With Google Out of Maven, DoD Still Wants AI to Sort Surveillance Data

Staff Sgt. Ashlie Robledo and Senior Airman Thao Bui, 11th Special Operations Intelligence Squadron analysts, participate in a data-tagging training event Aug. 24, 2017, at Hurlburt Field, Fla. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Lynette M. Rolen)
Staff Sgt. Ashlie Robledo and Senior Airman Thao Bui, 11th Special Operations Intelligence Squadron analysts, participate in a data-tagging training event Aug. 24, 2017, at Hurlburt Field, Fla. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Lynette M. Rolen)

Even as the U.S. Air Force continues to search out potential solutions for streamlining drone and surveillance operations, leaders want to use artificial intelligence systems to sift through collected data. And the Pentagon hopes it can still get Silicon Valley companies to participate, despite the recent exit of Google's Project Maven, a top general said Thursday.

"The place where [research and development] money is being spent in the U.S. is primarily in the civilian business structure," Air Combat Command commander Gen. Mike "Mobile" Holmes told reporters during a breakfast in Washington, D.C. "For the military to be able to move forward into the future, we need to take advantage of where that R&D money is being spent and where the advances are in technology."

Earlier this month Google announced it would not pursue another contract with the Pentagon's Project Maven after the current one expires in 2019. Company employees reportedly voiced concerns about their work being used by the military for deadly warfare.

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Holmes' comments follow earlier criticisms made by former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work who on Tuesday chastised Google for backing out of the program, which, Work argued, would actually help save lives.

"They say, 'What if the work is ultimately used to take lives. But what if it saves American lives? 500 American lives? Or 500 lives of our allies?’" Work said during a panel at the DefenseOne Tech Summit.

"I was alarmed that it happened," he said, referencing Google's decision.

Holmes said AI capability would free up people to focus on analysis and passing key information on more quickly and effectively.

"We've had young airmen that are working through teaching a machine, and the machine is starting to learn how to recognize things," he said.

He added, "That's a big part of our future and you'll continue to see that expanded, with Project Maven being one of the first steps in bringing learning machines and algorithms."

Project Maven uses computer algorithms to detect, track and problem solve data variables on the battlefield, which is then autonomously mined using artificial intelligence, sifting through thousands of hours of video or imagery feed to extract what the warfighter may be hunting for. And the A.I. learns as it goes.

"As numerous studies have made clear, the department of defense must integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning more effectively across operations to maintain advantages over increasingly capable adversaries and competitors," Work wrote in a defense memo last April.

Holmes said officials have taken note of Google's actions, adding he was a concerned it could deter companies from working with DoD in the future.

Still, the general noted, "Americans have expectations about what their government does and whether the government uses technology and tools to infringe upon their rights or not."

Holmes had this message for Americans concerned about smart autonomy: We'll need it to stop future wars.

"By setting this competition on terms that we can compete without going to conflict is better for everybody," he said. "What I'd like to do is be able to convince people that we're all in the business of avoiding major war. That's what we're trying to do. We're going to have to rely on our industrial capabilities that are on that business."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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