The former Google CEO is on a mission to retrofit the US military with state-of-the-art artificial intelligence to take on China. Will it make the world safer?
Expensive military equipment like a new tank goes through rigorous testing before heading to the battlefield. A startup called Istari, backed by Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google and chairman of Alphabet, thinks some of that work can be done more efficiently in the metaverse, Wired wrote on the subject.
Istari uses machine learning to virtually assemble and test war machines from computer models of individual components, such as chassis and engines, that are typically found on separate digital drawing boards. It may sound boring, but Schmidt says it could bring a dose of tech industry innovation to U.S. military engineering. “The Istari team is bringing Internet-type usability to the models and simulations,” he says. “This unlocks the possibility of software-like flexibility for future physical systems – that’s very exciting.”
Good people, bad system
Speaking on Zoom from his New York office, Schmidt lays out a grand vision for a more advanced Department of Defense that can leverage the technologies of companies like Istari. Dressed in a jaunty orange sweater that looks like it’s made of fine wool, he casually imagines a complete reboot of the U.S. armed forces.
According to Schmidt, the problem with today’s Pentagon is hardly money, talent or determination. He describes the U.S. military as “great human beings in a bad system”-one that evolved to serve a previous era dominated by big, slow, expensive projects like aircraft carriers and a bureaucratic system that prevents people from moving too fast.
A new weapon
According to Schmidt, the Pentagon’s technology problem is most pressing when it comes to artificial intelligence. “Every once in a while, a new weapon comes along, a new technology that changes things,” he says. “In the 1930s, Einstein wrote a letter to Roosevelt saying that there was a new technology – nuclear weapons – that could change war, which apparently has happened. I would say [AI-powered] autonomy and decentralized, distributed systems are so powerful.”
With Schmidt’s help over the past decade, a similar view has taken hold at the Department of Defense, where leaders believe AI will revolutionize military hardware, intelligence gathering and support software. In early 2010. The Pentagon began evaluating technologies that could help it maintain an edge over China’s ascendant military. The Defense Science Board, the agency’s top technical advisory body, concluded that AI-driven autonomy would shape the future of military competition and conflict.
Reorientation towards China
Schmidt believes that while the tech industry should help the Pentagon, the government should also help Silicon Valley. In 2019, he became chairman of the U.S. Homeland Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, created by Congress to study the impact of technology on U.S. security and competitiveness.
NSCAI’s final report, released in 2021, focuses on the AI rivalry between the US and China, warning that the technology could spread authoritarian values. To keep the wellspring of American AI healthy, it calls on the US government to work more with the private sector and provide funding, data and computing power to both public and private AI projects.
Discussing his work at Zoom, Schmidt often seems frustrated by the dysfunction he sees in the U.S. government’s approach to technology. When he joined the Pentagon in 2016, he didn’t expect to find a new calling. “I figured I’d do it for a year or so to help out,” he says. Instead, it turned into a second career. Whatever progress the Pentagon makes toward its dreams of artificial intelligence – and the effect it has on the world – Schmidt will likely be at the heart of it.