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The Future of War Is Here

Brian Schimpf and Ross Andersen join to discuss uses of AI in military operations and how we can prevent it from having outsized effects

Rancher Albert Miller walks by a Autonomous Surveillance Towers, the new CBP camera tower made by Anduril near his property in Valentine, Texas, Monday, January 17, 2022.
Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Today’s episode is about how artificial intelligence will change the future of war. First, we have Brian Schimpf, the CEO of Anduril, a military technology company that builds AI programs for the Department of Defense. Next we have the Atlantic author Ross Andersen on how to prevent AI from blowing up the world.

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In the following excerpt, Derek and Brian Schimpf discuss the value of using AI in military operations.

Derek Thompson: First question: What is Anduril? Why did you start this company?

Brian Schimpf: So Anduril’s goal is to create a defense technology company. So what does that mean, and how is that different than what has been happening in defense for the last 100 years? When you look at the state of defense today, what the defense base is really good at is building really big ships, really big planes, building tanks: the technologies that we have looked at as the keys for how the military operated for the duration of the Cold War, and, in a lot of ways, that’s essentially unchanged since World War II.

You fast-forward 20, 30 years, what’s going to start to be different? You start to see how software, how AI, starts to impact how warfare’s conducted. That starts to look like more systems that are cheaper, that are more intelligent, that take fewer humans to operate. That enables the humans to do what they’re actually very good at: make informed decisions with the context and understanding of politics, of the consequences of their actions, in a way that machines are always going to be limited. But we want to get humans out of this game of doing very mechanical parts, operating these big systems, and working with smarter, lower-cost systems. So that focus on software and technology is really key.

The other part of it is—our view when we started the company—the pace of getting new technologies into the hands of the actual soldiers, the sailors, all those folks who are actually doing the operations and conducting military engagements. We want to get them real technology, but the system has evolved again on this mindset of, “I’m building an aircraft carrier. I’m building a submarine. I’m building a giant plane.” And that is a very cumbersome, a very slow, and a very expensive process to get those things to work. When you start talking about, “How do I take advantage of smarter drones, smarter surveillance systems, more autonomous capabilities?” you can move wildly faster.

So, a second part of what we’ve done as a business, beyond just the technology, is really focus on: How can we apply a different business model that is fit for the types of technologies that are going to be relevant for the next 30 years? And look at: How do we invest our own dollars to be able to get things out there quicker? How do we find a way to basically work through this process and get technology fielded as fast as possible?

Thompson: We’re going to go a little bit deeper into just about all of that. But first, I would love to hear you answer this question on a personal level. Why did you, Brian, decide that this is what you wanted to do with your life? Of all the different kinds of startups that you could have been a part of, why were you so interested in military technology?

Schimpf: So, I think the characteristic you note with a lot of the folks working in national security is that they’re passionate about national security. They really believe in the mission. They believe in why they are doing it, and they believe in the importance of the U.S. having the best technology. And for me, that is very much a huge part of the motivation. This is the sort of thing that I believe the world is better off when the U.S. is able to keep a sane world order, where conflict is not the default way you resolve issues, where using military force is not going to be that effective.

So that’s the worldview I truly believe in. I think for better or for worse, conflict is a part of human nature, and making it so that these things are unwinnable, so that countries have the defenses they need to maintain their sovereignty, these are things that I think are incredibly important. And I think the U.S., of all the world powers, is the one founded on human rights as an important construct. And freedom is an important construct. It’s harder to say that for a lot of the other major potential world powers. So I think there is, for me, a moral imperative to working in these areas.

And from a technologist perspective, I think the ability to actually do these things in a way that’s more intelligent, that’s more proportionate, and that’s more limited is actually a very good thing. War will happen for better or for worse. And having the best technology that is the most limited and targeted as possible, that feels like a good thing and something I feel like I could move the needle on.

This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guests: Brian Schimpf and Ross Andersen
Producer: Devon Manze

Subscribe: Spotify