Schmidt became CEO of Google in 2001, when the search engine had a few hundred employees and was barely making money. He stepped away from Alphabet in 2017 after building a sprawling, highly profitable company with a stacked portfolio of projects, including cutting-edge artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and quantum computers.
Schmidt now sees another opportunity for technological reinvention to lead to domination, this time for the US government in competition with other world powers. He may be uniquely well positioned to understand what the Pentagon needs to reach its technological goals and to help the agency obtain it. But his ties to industry raise questions about how the US should aim to align the government and the private sector. And while US military power has long depended on advances in technology, some fear that military AI can create new risks.
Good People, Bad System
Speaking over Zoom from his office in New York, Schmidt lays out a grand vision for a more advanced DOD that can nimbly harness technology from companies like Istari. In a cheery orange sweater that looks like it’s made of exquisite wool, he casually imagines a wholesale reboot of the US armed forces.
“Let’s imagine we’re going to build a better war-fighting system,” Schmidt says, outlining what would amount to an enormous overhaul of the most powerful military operation on earth. “We would just create a tech company.” He goes on to sketch out a vision of the internet of things with a deadly twist. “It would build a large number of inexpensive devices that were highly mobile, that were attritable, and those devices—or drones—would have sensors or weapons, and they would be networked together.”
The problem with today’s Pentagon is hardly money, talent, or determination, in Schmidt’s opinion. He describes the US military as “great human beings inside a bad system”—one that evolved to serve a previous era dominated by large, slow, expensive projects like aircraft carriers and a bureaucratic system that prevents people from moving too quickly. Independent studies and congressional hearings have found that it can take years for the DOD to select and buy software, which may be outdated by the time it is installed. Schmidt says this is a huge problem for the US, because computerization, software, and networking are poised to revolutionize warfare.
Ukraine’s response to Russia’s invasion, Schmidt believes, offers pointers for how the Pentagon might improve. The Ukrainian military has managed to resist a much larger power in part by moving quickly and adapting technology from the private sector—hacking commercial drones into weapons, repurposing defunct battlefield connectivity systems, 3D printing spare parts, and developing useful new software for tasks like military payroll management in months, not years.
Schmidt offers another thought experiment to illustrate the bind he’s trying to get the US military out of. “Imagine you and I decide to solve the Ukrainian problem, and the DOD gives us $100 million, and we have a six-month contest,” he says. “And after six months somebody actually comes up with some new device or new tool or new method that lets the Ukrainians win.” Problem solved? Not so fast. “Everything I just said is illegal,” Schmidt says, because of procurement rules that forbid the Pentagon from handing out money without going through careful but overly lengthy review processes.
A New Weapon
The Pentagon’s tech problem is most pressing, Schmidt says, when it comes to AI. “Every once in a while, a new weapon, a new technology comes along that changes things,” he says. “Einstein wrote a letter to Roosevelt in the 1930s saying that there is this new technology—nuclear weapons—that could change war, which it clearly did. I would argue that [AI-powered] autonomy and decentralized, distributed systems are that powerful.”
With Schmidt’s help, a similar view has taken root inside the DOD over the past decade, where leaders believe AI will revolutionize military hardware, intelligence gathering, and backend software. In the early 2010s the Pentagon began assessing technology that could help it maintain an edge over an ascendant Chinese military. The Defense Science Board, the agency’s top technical advisory body, concluded that AI-powered autonomy would shape the future of military competition and conflict.
But AI technology is mostly being invented in the private sector. The best tools that could prove critical to the military, such as algorithms capable of identifying enemy hardware or specific individuals in video, or that can learn superhuman strategies, are built at companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple or inside startups.