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Pentagon aims to spread artificial intelligence across military services

New contract procedures to make it easier for small companies to bid on AI uses for the military

After spending the past few years demonstrating how artificial intelligence tools can boost U.S. military efforts, the office responsible for overseeing such programs at the Defense Department is shifting its focus to helping military services and agencies figure out how to incorporate the technologies in their systems. 

Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Michael Groen, who became director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center in October, said the small office can be more effective in seeding artificial intelligence technologies across the department by being a “catalyst for success for others” rather than developing those tools by itself. 

“What we’re trying to do is generate scale across the department to transform the department in three primary ways: transform the warfighting aspects of the department, transform the support enterprises in the department … and then transform the business practices,” Groen said in an interview. 

Groen is the second director of the center that goes by the acronym JAIC, or “the jake” in Pentagon parlance, which was set up in 2018 by Congress. Its first director was Air Force Lt. Gen. John N.T. “Jack” Shanahan, who retired last year. 

For fiscal 2021, the Pentagon sought a total of $841 million for artificial intelligence efforts across the department, of which JAIC’s request was $290.7 million. 

JAIC can help military services and agencies by using new authorities Congress gave the center in the 2021 Pentagon policy bill to enter into contracts with developers of artificial intelligence technologies, Groen said. 

The new policy “makes it possible now for us to bring in a broader base of tech community actors,” Groen said, leaning not only on large defense contractors but also “small innovative companies that might not have had a chance” to engage with the Pentagon in the past, he said. 

Congress also has asked JAIC to prepare an inventory of all artificial intelligence programs across the Pentagon, and the agency is working on it, Groen said. 

Think AI first

Groen said JAIC faces the challenge of getting Pentagon agencies to embrace technologies and processes that are well established in the private sector. 

“Almost every process that we execute here in the Department of Defense I think somebody would do well to sit back and think ‘how would an online company do that’ or ‘how would a web services company do this,’” Groen said. “If we can start to train people to think that way then I think we’ll start to make some pretty significant moves in bringing commercial technology into the defense enterprise.” 

Before JAIC was set up by Congress, the Pentagon demonstrated the utility of artificial intelligence tools in an experimental project in 2017 called Project Maven, which involved deploying machine-learning algorithms to sift through thousands of hours of surveillance drone video captured over Syria and Iraq to identify patterns on the ground and help pick targets. 

After it was set up, JAIC also demonstrated the utility of artificial intelligence in combating national security threats beyond the Pentagon’s immediate purview. Shanahan told CQ Roll Call that his office applied computer vision tools to track natural disasters, including wildfires. 

By flying drones equipped with full-motion video sensors over wildfire zones, the Pentagon was able to assist firefighters with locating fire outbreaks using specialized maps sent to hand-held devices, Shanahan said in a previous interview after a series of wildfires in California and Oregon in 2019.

[Pentagon AI chief says the technology could help spot future pandemics earlier]

But working with private tech companies has posed hurdles for the Pentagon. After dozens of Google engineers objected to the company working with the Pentagon on the Maven project, the company pulled out of its collaboration. 

Since then the tech industry and the Pentagon have had a rapprochement, and Groen said the friction with industry is “ancient history at this point.” The Pentagon now has “relationships with all of the big players in the cloud space, and AI space,” he said. 

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Small AI projects

The new acquisition power Congress gave JAIC means the center can encourage small tech companies to bid on Pentagon projects, Groen said. 

JAIC has started a program called Tradewind to create a “marketplace for small AI projects,” Groen said. Small tech companies lacking large financial capital can bid on the programs and deliver “small capabilities to us that we can then scale up and integrate” into large systems across the department, he said. 

For a department where the time between conception of a weapon system and its production can take decades, Tradewind promises a timeline of months. On its website, JAIC says a company getting a contract award in January could deploy a prototype in March, and deploy into full production by June. 

Still, setbacks from contract disputes are legendary at the Pentagon. 

A $10 billion program to build a dedicated cloud server for the Pentagon so all the departments can access data from a central repository is now stuck in a legal dispute after Amazon last year challenged the Pentagon’s decision to pick Microsoft for the work. Amazon has alleged that President Donald Trump’s “unapologetic bias” against the company tainted the contract. Government lawyers are trying to get the lawsuit dismissed. 

The delay is not affecting development of artificial intelligence tools, Groen said. The Pentagon is using commercial cloud services, and if and when the central cloud server becomes a reality, “we can move from one commercial cloud to another,” he said. 

Groen also said using commercial cloud providers does not pose any greater risk than the Pentagon having its own cloud servers. 

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