The future of algorithmic warfare

USAF LTG Jack Shanahan 

USAF Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan is leading Project Maven, a pilot to operationalize AI for military use.

Let the tech do the rote work, so humans can do what they do best.

That was a core message Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, the director of defense intelligence for the Defense Department, drilled on during the keynote address at Nvidia's Nov. 1 GPU Technology Conference in Washington, D.C.

"If we get to this world where the system is playing itself millions of times over to allow the human to step back and say, 'What if you try this?'" Shanahan said, it will change DOD forever. "The human element of this never changes."

It's been nearly six months since DOD announced the stand up of the Algorithmic Warfare Cross Functional Team or Project Maven, which focuses on turning aerial imagery into actionable intelligence.

Shanahan said that the capacity and capabilities of artificial intelligence and machine learning were virtually endless but were trapped inside research laboratories.

"That's what Maven is all about. Maven is designed to be that pilot project, that pathfinder, that spark that kindles the flame of artificial intelligence across the rest of the department," he said.  Shanahan didn't know how long it would take to get AI from the Maven Project in the lab to the field with policy to boot, but he said 24 to 36 months was the start.

"If it is not woven throughout the fabric of the department, it will not succeed" he said. "And we've got to find the right balance in there somewhere."

But while Maven's algorithms are expected to be deployed by year's end, Shanahan said there hasn't been leadership consensus on how to turn those lessons into operational norms.

As a department, senior leaders "have not made a decision of how this transitions. [Then-Deputy Defense] Secretary [Bob] Work, when he said, 'Stand up project Maven,' was explicit in his guidance to us over and over again: This is not an intelligence thing, it's a Department of Defense operations problem," Shanahan said.

Obstacles at DOD include people, governance, methodology and technology, Shanahan said.

"We are trying to foster and sustain and AI-ready culture across the Department of Defense that does not exist today -- with very small exceptions," he said, adding that there was little choice in the matter of culture shifts.

But getting to that point requires input from industry, a relationship that comes with a host of trepidations.

"Algorithmic warfare is not going to be effective without cloud computing," Shanahan said. "And not every cloud out there is optimized for it."

Shanahan said Maven was working with a cloud steering group but has already secured a cloud solution that needs to be accredited.

In its six months of existence, Maven has contracted six companies to develop algorithms. The key, he said, was keeping things small, focused and giving individual attention -- a modus operandi that won't likely spread overnight.

"My expectation is that everybody from a one-person company to the biggest data internet company in the world is a contender [in] trying to find solutions for the department's problems," he said, but working with DOD isn't easy, particularly for startups.

Shanahan pointed to DIUx as being helpful in ensuring startups get a seat at Maven's table, but he admitted that going through the acquisition, technology and logistics process can be like "crushing your spirit and your soul," an experience that likely won't change soon.

"Everybody's been talking about acquisition reform as long as the department's been around. It's easy to say, but how do you do it? I think part of the way to do it is to just show it can be done," he said. "Be the person that pushes hard and doesn't take no for an answer."

One ideal solution, Shanahan said, would be an umbrella indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contract environment "where we can just slide people in and out of contracts that already exist."

But for now, companies trying to get into business with DOD need to prove they can do it to improve acquisition chances. But the payoffs could be analogous to the explosion of commercial technology that emerged from NASA's moonshot, Shanahan hinted.

"This is the Tang of the 21st century," he said. "We just don't know what's going to come out of it, but we'll figure it out."

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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