This Air Force technologist has helped spread the internet everywhere

If one theme applies to the federal career of this guest of Federal Drive Host Tom Temin, it might be innovation. In both civilian and military situations, she’s brought new technology and new approaches to mission support. Now she’s been inducted into the National Academy of Public Administration.  The Federal Drive with Tom Temin recently talked with the Chief Information Officer of the Air Force Research Laboratory, Alexis Bonnell.

Interview Transcript:  

Tom Temin I think of the Air Force Research Laboratory as the conduit for the latest in technology for the Air Force. Let’s begin with right now. What are some of the projects you’re working on? What’s at the top of the list right now?

Alexis Bonnell As you can imagine, digital and all of the innovation within it is absolutely paramount to our national security and to the paradigm that we find ourselves in the world globally. And so I have the distinct honor, really, of working not only across the Air Force Research Lab, which means both Air Force and Space Force, which is incredible to have a role where you get to work with two organizations. But really, our goal is to measurably accelerate and generate then transition and essence adoption ready technology to demonstrate military benefit and relevance. And so that could be everything from how we make better scientific discoveries in the area of hypersonics or satellites or cyber all the way to just how do we reduce the toil so that our airmen and civilians are able to just be more effective and, quite frankly, more passionate about their work every day.

Tom Temin So there’s a machine and a human aspect to this.

Alexis Bonnell Absolutely. And in fact, I think that’s really where we find ourselves in the world right now, is that great kind of interconnection between our relationship with technology as humans.

Tom Temin And you apparently like being a dweller on the latest because let’s go back to earlier in your career. Back in the nineties, you were part of the Internet Trade Association. Tell us about that and what that was and what you learned there.

Alexis Bonnell First of all, it was really exciting. I joke with some people that I’ve been in the Internet longer than they’ve had email accounts, and it’s actually quite true. So back in the nineties there was the Internet Trade Association. And really my job, which is so fascinating to reflect on now Tom, was to go to places like Fortune 500 companies and kind of say, hey, there’s this thing, the Internet, and it’s going to change how you do business. And one of the things I love to chuckle the most about right now is, quite frankly, early in that mission, not many people were interested. American Express and American Airlines they responded kind of saying, well, we think it’s a fad. We don’t really see how it’s going to impact our business. And you can imagine just a short few months after that kind of being invited back. Tell us more, say more about this thing. It doesn’t seem to be going away. So I think that great element of maybe cutting my teeth in that role is in some levels you just become quite fascinated with what’s next. Your curiosity engine really doesn’t stop. And so I was lucky, I think, to come into a role where really kind of looking ahead and helping organizations and people kind of understand how is this relevant to me, what is this technology mean? And that translation is really probably my great joy.

Tom Temin You could say the Internet had as much effect on the airlines as the jet engine did. Really, if you look at it.

Alexis Bonnell Absolutely, probably even more when we start looking at Christmas disruptions or the power of those things in our daily lives.

Tom Temin And I guess let’s go back even a further step. Tell us about the background that led to your being part of the Internet Trade Association.

Alexis Bonnell Sure. So what was really interesting is as I was growing up, my family business was in kind of direct marketing. And back in the early nineties and eighties, as people will remember, we got things like catalogs and mailers. And at that point in time it was really quite sexy to be a brand advertiser, to have the Nike swoosh and to be kind of in that realm of communications and advertising. But what I think was a really interesting gift my dad gave me looking at direct marketing was this idea of what does it look like to be able to test and measure an interaction with someone, an appeal of something. And so that idea of being able to experiment to see did that get a response, is that something that is going to drive a sale or a conversion really got me, I think, early hooked into this idea of being able to measure the impact of something or to understand that power of engagement. And so as the Internet kind of emerged, it was like all of those things on steroids. It was like, Ok, all of a sudden we can have a direct relationship, we can have a different relationship with information and knowledge and we can measure it. And I think that measurement becomes really powerful, whether you are a commercial company worried about selling things or whether you are a government helping that a population is taking advantage of a benefit or service that you have. I think as good public leaders, we all want to understand is what we’re doing having an impact, can we measure it? And I think that was a little bit of where my roots came from.

Tom Temin Interesting. Yes. You could never prove that someone actually laid their eyeballs on a printed page. But you could sure know if that website got clicked on. I know it changed my career a great deal and the economics of publishing changed. We’re speaking with Alexis Bonnell. She is the chief information officer at the Air Force Research Laboratory, director of its Digital Capabilities Directorate, and a new inductee to the National Academy of Public Administration. And let’s fast forward. You were at the U.S. Agency for International Development, and you were the premiere Innovation Lab, Global Development Lab founder there. Tell us about that stop.

Alexis Bonnell Absolutely. I mean, what an incredible honor at the time. The administration was really leaning into innovation across all levels. And, of course, there have been entities like DARPA and many others that had deep history. But from an international development or diplomacy lens, there really hadn’t been the same type of innovation, focus and work. So I, along with a number of colleagues at USAID, had the great privilege of kind of starting an innovation and science lab there, being able to really make USAID’s mission permeable to science, to academia, to private sector partnerships. And quite frankly, it was such a wonderful exercise in what I would call humble curiosity. Being able to start with that moment of maybe we don’t know everything, maybe we don’t have all the solutions in government. And I’m sure we need to be able to match resources with that kind of collective global genius. And so in kicking off the development lab, it wasn’t just an exercise and finding funding and deploying new ways of addressing education, democracy, health issues. It was also a journey of culture around how is it that we spread to that humble curiosity? How is it that we make it more easy to work with us for outside players? And it was just an honor to learn a lot along the way.

Tom Temin That’s a big issue. You have been involved in dual use technologies that have commercial and military application, but really the difficulty is not the application, it’s convincing sometimes those companies, yes, you actually do want to do business with the Air Force or the Defense Department, and then they see what’s involved there and maybe second guess you on it.

Alexis Bonnell Absolutely. And I think that is where it’s exciting to be in a role like I get to serve in right now, because a lot of this is actually, how do we make it easier? So, of course, there’s larger questions on procurement and acquisition and how we move those resources, which a number of my colleagues are really advancing, as far as programs like AppWorks and others. But for me, it’s also a question of how do we participate with knowledge together? And so putting together digital structures where we can share research data, where we can collaborate more easily with players that may not have securely, but with players that might not have the access to some of our internal networks, etc.. And so really thinking about that challenge of how do we maintain all the security elements that we obviously need, but how do we just make it easier again to collaborate? And that’s where I think a lot of the tools we have now are just in a fundamentally different place than they were even a few years ago. So it’s quite neat to see our interaction with allies and other things growing.

Tom Temin And your bio mentions a lot of units besides the Air Force Research Laboratory. There’s well-known names now in the Defense Innovation Enterprise, if you want to call it that. AppWorks you mentioned, Kessel Run, Naval X Marine Innovation Unit, Army Futures Command. It goes on and on and on,[Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)]. Is there any mechanism among that network? I guess it’s an informal network to make sure you’re not duplicating effort.

Alexis Bonnell Oh, goodness. I think the first is just having that network of other human beings who tick and who really want to kind of be on that exploratory edge, and quite frankly, learning from each other. I think that there are certainly informal networks. There’s formal networks like Federal Innovation Council and others that I’ve gotten to participate in, and I’m lucky enough to sit in now. I think that this is something, though, where in some ways it’s really interesting. Because we don’t want to duplicate, but what I tend to find is that often there’s a slightly different flavor or a slightly different focus that we might be doing that seems at the top level of the definition to be duplicative. But when you get down to it, it might be while I’m looking at that technology, for example, for a multi security level, and you might be looking at it from a different lens. So I think what’s really exciting is, again, that ability to bring in those collaborators, those discoverers, researcher as principal investigators, to be part of a community that has that conversation. And I know when I have gotten the great privilege of kind of working in or contributing to any of those groups, sometimes the most interesting conversation is how is it that we function as people? What are their tricks around culture or around administration or resourcing that actually advance each other’s work even more than a particular discovery?

Tom Temin It seems like the trend in a lot of the innovation and you can say this of artificial intelligence is not to try to replace the human with some robotic in the military. They don’t envision that ever happening, actually. But really, to augment what the people, the precious commodity, the hard to acquire and maintain commodity, which is the service members, enabling them to do more with surrounding augmentation technologies.

Alexis Bonnell Well, Tom and I actually love the fact that you use the word augmentation, because being able to spend some time at Google as well, AI was a definite geek out area. For me, it’s one of my big areas of passion. But specifically because I think what AI does and I wish it was called augmented intelligence instead of artificial, so maybe you and I can start a trend on that. But it really is kind of the next level of technology that just ultimately changes our relationship with knowledge and knowledge. And interacting with knowledge is a human journey we’ve been on for a long time. It’s one we’ll continue to be on. But what I always tell people as an example, with AI in particular, and I had previously kind of donated a lot of time to AI one on one classes for leaders and others. Because it’s important that we understand the relationship with the technology. But one of the great examples that I found really useful as I started to think about the technology is, I think about AI or augmenting my intelligence as an it’s an example with some of the generative AI tools, almost a little bit like having a really great intern meeting or a thousand great interns where I might kind of say, Hey, I’m interested in this. Go collect this information for me, surface this knowledge, bring it to me. But it’s not like I would take that, not read it, throw my logo on it and send it outside. Like any great experience with knowledge, I’m going to take that in, I’m going to see doesn’t resonate with my expertise and my experience. I might hone, but that process of curation of knowledge, I think is really what is an exciting thing to be confronted with. And the reality is that as humans, these are tools that do what we tell them to do with the information we tell them to use. And so that business of curation and that business of knowledge I think is a really exciting place to be. And the technology is only letting us ask bigger questions now.

Tom Temin And a final question. You have served in some challenging areas of the world as a practitioner of technology. So in some sense you’ve got a chance to really taste the importance, if you will, and the criticality of defense technologies and innovative ways of getting things done in rough parts of the world.

Alexis Bonnell Yeah, absolutely. I mean, quite frankly, I’ve been shot, I’ve lost colleagues to café bombings and kidnappings and incursions and have been there in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and many other challenging locations. And so for me, this ability to serve not only at AFRL, but to be a public servant is a very intimate and fully meaningful and powerful opportunity to contribute not only to the incredible people out there right now who are risking our lives and standing up for our nation’s values. But even more importantly, to the people that I have lost along the way, right in service to those missions. And so it’s it’s just a deep honor to be able to find ways to continue to serve their memories and the people who are doing this every day.

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