JAIC director: ‘2020 will be a breakout year’ for DOD’s artificial intelligence

Jack Shanahan visits the 181st Intelligence Wing August 6, 2013. (U.S. Air National Guard / Senior Master Sgt. John S. Chapman)

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The Department of Defense’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) is poised to have a huge year in fiscal 2020, with some of its first applications reaching early pilot stages and the launch of its biggest project yet, says the center’s director, Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan.

“I am optimistic that 2020 will be a breakout year for the department when it comes to fielding AI-enabled capabilities,” Shanahan told reporters Friday.

Shanahan detailed the growth of the JAIC over the past year, growing from initial funding of $93 million to a “healthy” budget — the department requested $268 million — for fiscal 2020.

In that time, the center has added more than 60 government employees and announced several new projects, including a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief application for wildfires and flooding, predictive maintenance for the H-60 helicopter, intelligent business automation and “cyber sense-making, focusing on event detection, user activity monitoring and network mapping,” he said.

Within the next six to seven months, Shanahan expects the JAIC will start to see progress around a few of those initial lines of effort rolling out minimum viable products and continuously developing and iterating them. “That’s pretty quick,” he said

AI for maneuvers and fires

Next year, the JAIC will turn its attention to the battlefield and warfighting operations for the first time in its “biggest project” for fiscal 2020. Called “AI for maneuvers and fires,” the project’s product lines will be focused around things 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 explained.

While the integration of AI to the battlefield might call to mind nightmares of lethal autonomous weapons, Shanahan said the new project is more about creating “an enormous impact day-to-day on the warfighter by getting through command and control faster.”

“If we’re having challenges with that in today’s fight, imagine what that time cycle looks like against a peer competitor,” he said. “It’s all about getting through that decision cycle much faster.”

This sort of project could have an immense impact on the future of the U.S. military, particularly in “great power” competition. “[W]hat I don’t want to see is a future where our potential adversaries have a fully AI-enabled force and we do not when it goes back to this question of time and decision cycles, and I don’t have the time luxury of hours or days to make decisions,” Shanahan said. “It may be seconds and microseconds where AI can be used to our competitive advantage.”

Enabling other AI projects

Shanahan announced another AI project, the Joint Common Foundation, that he called “instrumental” to the JAIC’s concept as an AI center of excellence for other military services and agencies to leverage.

The Joint Common Foundation “will be a platform that will provide access to data, tools, environments, libraries and to other certified platforms to enable software and AI engineers to rapidly develop, evaluate, test and deploy AI-enabled solutions to warfighters,” he said.

The platform “is designed to lower the barriers of entry, democratize access to data, eliminate duplicative efforts and increase value added for the department,” Shanahan said. It will eventually reside on top of the Pentagon enterprise cloud capability, which it’s currently looking to acquire through its $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud program.

While Shanahan avoided saying much specifically about the ongoing and tumultuous JEDI acquisition, he did say the department’s inability to contract for an enterprise cloud capability has delayed the progress of the JCF.

“We were held up a little bit because we were trying to go out and actually get an enterprise cloud,” he said. “But absent the JEDI contract, we had to go out and come up with a sort of interim solution, just to be able to provide that enterprise cloud environment.”

That speaks to a larger point about the need for digital modernization within the DOD for AI to be possible and effective. “DOD’s AI adoption capacity is limited by the pace of broader digital modernization” to include cybersecurity and command, control and communications (C3) as well, Shanahan said. “We face hard decisions ahead in the department about striking the right balance between adapting legacy systems, legacy data practices and legacy workflows to AI; in effect, bolting on cutting-edge technologies to old systems and accepting a certain level of sunk costs by divesting legacy systems to accelerate the development and fielding of AI-ready systems.”

Despite the delay caused by the need for an enterprise cloud, version 0.5 of the Joint Common Foundation, as Shanahan called it, is “just about launched.”

“But this is internal, sort of, test environment to begin with, starting to bring a couple of our mission initiative workflows into it,” he said.

Shanahan briefly mentioned one other effort the JAIC is developing with the Defense Innovation Unit. Partnering with military services’ surgeons general, the teams are starting a predictive health project that will leverage AI for “health records analysis, medical imagery classification and PTSD mitigation/suicide prevention.”

The JAIC still faces the uphill battle of cementing itself as a center of excellence within the Pentagon and receiving funding from Congress commensurate to its ambitious mission. While Shanahan said the center’s budget request for 2020 “got marked,” it’s “still in very good shape.”

“I am very happy,” he said. “I’ll just tell you that Congress has been extraordinarily helpful in looking at AI and the department needs to accelerate what we’re doing, and it’s been a bipartisan issue.”

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artificial intelligence (AI), Department of Defense (DOD), Jack Shanahan, JEDI, Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC)
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