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Editor’s Note: This article was submitted in response to the call for ideas issued by the co-chairs of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, Eric Schmidt and Robert Work. It is based on a chapter by the authors in the forthcoming book ‘AI at War’ and addresses the first question (part a. and b.) which asks how AI will impact competition below the threshold of armed conflict, and what might happen if the United States fails to develop robust AI capabilities that address national security issues.

In 2016, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) carried out its first successful drone attack in combat, killing two Peshmerga warriors in northern Iraq. The attack continued the group’s record of employing increasingly sophisticated technologies against its enemies, a trend mimicked by other nonstate armed groups around the world. The following year, the group announced the formation of the “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahedeen,” a division dedicated to the development and use of drones, and a more formal step toward the long-term weaponization of drone technology.

Terrorist groups are increasingly using 21st-century technologies, including drones and elementary artificial intelligence (AI), in attacks. As it continues to be weaponized, AI could prove a formidable threat, allowing adversaries — including nonstate actors — to automate killing on a massive scale. The combination of drone expertise and more sophisticated AI could allow terrorist groups to acquire or develop lethal autonomous weapons, or “killer robots,” which would dramatically increase their capacity to create incidents of mass destruction in Western cities. As it expands its artificial intelligence capabilities, the U.S. government should also strengthen its anti-AI capacity, paying particular attention to nonstate actors and the enduring threats they pose. For the purposes of this article, I define artificial intelligence as technology capable of “mimicking human brain patterns,” including by learning and making decisions.

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