2020 in review: Joint AI Center gets a ‘2.0’ and a clear path forward

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This was the year the Department of Defense’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center transformed from a scrappy startup working on low-risk products to being a full-fledge battlefield AI incubator.

As 2020 draws to a close, the JAIC stands as a 200-plus person organization with a new leader and new direction dubbed “JAIC 2.0.” JAIC officials now see themselves as an enabling force, one designed to help the many other parts of the Pentagon reach AI-readiness rather than be a product-focused office just making models.

In 2020 the JAIC also adopted its own ethical principles, started building a development platform and launched new international outreach programs. The office is also on the cusp of gaining its own acquisition authority, pending a likely override vote on the Fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act in the Senate.

“Every year has felt like, ‘OK, it couldn’t possibly be the case that next year would be a bigger deal than what we went through the previous year,'” Greg Allen, the JAIC’s head of strategy and communications, said during a recent C4ISR webinar. “Because we’ve grown from … really just an idea and a handful of people to a really large organization with an enormous mandate and enormous breadth of activities underway.”

When the JAIC was first launched, it was a small group people working on a handful of projects with no direct connections to combat, like wildfire tracking and predictive maintenance. Now, the vast majority of the JAIC’s budget is spent on its Joint Warfighting work, with the center awarding an $800 million contract to Booz Allen Hamilton in May to be a prime integrator for battlefield AI.

In his final appearance as JAIC director in the same month, Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan said it was time for DOD to take AI to the battlefield.

“People in the field have begun to taste what AI can be,” the now retired general said in May.

With its new director, Lt. Gen. Michael Groen, JAIC 2.0 was born. Its latest mission is to be the office that makes other AI offices work better.

“We will continue to do products … but we really want to create a tide that raises all boats,” Groen said in his first major appearance as JAIC director in November.

Defining ethics for battlefield tech

Before the introduction of warfighting tech, the JAIC adopted its own AI ethics principles that officials say will guide all of their decisions. The five principles — that AI use should be responsible, equitable, traceable, reliable and governable — are the words that projects will live or die by.

“I think about how do we have everyone think about ethics across the organization, and not think perhaps it is just the technologist’s job to address it,” Alka Patel, the JAIC AI ethics lead, said. “Frankly, it is all part of our jobs.”

The ethics principles were adopted in February from a set of recommendations drafted by the Defense Innovation Board. Patel and other ethics officials say they are implementing the principles in several ways, including new cross-cutting ethics committees, as well as testing and evaluation processes.

Tech for all five sides of the Pentagon

The JAIC says it is bringing AI to all through its Joint Common Foundation (JCF). The AI development platform is billed as the soon-to-be one-stop-shop for databases, coding environments and AI models. The ultimate goal is to have anyone from a solider deployed in Afghanistan to civilian in a support agency be able to access and manipulate clean, verifiable data for analytics.

“At the core of JAIC’s success has got to be this JCF,” DOD Chief Information Officer, Dana Deasy, said during the FedTalks 2020 virtual event.

In August, the JAIC issued a $106 million contract to Deloitte to help on the JCF. (The JAIC actually needed the Defense Information Systems Agency to issue the contract). Many other technology pieces need to be put in place to reach the JCF’s goals, including cross-department cloud adoption.

The JAIC’s budget has consistently grown since its founding. But, until the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act is made into law by an expected veto-override vote in the Senate, the JAIC has no ability to buy its own tech and services. Having acquisition authority will mean that the JAIC will not need to go to other organizations within the government — like DISA or the General Services Administration — to do the actual acquisition, like it did on the JCF and Joint Warfighting contracts.

The changes to the JAIC, from new authorities to new monikers, all point to a singular focus in the year’s to come: using AI wherever the military confronts adversaries. DOD leaders for years have spoken about AI potential impact on the future of conflict, but in 2021 that future will be closer than ever.

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artificial intelligence (AI), Department of Defense (DOD), emerging technology, ethics, Jack Shanahan, Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), Michael Groen, Military
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