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Top Official: Cloud’s the ‘Lodestar’ for DoD’s AI

A top Defense Department (DoD) official says that cloud is essential for integrating artificial intelligence (AI) into the agency’s mission.

Lt. Gen. John N.T. “Jack” Shanahan is the Director of DoD’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), which operates inside the office of the agency’s chief information officer (CIO). JAIC was created in June 2018 to accelerate the delivery of DoD’s AI-enabled capabilities, scale AI’s impact agencywide and synchronize the technology’s activities to expand Joint Force advantages.

“That’s the lodestar,” Shanahan said of cloud’s importance to DoD’s AI efforts Wednesday. “Without that, it’s just sidecars and side projects. It’s not fast enough and broad enough.”

Shanahan was addressing the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association’s (AFCEA) Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Summit.

According to Shanahan, JAIC wants to speed up DoD’s AI adoption and integration for mission success at scale using the technology’s capabilities. JAIC is focused on seven priorities, he continued, including capacity, capability, culture, data, AI-readying forces, mission relevancy and oversight.

“If we project 20 years into the future and we’re on the cusp of a major conflict with a peer competitor while having an AI-enabled force, that alone doesn’t mean we will win that conflict,” he said of JAIC’s importance. “But without a fully AI-enabled force, we have an unacceptably high risk of losing that conflict.”

Shanahan noted that AI could help DoD maximize the benefits of the agency’s data, adding that cloud is best for handling such information effectively.

“Every time when we come up with a project, there’s data that comes out of it,” he said. “Enterprise cloud is part of this solution. We must put something back into the common foundation. Everything has to be harvested.”

Shanahan also explained that cloud is critical for AI as older legacy systems are not capable of supporting the technology.

“The rubber band is getting stretched thin,” he said. “We’re trying to take cutting edge AI and bolt it on to legacy systems and workflows.”

Shanahan said that fully operational AI agencywide would aid DoD’s analytics, helping leaders there make more informed decisions.

“It’s about minimizing the risk of collateral damage, civilian casualties,” he said. “It’s about how we use this to do better at our business of warfighting operations.”

Shanahan acknowledged, however, that one of DoD’s biggest challenges to fully realizing AI’s potential is the agency’s workforce.

“We have to train people differently at every level,” he said of DoD’s existing employees. “We have to build a whole career path for people who have this literacy. We know we must bring in outside talent – we don’t have enough of it. How do we encourage these people to come into DoD and work on the national defense?”

DoD published the agency’s latest cloud strategy in February 2019, and the document listed enabling AI and data transparency among the agency’s seven “strategic objectives.” The strategy ultimately envisions DoD’s AI-driven cloud delivering “information superiority” to warfighters.

Shanahan added that DoD is pursuing cloud-based AI fiercely, but the technologies are evolving faster than any tools that came before them.

“This feels different,” he said. “It’s a pace of change that the department has not experienced during my 35 years in uniform.”

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