NGA official: Artificial intelligence is changing everything, ‘We need a different mentality’

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NGA Deputy Director Justin Poole: “Relevance is now a matter of speed."

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military got is first big taste of artificial intelligence with Project Maven. An Air Force initiative, it began more than a year ago as an experiment using machine learning algorithms developed by Google to analyze full-motion video surveillance.

The project has received high praise within military circles for giving operators in the field instant access to the type of intelligence that typically would have taken a long time for geospatial data analysts to produce.

Project Maven has whetted the military’s appetite for artificial intelligence tools. And this is creating pressure on the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to jump on the AI bandwagon and start delivering Maven-like products and services.

“Relevance is now a matter of speed,” NGA Deputy Director Justin Poole told a C4ISRNET conference last week in Arlington, Va.

Data is flowing at unprecedented volumes from government and commercial sensors. There will be more constellations of remote sensing satellites and swarms of spy drones in the future piping in even more data. ‘We must adapt rapidly,” Poole said.

NGA’s answer is what the agency calls its “triple A” strategy: automation, augmentation, AI. “We intend to apply triple A by the end of this year to every image we ingest,” said Poole. It will be a massive undertaking. Just over the past year, NGA ingested more than 12 million images and generated more than 50 million indexed observations.

The agency has to step up the application of machine learning and advanced algorithms so it can provide faster support to forces in the field, Poole said. “We’re partnering with leading commercial vendors to produce next generation high resolution 3D models, 3D geospatial data, battlefield visualization,” said Poole. “As we expand from products to services, we have to push triple A. We have to transform how we interact with customers. We want to become a broker of diverse geospatial content.”

NGA also is modernizing its cloud architecture “to allow our analysts to live in the data,” Poole said. “We need a different mentality within the government. Algorithms can get stale within months if not weeks,” he insisted. “We need to rethink how we partner with industry and academia.”

Poole is overseeing the agency’s acquisition reforms. “We will work within the regulations we have, and we are retooling offices and using other transactions authorities.” OTA is a commercial-like contracting method used to move projects faster.

“How do we change the culture?” Poole asked. “We traditionally think about technology insertion as being done in a corner. I want to introduce technology into the workflow that analysts use today,” he said. “Analysts are more motivated when they can write algorithms.”

During a question-and-answer session, Poole was asked to comment on the controversy surrounding the military’s use of AI technology. Google employees have petitioned the company to end its participation in Project Maven and get out of the “business of war.”

Poole said NGA wants to avoid getting distracted by controversies. “I’ve seen things like this come and go in 27 years with the agency,” he said of the Maven backlash. “If we keep our eye on the ball and understand the importance of what we’re doing, I think we’ll come out ahead in the end.”

Whether it’s Google or any other partner, the Pentagon is determined to exploit the technology at a grander scale. Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin is taking on a Pentagon-wide effort to accelerate innovations in AI. Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Joseph Kernan has championed the use of AI in military operations. At an industry conference in Tampa, Fla., he said Project Maven has been “extraordinarily” useful in overseas conflicts.