Where precision-guided and nuclear bombs staved off war with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said thinking machines helping U.S. troops make faster, better decisions will deter Russian and Chinese aggression in the future.

The scientific community is at an inflection point in regards to autonomy and artificial intelligence, Work said earlier this month at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, Calif.

“The way we will go after human-machine collaboration is allowing the machine to help humans make better decisions faster,” Work said. In making his case, Work cited a Defense Science Board Study on Autonomy published earlier this year that found learning machines can reliably crunch huge amounts of data and present it to human decision makers in digestible ways.

 “Learning machines…literally will operate at the speed of light. So when you’re operating against a cyber-attack or an electronic attack or attacks against your space architecture or missiles that are screaming in at you at Mach 6 …a learning machine helps you solve that problem right away.”

A current example is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which was designed as a communications hub and data collection machine that takes in enormous amounts of data relating to battlespace awareness and then boils it down to actionable information the pilot can then use to make tactical decisions.

“The F-35 is not a fighter plane,” Work said. “It is a flying sensor computer that sucks in an enormous amount of data, correlates it, analyzes it and displays it to the pilot on his helmet,” Work said. “We believe and we say it over and over: This fifth-gen fighter…it can’t out-turn an F-16 or…go as fast, [but] we are absolutely confident that the F-35 will be a war winner…because it is using the machine to help the human make better decisions.”

Next steps include integration of wearable technology in soldiers’ basic combat kit and the development of applications that run on those devices that allow tailored capabilities and rapid software upgrades, Work said. The Army and Special Operations Command have been at work trying to identify wearable tech for soldiers, but have largely come up empty handed because commercial devices like smartphones or Google Glass are either irrelevant or too vulnerable for military use.

Work said the military also should continue to pursue the teaming of machines and human troops in combat. The Marine Corps already is testing a robotic pack mule called the legged squad support system, or LS3, to carry Marines’ rucksacks and ammunition while on patrol. The robot, which looks like a four-legged headless horse, can autonomously navigate between pre-selected points or be commanded to follow a specific Marine.

The Army already is teaming AH-64 Apaches helicopters with Gray Eagle and Shadow drones. Helicopter crews are able to control the unmanned aircraft from the cockpit during flight and receive full-motion video from the drone’s sensors.  

Billed as the Third Offset Strategy, the gamut of robot technology Work described also includes autonomous weapons, which have been a red line of sorts for both industry, the military and political leaders. All unmanned and robotic platforms in service now are required to have a “man in the loop” to make tactical decisions and to deploy weapons. Tech industry leaders, including Microsoft [MSFT] co-founder Bill Gates and SpaceX and Tesla Motors Chief Executive Elon Musk, recently singed onto a letter warning the Pentagon against creation of killer robots in the vein of Terminator on ethical grounds. 

Work also assured the audience that the offset strategy in the making still includes soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

“The number-one advantage we have is the people in uniform and our civilian workforce and our defense industrial base and the contractors who support us,” he said.