From wingmen to healthcare: How the DoD plans to implement AI

Harry Lye 3 September 2019 (Last Updated September 3rd, 2019 14:49)

At a recent press briefing, the US Department of Defence (DoD) Artificial Intelligence (AI) Tsar showcased AI initiatives coming out of the Pentagon and how the department is embracing AI for everything from predictive maintenance and medical systems to intelligence streams.

From wingmen to healthcare: How the DoD plans to implement AI
The US DoD has outlined its aims for artificial intelligence and how the department plans to implement it. Credits: Pixabay.

The DoD Joint AI Centre (JAIC), led by Lieutenant General Jack Shanahan, is at the forefront of developments in AI for the US military. The small department is charged with overseeing and implementing solutions currently in development for the armed forces. Shanahan explains the department’s goal is “to accelerate DoD’s adoption and integration of AI to achieve mission impact at scale,” enabling the US to keep pace in an increasingly important sector.

Shanahan told reporters: “Leadership in the military application of AI is critical to our national security. The table stakes are high. For that reason, I doubt I will ever be entirely satisfied that we’re moving fast enough when it comes to DoD’s adoption of AI”.

With AI solutions increasingly being used in the commercial sector its importance and opportunity for transfer to military applications cannot be ignored. It is exactly for this reason that Shanahan’s department has seen a rise in funding to allow the US to keep pace.

Ongoing AI projects

When it comes to AI, the advancements the US is working on are more about enhancing systems than building Terminator-style killer robots.

“What we’re working on, it is as far from that spectrum as you could possibly imagine,” Shanahan said.

For now, according to Shanahan, the advancements are focused on “predictive maintenance for the H-60 helicopter; humanitarian assistance and disaster relief [HA/DR], with an initial emphasis on wildfires and flooding; cyber sense-making focusing on event detection, user activity monitoring and network mapping; information operations; and intelligent business automation.”

Traditionally, to assess and repair military equipment technicians either carry out regular scheduled servicing, wait until it breaks or take it apart and check that everything is functioning. The DoD is hoping to employ AI to cut out this added cost and time by predicting when issues will crop up; currently, this system is focused on the H-60 helicopter. This would see a system pulling in sensor data and assessing it against historical information about what is likely to break after a certain amount of use, allowing the ground crews to replace parts before they fail.

AI will also play a role in decreasing decision-making times and enhancing combat capabilities.

“One of these autonomous systems being looked into by the DoD is the Skyborg programme, which aims to deliver an autonomous wingman for the F-35 and F-15EX.”

Shanahan said: “For fiscal year ’20, our biggest project will be what we are calling AI for manoeuvre and fires, with individual lines of effort or product lines oriented on warfighting operations; for example, operations intelligence fusion, joint all-domain command and control, accelerated sensor-to-shooter timelines, autonomous and swarming systems, target development and operations centre workflows.”

One of these autonomous systems being looked into by the DoD is the Skyborg programme, which aims to deliver an autonomous wingman for the F-35 and F-15EX. This system would see fighter jets partnered in the air with an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) to soak up enemy fire and acquire targets for the manned system. When it comes to swarming systems, a key development is PERDIX, which would see small drones deployed from aircraft, after which the system uses AI to shape the swarm into a pattern, confusing adversaries’ radar.

Soldier health is another area where the DoD plans to employ AI. Shanahan explained: “We are also embarking with DIU [Defense Innovation Unit] and the services’ Surgeons General, as well as many others, on a predictive health project, with several proposed lines of effort, to include health records analysis, medical imagery classification and PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] mitigation/suicide prevention.”

This system could be used to predict future health problems when fully developed but also fulfils an immediate and more pressing purpose. When treating patients doctors have to go through reams of medical records to isolate key issues that could present an immediate threat. In a battlefield setting this is impossible, as such the US is looking to employ AI to scan medical records and then relay the most important points to doctors giving them all the information they need to safely and quickly treat troops.

Not a magic bullet

“We don’t view AI as a magical solution, a specific thing to be sprinkled on top of any problem to yield miraculous results. AI is an enabler, much more like electricity than a gadget, a widget or a weapons system,” Shanahan said, making clear that the place of AI is more nuanced than simply deploy and watch as all the military’s problems are solved.

A key point in the development of AI is ensuring that the humans relying on it can effectively use it, emphasising a need for the encouragement and development of human-machine teaming.

“We need to design operating concepts that harness AI, 5G, enterprise cloud, robotics and eventually quantum”

Shanahan said:  “AI’s most valuable contributions will come from how we use it to make better and faster decisions.”

As a result of this, the JAIC is looking to accelerate the integration of AI on a basis that spans the entire DoD. This combined approach on a wide scale would increase efficiency in one swoop rather than leaving some sectors of the Pentagon left behind others.

The methodology behind the DoD’s AI push is another key part of this relationship. Shanahan explained: “This is less about any individual technology than it is about how we design, experiment with and deploy AI-enabled operating concepts to gain competitive advantage, from the tactical edge to the strategic level.”

The wider scope of the DoD’s investments in AI is about creating an overall advantage and adoption than one or two exquisite systems that act as marvels but don’t affect the wider combat space.

“We need to design operating concepts that harness AI, 5G, enterprise cloud, robotics and eventually quantum,” said Shanahan, for whom the adoption of AI goes hand-in-glove with the rapid development of advanced networking and computing systems that are increasingly pushing warfare towards the digital domain. This sustained push for AI will allow the US to stay ahead in a combat space that is increasingly ‘informationised’.

The military AI race

When answering a question about the US’s main AI adversaries – Russia and China – Shanahan is careful to explain how AI is not a repeat of the cold war nuclear arms race that shaped military doctrine for decades.

“I stay away from any phrase of ‘arms race’. I would say we understand how fast we need to move, we see our adversaries moving faster. It’s a strategic competition, not an arms race. They’re going to keep doing what we’re doing; we acknowledge that,” he said.

“This quick adoption by US adversaries is a large factor in the push for wide-scale adoption of AI, driving the US to keep pace.”

China and Russia have also put AI and autonomy increasingly at the centre of military advancements. China’s military has been capitalising on the country’s flourishing commercial AI space in its pursuit of intelligent armed forces. Russia, on the other hand, does not have quite the same level of AI market to drive innovation, but the nation has made up for this on the robotics and automation side.

“Artificial intelligence is part of their [China’s] strategy as they look towards 2035, they’ve made no secrets about what they want to do on the military side as well: everything from autonomous weapons to a big emphasis on how you use AI in command and control,” explained Shanahan.

This quick adoption by US adversaries is a large factor in the push for wide-scale adoption of AI, driving the US to keep pace. With AI as an enabler for forces to complete missions and tasks faster, the DoD has the opportunity to increase efficiency and secure its position as a dominant global military force in near-future combat.