to limit technology transfers to China, including from Chinese overseas professional associations.

The values that bind Europe and the United States together—open and democratic societies, with free markets, governed by the rule of law—cry out for a collaborative approach to speed the development of AI for defense purposes. At stake is the future military interoperability of like-minded democracies. The focus needs to move past the use of AI in battlefield situations. AI has applications in many non-combat domains such as logistics, predictive maintenance, or data analytics, to name a few. Moreover, AI can make future weapons systems less risky for civilians through better target identification, battlefield communication, and decision-making aids that analyze vast sets of data. To properly exploit AI’s potential of enhancing Western military capabilities, a concerted effort to cooperate on research and norms is indispensable.

Geopolitically, turbulent decades lie ahead. The EU and the United States should work with each other to ensure AI-enabled defense systems are robust and advanced, but also safe and used based on shared norms grounded in international law.


Image Credit: Pixabay 



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