Schmidt became CEO of Google in 2001, when the search engine had a few hundred employees and was barely making a profit. He left Alphabet in 2017, having built a sprawling high-margin company with a broad 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 dominance, this time for the US government in competition with other world powers. He may be uniquely positioned to understand what the Pentagon needs to achieve its technology goals and help the agency get it. But its ties to industry raise questions about how the US should seek to bring government and the private sector together. And while US military strength has long depended on advances in technology, some fear that military AI could create new risks.
Good people, bad system
Speaking on Zoom from his New York office, Schmidt lays out a grandiose vision for a more advanced Defense Department that can deftly harness technology from companies like Istari. Wearing a cheerful orange sweater that looks like it’s made from exquisite wool, he casually represents the US military’s massive reboot.
“Let’s pretend we’re going to build a better combat system,” says Schmidt, outlining what a massive overhaul of the most powerful military operation on earth would mean. “We would just start a technology company.” He continues to sketch out the vision for the Internet of Things with a deadly twist. “A large number of low-cost devices would be created that would be very mobile, easily accessible, and these devices – or drones – would have sensors or weapons, and they would be networked.”
According to Schmidt, the current Pentagon’s problem is hardly money, talent or purpose. He describes the U.S. military as “great people inside a bad system” that evolved to serve a previous era dominated by big, slow, expensive projects like aircraft carriers and a bureaucratic system that doesn’t let people move too fast. Independent research and congressional hearings have shown that it can take years for the Department of Defense to select and purchase software that may be outdated by the time it is installed. Schmidt says this is a huge problem for the US because computerization, software and networks have the potential to revolutionize warfare.
Ukraine’s reaction to the Russian invasion, according to Schmidt, indicates how the Pentagon can improve the situation. The Ukrainian military has been able to counter a much larger force, in part by rapidly advancing and adapting technologies from the private sector – turning commercial drones into weapons, reprofiling defunct battlefield communication systems, 3D printing spare parts, and the development of useful new software for tasks like military payroll management in months, not years.
Schmidt offers another thought experiment to illustrate the difficulties he is trying to get the US military out of. “Imagine that you and I decided to solve the Ukrainian problem, and the Ministry of Defense gives us $100 million, and we have six months of competition,” he says. “And six months later, someone actually comes up with some new device, a new tool, or a new method that allows Ukrainians to win.” Problem solved? Not so fast. “Everything I just said is illegal,” says Schmidt, “because of procurement rules that prohibit the Pentagon from giving away money without a thorough but overly lengthy review process.
According to Schmidt, the Pentagon’s technical problem is most relevant when it comes to artificial intelligence. “From time to time there is a new weapon, a new technology that changes things,” he says. “Einstein wrote a letter to Roosevelt in the 1930s saying there was this new technology – nuclear weapons – that could change warfare, which it clearly did. I would say that [AI-powered] autonomy and decentralized, distributed systems are so powerful.”
With the help of Schmidt over the past decade, a similar sentiment has taken root in the US Department of Defense, where leaders believe that artificial intelligence will revolutionize military equipment, intelligence gathering and software. In the early 2010s, the Pentagon began evaluating technologies that could help it maintain an advantage over the rising Chinese military. Defense Science Council, the agency’s highest technical advisory body, concluded that AI-powered autonomy will shape the future of military competition and conflict.
But AI technology is mostly invented in the private sector. The best tools that could prove critical to the military, such as algorithms that can identify enemy equipment or specific people in video, or that can learn superhuman strategies, are being built at companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple, or inside startups.