AI commission seeks stronger C-suite authorities for DoD, intel community

The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence recommends elevating the role of the Defense Department’s chief technology officer and designating a CTO office within the intelligence community.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, the NSCAI vice chairman, said DoD’s decision to split its acquisition office into two undersecretary roles — one for research and engineering (R&E) led by the CTO, the other for acquisition and sustainment (OUSD A&S) — hasn’t empowered the CTO to drive the Pentagon’s long-term technology strategy.

“What we recommend is that we provide R&E with more authorities to compete with service-level authorities, resources and requirements, and to really drive the whole department’s technology strategy with an eye towards improving AI adoption,” Work said Tuesday in a call with reporters.

The commission recommends DoD’s elevated CTO develop a technology annex to the National Defense Strategy, and that the intelligence community’s newly designated CTO draft a similar policy document as part of the National Intelligence Strategy. In addition, Work said these executives would work closely together to drive a “top-down push” on government AI adoption.

Meanwhile, the defense and intelligence communities have laid the foundation for the ethical use of AI in two similar policy documents.  Defense Secretary Mark Esper signed off on a five-point AI ethics memorandum in February, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an AI strategy for the intel community in July.

To elevate the importance of the U.S. staying ahead of a global arms race to develop the most cutting-edge AI algorithms, the commission has also recommended standing up a Technology Competitiveness Council chaired by the vice president, but whose day-to-day operations would be led by an assistant to the vice president.

NSCAI Chairman Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, said the commission’s vision for the council mirrors the National Space Council led by Vice President Mike Pence and supported by a panel of advisers.

“We think collectively that this set of issues around competitiveness is so defining that it needs to be at the vice presidential or presidential level, and not as part of some bureaucratic process, in which case you won’t have that kind of heft,” Schmidt said.

These recommendations are just a few highlights from the commission’s 66 recommendations submitted to President Donald Trump and Congress after voting on the recommendations last week.

The recommendations generally fall into three major categories — organizing for AI and emerging technology competition, expanding the AI talent pipeline and building international cooperation in the development of AI.

While the NSCAI expects to release its final report in March, Work said that the commission has already seen signals from Congress and the executive branch suggest there’s a “bipartisan priority to get AI right.”

The commission also recommends DoD strengthen its investments in Small Business Innovation Research by encouraging broader participation from start-ups and small businesses.

Schmidt said that both large and small companies have a role in the federal marketplace for AI, but noted that smaller companies tend to move more quickly and provide specialized software skills that will be essential for the development of AI technology.

“Whenever I think about how AI has been applied to government, I imagine that there will be a large number of relatively small talent companies with very, very exquisite and specialized software skills and they will be contractors of one kind or another,” Schmidt said.

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