University of South Florida


AI and the military: Gen. Frank McKenzie shares insights ahead of national security conference at USF

Gen. Frank McKenzie and Kirstjen Nielsen, former Secretary of Homeland Security, during their featured discussion.

Top military leaders, cybersecurity experts address AI during national security conference at USF

By: Cassidy Delamarter and Tina Meketa, University Communications and Marketing, and Glenn Beckmann, USF Global and National Security Institute

The revolution of artificial intelligence is transforming the nature of international competition, conflict and cooperation. In partnership with U.S. Central Command, USF is hosting “AI in the Era of Strategic Competition,” an interdisciplinary conference that brings together senior military officials, private industry and USF’s leading AI faculty experts.  

The three-day event features roundtable discussions on the ways artificial intelligence is transforming national security. Special guest speakers include former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and U.S. Special Operations Command Gen. Bryan Fenton. 

The conference is hosted by the USF Global and National Security Institute, led by retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, former commander of U.S. Central Command. McKenzie also serves as executive director of Cyber Florida, which is hosted by USF. McKenzie led the week's first fireside chat with Kirstjen Nielsen, former secretary of homeland security, where they discussed their insights on AI’s impact on the armed forces. 

"In order to be effective, you've got to be fast," McKenzie said during the discussion, where they shared their perspectives on the importance of education in this new era of tools and technology. "If we get into a situation where we've lost the edge and someone is able to create tactical problems for us with AI fueled information and we are too slow to respond, that would be an external risk we run if we don't stay current and continue to work in this field — and I think it is probably the most significant risk we face."

"The other danger I see with chatbots is that because it seems human, we see instance after instance of people unloading all their personal information in their reply in the prompt and quickly, that’s gobbled up and that can be used for other reasons than the person intended," Nielsen said. "I think education is key for all of us to keep in mind."

  • The GNSI Tampa Summit is being hosted at the Marshall Student Center

  • Gen. Frank McKenzie and Kirstjen Nielsen, former Secretary of Homeland Security

  • Attendees were able to visit booths to learn more about USF's Global and National Security Institute and USF's Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

  • Attendees filled the room as Gen. Frank McKenzie and Kirstjen Nielsen, former Secretary of Homeland Security, held a discussion on AI, cybercrime, ethics and education.

Prior to the conference, McKenzie shared additional insights on AI's impact on the armed forces.

Over the past few months, you’ve been a sought-after resource for national and international media to analyze the rising tensions in the Middle East. As the former commander of U.S. Central Command, responsible for the greater Middle East, you’re an expert on the topic and a military historian well versed in the region’s past. How does AI affect the current situation in the Middle East and how do you see it shaping the future there?

mckenzieGen. Frank McKenzie

AI is increasingly embedded in all societal activities. At an increasing speed, artificial intelligence plays a role in everything we do. The Middle East is no different. There’s no particular emphasis on the Middle East with regards to artificial intelligence. AI is simply part of everything we do, and we need to recognize that.

You’ve said recently that you believe two new domains will become vitally important for future conflicts: space and cyber. Considering the infinite nature of those two domains, what role do you see AI having there?

AI is well-suited to affect both of these domains. In the cyber domain, AI’s ability to rapidly process information is paramount. While we expect it to deliver solutions to certain threats and challenges we face, AI is also going to pose increasing challenges for us as we strive to keep a person in the loop. Particularly in the national security arena, as we don’t want to automate a lot of these processes completely. AI is going to have a significant effect on cyber going forward. Of course, it will affect space, as well. As we look towards deep space exploration, AI will certainly be a factor. We just witnessed the landing of a civilian spacecraft on the moon last week. But it wasn’t completely successful.  Perhaps we could have avoided that incident if we had been able to implement some type of AI in the Odysseus. That’s an example of where I think AI will be able to help.

Global and national security is a strategic area of focus for USF. Given the critical nature of AI to future global and national security, how can GNSI, the University of South Florida and CyberFlorida continue to grow its impact and leadership role in those areas?

As a part of the University of South Florida, GNSI has many opportunities to expand our leadership in the national security arena. When we think of national security at the University of South Florida, we think broadly. We believe the conversation should extend beyond the traditional, narrow scope. I believe that’s very important and we’re already putting plans in motion to do that. We’ve held a conference on the use of hunger as a weapon and we’re planning another one for May focused on transnational repression and the Uyghurs. We will continue to think very broadly about national security and that’s going to be very important.

As artificial intelligence continues to expand its impact around the world, critical questions will need to be answered concerning AI trust. You’ve watched as the use of AI has grown exponentially in the military over the past few years, especially in autonomous weapons systems. What stages did you and the military go through as you both began to build trust in AI and these new technologies?

Particularly in military applications, AI trust is going to be vital, specifically because platforms are being used that can potentially deliver lethal force. We want to make sure we operate within the law of armed conflict and the law of war. We need to make sure we don’t have systems that operate completely autonomously. That’s going to become more of a challenge as we go forward, as the time to make decisions shrinks. AI is going to be able to make these decisions so much faster than human beings, but we have to keep a human in the loop. We’re working to solve that problem but we have not solved it yet. We’re going to be increasingly challenged by it in the years ahead.

In a broad, general sense, what do you think will be the biggest impact of artificial intelligence in the national security industry?

Artificial intelligence will make our weapons systems more effective as it will decrease the amount of time needed for our defensive weapons systems, like ballistic missiles, to make decisions about potential incoming threats. AI is going to pose challenges for us as we make future decisions about striking something or not striking something. We must strive to ensure we keep humans in that decision loop.  The United States is very attuned to ensuring that what we do is within the laws of armed conflict. I also think AI’s ability to rapidly sort through massive amounts of data, like online meta data, will be a great benefit for our ability to find and identify trends. Pattern recognition and identification are fundamental to national security decision-making. AI is certainly going to have a role in making us better and more efficient at it.

The free conference is located at the Marshall Student Center. Registration is required. More information is available here.

Return to article listing