The Military’s Biggest AI Challenge: Convincing Commanders to Embrace It

Lt. Gen. Michael Groen, Joint Artificial Intelligence Center director
Lt. Gen. Michael Groen, Joint Artificial Intelligence Center director, conducts a press briefing about the Defense Department's efforts to adopt and scale artificial intelligence capabilities atthe Pentagon on Nov. 24, 2020. (DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders)

The general overseeing the effort to bring the power of artificial intelligence to the U.S. military said Tuesday that one of the effort's major hurdles will be to convince battlefield commanders that AI isn't a new way to store information on a computer.

"AI is not [information technology], it's not a black box that a contractor is going to deliver to you, it's not some digital gadget that an IT rep will show you how to log into," Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Michael Groen, director of the Pentagon's Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), told defense reporters during a Pentagon briefing.

"This is warfighting business; it is assessments and analysis of warfighting decision-making. ... It's driving leaders to think -- you know, I could make a better decision if I knew 'X.' JAIC wants to help leaders at every level get to that 'X.'"

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Established in 2018, the JAIC serves as the Pentagon's AI Center of Excellence, tasked with providing expertise to help make AI a reality across the Defense Department.

In August, the Defense Information Systems Agency awarded a contract worth up to $106 million to Deloitte Consulting LLC to design and build what's known as the Joint Common Foundation (JCF), which will serve as a development environment to test, validate and field AI capabilities across the Defense Department, according to an Aug. 12 JAIC news release.

The JCF will be a cloud-based, technical platform that will serve as a "building block of the DoD's AI toolkit as a single place [where] coders can build models, work with data and develop AI systems," reported.

Scheduled to reach initial operating capability in early 2021, JCF "provides a technical basis for especially disadvantaged users who don't have access to data scientists, who don't have access to algorithms, who are not sure how to leverage their data," Groen said. "We can bring those folks to a place where now they can store their data."

Commanders will be able to use AI to make data-driven decisions like never before, he added.

"In many cases, historically, a lot of our warfighting decisions are made kind of at the seat of the pants," Groen said, describing how individuals "with lots of experience and mature understanding of the situation" are often forced to make due without current data.

"We can fix that; we can make that better," he said. "We have to help people visualize what AI means across the department."

Just at the tactical level, "We want weapons that are more precise. We want weapons that guide on command to human-selected targets. We want threat detection, automatic threat detection and threat identification on our bases," Groen said. "Reconnaissance with unmanned platforms, equipment that is instrumented ... to tell us if it thinks it will fail in the next hour -- all that tech exists today."

AI will be key in helping geographic combatant commanders make more informed decisions much more quickly than they can today.

"Visibility of data across the theater -- what an incredible thing that would be to achieve, available at the fingertips of a combatant commander at any time," Groen said. "Today, those combatant commanders, really alone and unafraid in the geographical regions around the world, have to make real-time decisions based on imperfect knowledge. And they do the best they can, but I think our combatant commanders deserve better than that."

Groen, who took over as director of the JAIC in October, did not discuss a timeline for how long it will take to infuse AI across the DoD war machine.

"Like with any set of transformational technologies, we have a lot of work to do in broadly understanding the transformative nature and the implications of AI integration," he said. "We are surrounded by examples in every major industry of data-driven enterprises that operate with speed and efficiency and leave their competitors in the dust. We want that. ... We have to do this; it will make us more effective, more efficient."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at

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