Eric Schmidt says A.I. could be the military’s new nuke—but only if the Pentagon acts like a tech firm

Eric Schmidt says the Pentagon needs to move fast if it wants to catch up with China on A.I. in war.

Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO and executive chairman. Lukas Schulze/Sportsfile for Collision via Getty Images

Most of us are still toying with ChatGPT to come up with recipe ideas or do our homework, but others are already starting to think about using the artificial intelligence technology behind the chatbot for military purposes.

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Most of us are still toying with ChatGPT to come up with recipe ideas or do our homework, but others are already starting to think about using the artificial intelligence technology behind the chatbot for military purposes.

Innovation is often incorporated into military applications. Progress in space science and satellite technology eventually paved the way in the 1970s for the first GPS systems, which were originally designed for military use. And governments worldwide pursued the first nuclear weapons following breakthrough research in the early 20th century into the inner workings of atoms.

But critics say that the military’s adoption of tech in recent years has been lacking, and the Defense Department needs to fix the notoriously slow and cumbersome bureaucracy that has left it reliant on outdated technologies

The key is to make the military behave more like a Silicon Valley company, Eric Schmidt, the former Google CEO and executive chairman, said in an interview with Wired published Monday. That means adopting tech more quickly, even when applied to potentially deadly weapons and despite any ethical concerns that have slowed the Pentagon down in the past.

Schmidt argued that the U.S. military cannot afford to sit back on A.I., which could be the next major technological advance that disrupts warfare.

“Every once in a while, a new weapon, a new technology comes along that changes things,” he told Wired. “Einstein wrote a letter to Roosevelt in the 1930s saying that there is this new technology—nuclear weapons—that could change war, which it clearly did. I would argue that [AI-powered] autonomy and decentralized, distributed systems are that powerful.”

From 2016, Schmidt chaired the National Security Commission on A.I. that advised Congress on how to spend taxpayer funds on private sector A.I. research, a period during which he personally invested over $2 billion in tech startups focused on A.I. Since the body was dissolved in 2021, he has continued to advise the Pentagon.

AI and warfare

Artificial intelligence may be the next tech breakthrough to become a routine part of our lives, with chatbots like ChatGPT already being used in everyday activities at home and in the office

A.I. has been applied to military operations too. Countries including the U.S. and China are investing more every year into A.I. applications including autonomous vehicles, surveillance, and automated target recognition systems. For the past year, Russian drones equipped with A.I. software have also been stalking the skies over Ukraine.

U.S. Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin said in 2021 the military “urgently” needed to develop new A.I. technologies while announcing a $1.5 billion investment in A.I. research over the next five years. But some experts have warned that the U.S. military is acting too slowly, especially if the goal is keeping pace with China, which a 2021 report found is investing more than $1.6 billion into military-use A.I. systems and equipment annually. 

Nicolas Chaillan, the U.S. Air Force’s first chief software engineer, resigned his post in 2021 after only three years on the job citing his frustration with the Pentagon’s slow adoption of new technologies compared to its biggest rival. ““We have no competing fighting chance against China in 15 to 20 years,” he told the FT shortly after resigning, mentioning China’s superior A.I. and cyber capabilities. “Right now, it’s already a done deal; it is already over in my opinion.”

To catch up, the Pentagon has tapped the private sector for former tech executives who are accustomed to moving quickly. Last year, the Pentagon appointed Craig Martell as the department’s A.I. chief after previous roles heading up A.I. and machine learning research at Lyft, Dropbox, and LinkedIn. Upon taking up the new post Martell told Bloomberg he wanted to shift the Pentagon from its “bureaucratic inertia,” adding the view shared by his predecessors including Chaillan that the U.S. military is moving too slowly on A.I. is “mostly correct.”

Former Google CEO Schmidt agreed in his Wired interview that the department had to modernize its approach to A.I., describing the military as “great human beings inside a bad system” that is slow to act when it comes to new technologies.

The private sector is set to start making even more massive leaps in A.I. technology after OpenAI’s highly successful release of ChatGPT in November pushed Big Tech companies including Google and Microsoft to double down on their A.I. research, and in Schmidt’s view, the military should follow their example.

“Let’s imagine we’re going to build a better war-fighting system,” he said. “We would just create a tech company.”