Incoming: AI Is Ready Now, and the Defense Department Must Get Ready as Well

June 1, 2019
By Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA (Ret.)

Ever since British polymath Alan Turing posed the question, “Can machines think?” in 1950, mathematicians and computer scientists have been actively exploring the potential of artificial intelligence (AI).

To be sure, much of the buzz around AI since then has been more hype than reality. Even today, no one credibly argues that machines can match the suppleness and complexity of human intelligence. But we are at a point where machines, when tasked for specific use, can do many things humans can do—such as learn, problem-solve, perceive, decide, plan, communicate and create—and some things even humans can’t do. And that’s a huge leap from where we were only a decade ago.

Today, we see many of the incredible advances AI has made in our navigation apps, web searches, email filters, online shopping experiences, photo tags on social media and even driverless cars, to name a few.

Given this considerable progress, Defense Department leaders are understandably excited about AI’s possibilities. Many of them view AI as a critical tool to process an environment increasingly characterized by large quantities of sensors, communications networks and accelerating streams of data and information. Last year, the Pentagon created a new Joint AI Center (JAIC) to synchronize and scale AI exploration and adoption for shared use cases. And in February, the first Department of Defense AI Strategy declared that AI is “poised to change the character of the future battlefield and the pace of threats we must face. We will harness the potential of AI to transform all functions of the Department positively.”

Many experts expect AI to create smarter, more capable weapons platforms, bolster capabilities in cybersecurity and information warfare, speed battlefield decision making, advance logistics and battlefield medicine, enhance target recognition and improve combat training, simulation and wargaming, among other things.

Still, given the long history of hype around AI in the past, many in the defense community understandably may question whether the buzz around AI today is legitimate. Are we really at a tipping point with AI this time? In short, yes—and here is why.

In past decades, the ability of technologists to realize AI’s potential was often constrained by the prevailing limitations of storage and computing capacity. But continuous growth in computer memory and speed, as predicted by Moore’s Law, has enabled further advancements in AI over time. The growth of memory and computing speed also ushered in the modern era of big data. This amassing of data on unprecedented scales has opened another important avenue for AI advancement: machine learning. We now can teach machines how to recognize patterns and objects by exposing them to very large data sets and then adjusting how they operate as they ingest new data. These developments have been instrumental in getting AI to where it is today. The result is that AI will likely impact most facets of the military enterprise, so everyone in the defense community will have a role to play.

Still, while most experts agree that AI is poised to revolutionize much of the world around us, it is important to dispel some misperceptions. AI has advanced a great deal in recent years, but it cannot be expected to solve our problems out of the box with minimal risk or to address broad applications across wide-ranging mission or business areas.

Given where we are with AI today, how should Defense Department program and organizational managers think about it? I have several suggestions.

First, they should explore ways to introduce AI into their programs starting with small steps. AI is coming, and it brings with it a learning curve. The sooner organizations start down that path, the sooner they can gain familiarity and a comfort level from which they can scale and advance.

Second, they should think carefully about what AI will mean for the workforce and take proactive steps to address those implications. To help drive success, staffs should be educated, informed, consulted and included in the planning for any AI deployments. Workflow and business processes likely will be altered—perhaps dramatically—so leaders will need to incorporate effective change management strategies.

Third, they must recruit people with data science and other AI-related backgrounds to improve organizational fluency. Upskilling and reskilling of personnel also may be required.

Finally, they should develop an ecosystem of experienced partners that can offer specific expertise in deploying AI capabilities at significant scale.

AI will continue to advance and, as it does, it will transform much of how we—and our adversaries—live, work and fight as a military. Defense Department program and organizational leaders need to come to grips with that and help lead those transformations proactively and smartly.

Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA (Ret.), is managing director for the Armed Forces Sector, Accenture Federal Services. She previously served as the CIO/G-6 for the U.S. Army as well as the commanding general for the Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM).

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