On Monday, August 13 President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act (the Act) which includes provisions establishing, among other things, a new independent commission known as the “National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence.” The “AI Commission” is directed to undertake a sweeping review and analysis of AI technology and systems and produce a report with recommended next steps for both Congress and the administration in the next six months.

The Act mandates that the AI Commission analyze and evaluate advances in artificial intelligence technology and issue a report with findings and recommendations within six months. In particular, the Act requires that the AI Commission:

… shall consider the methods and means necessary to advance the development of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and associated technologies by the United States to comprehensively address the national security and defense needs of the United States.

In addition, the Act includes other provisions that direct the Department of Defense (DoD) to “develop, mature, and transition” AI technologies into operational use. Under these provisions a senior DoD official is directed to develop a strategic plan and roadmap for the identification and coordination of AI technologies and “key enabling capabilities” in order to accelerate the development and deployment of AI capabilities.

AI Commission Will Evaluate AI Technology and Address Issues Related to Ethics, International Law, and Data Sharing in Context of Military and National Security Applications

The new AI Commission will be tasked with evaluating AI technology and issuing a report that addresses a number of issues, including: risks associated with military use of the technology; ethical considerations arising from the use of AI in defense and national security applications; and protocols or standards to incentivize the sharing of open training data.

Expected to be composed of up to fifteen persons appointed by members of the current administration and House and Senate Committee chairs, the new AI Commission faces a broad mandate. Specifically, the commission is directed to consider (among other things): (1) risks associated with the use of AI in military applications, and the implications of such uses for international law; (2) ethical considerations related to the use of AI in future applications related to national security and defense; and (3) means to establish data standards and incentivize the sharing of open training data within related national security and defense data-driven industries.

The Act defines the term artificial intelligence quite broadly and includes language apparently intended to capture both narrow AI and artificial general intelligence. For example, the Act defines AI to include “[a]n artificial system designed to act rationally, including an intelligent software agent or embodied robot that achieves goals using perception, planning, reasoning, learning, communication, decision-making, and acting”—a level of autonomy and cognition normally associated with general AI.

Department of Defense to Undertake Related Activities Focused on Developing AI for Defense and National Security Systems

As noted, the Act also includes separate provisions directing DoD to undertake actions necessary to “develop, mature, and transition” AI technologies into operational use. The DoD’s mandate, which is independent of the new AI Commission, requires that a senior official within the department coordinate activities relating to the development and demonstration of artificial intelligence and machine learning for DoD. The DoD’s AI official must initiate a variety of actions to ensure the accelerated development and fielding of AI capabilities.

Notably, the DoD AI official is also required to “work with appropriate officials to develop appropriate ethical, legal, and other policies” that will govern the development and use of AI enabled systems and technologies in operational situations. Finally, the DoD is also directed to undertake a study and issue a final report on the past and current advances in AI, including the methods and means necessary to advance the development of the technology.

These developments follow related action by the DoD earlier this year, when the agency issued a memorandum creating a Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) within DoD. The JAIC is tasked with “accelerating the delivery of AI-enabled capabilities, scaling the Department-wide impact of AI, and synchronizing DoD AI activities.” Exactly how much of the JAIC activities will be subsumed in the new DoD AI directive is unclear. Obviously, though, the agency will be committing significant resources to evaluating, implementing and regulating the use of AI technologies in defense and national security systems.

The AI Commission’s Actions Likely to Inform Other Federal Agencies and Non-Governmental Organizations Working to Develop Ethical Principles and Related Standards for AI

The new AI Commission will likely be closely watched by other federal agencies and Congress as the market for AI technology and applications continues to grow exponentially. Other agencies may “adopt” findings or recommendations, especially those focused on ethical considerations, data sharing, and workforce impairment. In addition, the AI Commission’s findings and recommendations could very well impact the work of various private companies and nonprofit organizations developing proposed ethical principles and best practices governing the use of this technology.