Technology The Perils of Overhyping Artificial Intelligence

April 6, 2021
By Julia Ciocca, Michael C. Horowitz, and Lauren Kahn | Foreign Affairs

In 1983, the U.S. military’s research and development arm began a ten-year, $1 billion machine intelligence program aimed at keeping the United States ahead of its technological rivals. From the start, computer scientists criticized the project as unrealistic. It promised big and ultimately failed hard in the eyes of the Pentagon, ushering in a long artificial intelligence (AI) “winter” during which potential funders, including the U.S. military, shied away from big investments in the field and abandoned promising areas of research.  

Today, AI is once again the darling of the national security services. And once again, it risks sliding backward as a result of a destructive “hype cycle” in which overpromising conspires with inevitable setbacks to undermine the long-term success of a transformative new technology. Military powers around the world are investing heavily in AI, seeking battlefield and other security applications that might provide an advantage over potential adversaries. In the United States, there is a growing sense of urgency around AI, and rightly so. As former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper put it, “Those who are first to harness once-in-a-generation technologies often have a decisive advantage on the battlefield for years to come.” However, there is a very real risk that expectations are being set too high and that an unwillingness to tolerate failures will mean the United States squanders AI’s potential and falls behind its rivals.

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