TAMPA, FLA. — Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Joseph Kernan, a retired Navy vice admiral, is rarely seen or heard at public events. But he decided to step on the stage and address the nation’s largest gathering of geospatial intelligence professionals to relay a message that the military is in the market for cutting-edge technology.
“The reason I agreed to speak is that a lot of capacity and technology remains untapped,” Kernan said in a keynote speech on Monday at the GEOINT symposium.
DoD collects loads of data from satellites, drones and Internet-of-things devices. But it needs help making sense of the intelligence and analyzing it quickly enough so it can be used in combat operations. It needs powerful artificial intelligence software tools that the tech industry is advancing at a past pace.
The most promising AI effort the Pentagon has going now is Project Maven. Military analysts are using Google-developed AI algorithms to mine live video feeds from drones. With machine learning techniques, software is taught to find particular objects or individuals at speeds that would be impossible for any human analyst.
Kernan said Project Maven only started a year ago and so far has been “extraordinarily” useful in overseas operations. “I would have liked to have had it in my past,” said Kernan, a former special operations commander.
There is such heightened interest in AI that the Pentagon got Project Maven approved and under contract in two months. More importantly, said Kernan, the “capability was tested overseas. Not in the Pentagon.” For AI algorithms to be valuable to the military, they have to produce relevant intelligence, he cautioned. “Don’t be developing capability to serve warfighters while sitting in the Pentagon. Make sure you address their needs by working with the forces out there. That’s key to Project Maven. It works with users.”
Software, no matter how advanced, will not replace human analysts, said Kernan. “It’s about enabling analysts to use their cognitive process so they don’t have to jam and finger push things into a computer.”
What annoys Kernan? “That we really haven’t taken all the advantage we can of technology.”
That may be about to change as DoD ramps up AI efforts. Defense procurement chief Ellen Lord said the Pentagon will start bringing together AI projects that already exist but do not necessarily share information or resources. “We have talked about taking over 50 programs and loosely associating those,” Lord told reporters. “We have many silos of excellence.” Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin will oversee a new AI office that will bring in “elements of the intelligence community,” he said. But many details remain to be worked out.
The speed at which the Pentagon moved with Project Maven is “truly groundbreaking,” said Mike Manzo, director of intelligence, threat and analytic solutions at General Dynamics Mission Systems. The company provides training and advisory services to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
“This community is not accustomed to rapid acquisition, and rapid deployment,” Manzo told SpaceNews. “I applaud the Project Maven staff, the government, and everybody who is involved with that.”
Another reason Project Maven is “disruptive” is that it shows that analysts are beginning to trust new sources of intelligence and nontraditional methods, Manzo said. “What’s encouraging is that the outputs of these systems are being trusted by the users,” he said. “A machine comes up with an answer and the human gives the thumbs up or down,” he said. “If DoD is trusting this, it’s a tremendous step.” Even though a human is supervising, the focus doesn’t have to be on “making sure the machine is doing the things I asked the machine to do.”
None of this means decisions are being made by computers, Manzo said. “But these technologies help optimize the human analyst to do what they are really good at: intuition.” As the Pentagon seeks ways to bring AI into the battlefield, “Maven has a lot of promise.”