Air Force researchers hope to create a zone of trust for AI tools

software (whiteMocca/ 

Department of Defense networks aren't particularly welcoming to new software tools, especially when the underlying technology is cutting-edge. But the Air Force is looking to dismantle some of those barriers with its cognitive engine program ACE.

"The Air Force Cognitive Engine (ACE) is ultimately a software platform. We're trying to create a software ecosystem to hook up the core infrastructures that are required for successful AI development -- that's people, algorithms, data, and computational resources," said Maj. Michael Seal, director for the Air Force's Autonomy Capability Team 3, which leads the ACE program.

The DOD way, Seal told FCW during the Defense Department's April 25 Lab Day, is for people to use the network they're told to use, one that houses data from an amalgamation of sources, and use whatever tools are approved and available.

"It's not like I'm at home pecking away at Python script deciding I want the latest version of Pandas [an open-source data analysis tool] and I install it," Seal said. "It doesn't work that way."

That top-down approach, however, doesn't work very well with artificial intelligence efforts.

"Right now, a lot of the cutting-edge AI tools live on the level of code base, not software. AI researchers and implementers work from code," Seal explained. "But our networks and our policies around what goes on our networks are built around software, not code."

To do that, he said, ACE is architecting a space where code-based tools can be packaged to be better accepted by DOD's systems.

The effort also aims to encourage sharing of those tools – both across DOD's in-house efforts and with private-sector partners.

"If you find your preferred AI business, their team has a toolbox they prefer to work with that can't get through the door to our network system because most of it hasn't been approved or cleared for our activities," Seal said. "What we want to do is make a conduit to meet them on our neworks, if not with the absolute most cutting-edge release of a package [then] a recent release so they have tools to work with that are still familiar."

ACE is in developmental beta phase, which will help shape the program's architecture going forward. Production version 1.0 is planned to be released summer 2020. Hosting applications are currently proving to be an early challenge, but Seal said the goal is to have ACE be platform agnostic so it can play with cloud, local computing, or the edge.

"It's not as soon as we would like but the software challenges underlying this are research level," he said. "There's a lot of requirements around architectural development."

For the next six months, Seal said, the program will work with the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center on predictive maintenance problems, while also working on demonstration and feedback activities with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance cells.

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is a staff writer at FCW 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, or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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