Pentagon AI Leader Optimistic About More Money, New Projects in 2020

Defense Department Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy and Joint Artificial Intelligence Center Director USAF Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan hold a roundtable meeting at the Pentagon on Feb. 12, 2019. DOD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith.

A top official in charge of rolling out artificial intelligence across the Defense Department says 2020 will be a “breakout year” for AI capabilities.

USAF Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, told reporters at an Aug. 30 briefing that his organization’s biggest undertaking in the next fiscal year will focus on maneuver and fires. Multiple efforts and products are tackling aspects of operations from intelligence fusion to “all-domain” command and control, enabling autonomous and swarming systems, and speeding the processes of deciding on targets and acting on information gleaned from sensors.

The JAIC is already working on AI tools that offer predictive maintenance for the H-60 helicopter family as well as improve humanitarian assistance and disaster relief for wildfires and flooding; cyber event detection, user activity monitoring, and network mapping; information operations; and intelligent business automation.

Another joint effort with the Silicon Valley-based Defense Innovation Unit and military surgeons general plans to use AI to sift through health records, classify medical imagery, and aid in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder treatment and suicide prevention.

Shanahan acknowledged the Defense Department faces difficult decisions about how to work AI into its existing technology, data management, and everyday processes. That means “bolting on cutting-edge technologies to old systems and accepting a certain level of sunk costs by divesting legacy systems to accelerate the development and fielding of AI-ready systems,” he said.

Heading into the new fiscal year, the JAIC is asking Congress for $268 million in 2020—up from $93 million allocated for 2019. That might shrink in the final appropriations bill, but Shanahan said the organization is still in “very good shape.” He expects some of the JAIC’s efforts will start showing results by next spring even as the DOD struggles to find a full pool of AI experts to hire.

Pentagon Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy noted earlier this year that the JAIC’s predictive maintenance pilot program had sent its first algorithm to US Special Operations Command and the Army to help battle the negative effects of sand in Black Hawk helicopter engines.

Meanwhile, demand is mounting. Special-operations personnel are “almost, in a literal sense, pounding the table” and asking for the intelligence-processing capabilities being developed through Project Maven, another Defense Department AI initiative, Shanahan said. USSOC and Joint Special Operations Command want to combine a common operational picture, a common intelligence picture, and a picture of video or other data coming from a sensor into one display.

Project Maven and the JAIC’s efforts will be among the first to migrate to a Pentagon-wide cloud that is expected to make that data accessible to personnel around the globe.

“We’re trying to build those teams in so we’re out with the combatant commands, we’re out with the services, we’re out talking to the users and the program offices to really understand their requirements and get this right on the front end so that we know we’re asking for,” Shanahan said.

The JAIC is also continuing its outreach to commercial industry and will hold a pitch day to vet products in Ann Arbor, Mich., this month.

But the group wants as many people as possible to be able to contribute. The JAIC is setting up a cloud-based platform that offers data, AI tools, and more so engineers can develop, test, and push out their own solutions. That effort could mirror another do-it-yourself sort of AI project underway within the Air Force Research Laboratory.

“It is designed to lower the barriers of entry, democratize access to data, eliminate duplicative efforts and increase value added for the department,” Shanahan said.

The JAIC team is working on a minimally useful version of the “Joint Common Foundation”—hosted on an interim cloud before the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud comes to fruition—and will continue development over the next six months.

“There will be the standard tools available that someone can get in and get access to,” Shanahan said. “The Joint Common Foundation is an incentive for people to come into the JAIC and get away from all of the bespoke solutions that they’ve had to stand up across the department, mostly in research labs [because] they had no other choice.”

Predictive maintenance and humanitarian assistance algorithms are expected to move onto the JCF platform in the future, he added.