Military’s top AI officer retiring as Pentagon continues to increase investments and interest

The leader of the Defense Department’s hub for integrating artificial intelligence into operations and functional purposes of the military will retire this summer.

Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) Director Lt. Gen. John Shanahan will leave the Air Force, but continue his duties until he transitions from the service, JAIC spokesman Lt. Commander Arlo Abrahamson told Federal News Network in a statement.

“The search for his replacement as JAIC director is ongoing,” Abrahamson said.

C4ISRNET was the first to report Shanahan’s retirement.

Shanahan jointed the military in 1984, and started leading JAIC in December 2018. He also oversaw Project Maven — an initiative that, at least temporarily, teamed up with some of the top tech companies to use machine learning to sift through drone footage to support counterterrorism operations — from April 2017 until the end of 2018.

The Pentagon is putting considerable resources and hope into JAIC as it transitions its attention to near-peer adversaries instead of threats in the Middle East.

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Top military officials like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley describe the future of warfare as reliant on AI to quickly analyze data and adapt code so warfighters can make split-second decisions on the ground.

JAIC holds the keys to that future, and whoever takes Shanahan’s place will have a considerable responsibility to shoulder. JAIC will have a budget of more than $180 million in 2020, and it also plans to double its staff of 70 by 2021.

Shanahan announced last summer that AI could be used in military operations as early as this year in a project called AI for maneuver and fires.

“The project will focus on individual lines of effort or product lines oriented on warfighting operations like operations/intelligence fusion, joint all-domain command and control; accelerated sensor-to-shooter timelines, autonomous and swarming systems; target development and operations center workflows,” Shanahan said in August.

For a layman’s version of that process, consider how Netflix suggests shows to viewers.

Oftentimes when customers open Netflix it will say a show is a 95% match for based on the customer’s past viewing habits. Netflix took in all the information from how you and people like you watched and found shows similar to ones you like, and recommended them to you.

The military can use similar technology for targets. It can take tons of data on what enemy camps look like on satellite images. Then it can look at a new image and say with a percentage of certainty, based on what it’s seen, that specific areas on a map may be enemy camps. It takes a lot of work away from intelligence officers poring over an image.

JAIC is also in the process of creating a Joint Common Foundation, which Shanahan said is instrumental to JAIC’s concept.

“It will be a platform that will provide access to data, tools, environment, libraries and other certified platforms to enable software and AI engineers to rapidly develop, evaluate, test and deploy AI-enabled solutions to warfighters,” he said. “It is designed to lower the barriers to entry, democratize access to data, eliminate duplicative efforts and increase value added to the department. This platform will reside on top of an enterprise cloud structure.”

The new leader of JAIC will also have considerable challenges.

A December 2019 study from the RAND Corporation, and mandated by Congress, found DoD’s posture in AI is significantly challenged across all dimensions.

“One of the main findings is the visibility, the authorities and the long-term resource allocation given to the JAIC do not seem to align with what was stated in the AI strategy as this significant mission of the JAIC,” Danielle Tarraf, senior information scientist at RAND, told Federal News Network. “That raises questions about whether the JAIC can really do what it’s been tasked to do.”

The study found that DoD does not have proper metrics to measure the success of the JAIC either.

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