2021 DoD AI Symposium – Day One Focuses on Competitive Challenges and Technological Opportunities

  • By: JAIC Public Affairs
2021 DoD AI Symposium – Day One Focuses on Competitive Challenges and Technological Opportunities

On June 22, 2021 the 2021 DoD AI Symposium and Technical Exchange began. Over 2800 virtual attendees heard from the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Dr. Kathleen Hicks, several other DoD AI thought leaders, and visited over 90 booths in the Exhibition Hall. While a broad range of topics was discussed, there were a few threads that connected each of the sessions – the competitive challenges and technological opportunities the DoD’s AI ecosystem faces.

Here are a few highlights from each informational session:

Welcome Remarks from JAIC’s Director, LtGen Michael Groen
“AI is the Transformational Opportunity of our Age, Defense Cannot be Left Behind”

The day started with LtGen Groen welcoming each attendee, stating, “this symposium is designed for you.” He set the tone for the day by emphasizing that military, civilians, industry, and academia must all work in tandem for AI’s ultimate Department-wide impact. LtGen Groen encouraged attendees to remain mission-focused and flexible as the DoD undergoes a cultural and technological shift. “American global competitiveness depends on how we perform in this space…this is a challenge of organization versus innovation,” he said.

Leadership Thoughts from Dr. Kathleen Hicks, Deputy Secretary of Defense
“The DoD AI and Data Acceleration Initiative”

In her address, Dr. Hicks heralded the competitive advantage that AI provides to our national security. She also warned that, “Today, the People’s Republic of China is the pacing challenge for the DoD and views AI as a way to surpass our military.” Dr. Hicks emphasized how responsible AI, AI Partnerships for Defense, and a strong foundation of trust should be treated as a strategic asset. She also announced the new DoD AI and Data Acceleration Initiative or “ADA”. “The ADA initiative recognizes the challenges that DOD is facing and provides a systematized method to harness data and AI. It also creates a path forward for a mission space that has often appeared to be more rhetoric than action," Dr. Hicks explained.

Advancing Responsible AI at the DoD
“Building the Foundation for Responsible AI Growth”

Alka Patel, the JAIC’s Chief of Responsible AI, led an esteemed panel that included Will Roberts, the JAIC’s Chief of Acquisition, and Ashley Casovan, Executive Director of the Responsible AI Institute. The panel discussed the importance of building a foundation for responsible AI growth. Alka and Will explored the need for an AI talent vehicle that will bring in subject matter experts from across the social sciences, humanities, and law to advance responsible AI across the Department. Will also highlighted the JAIC’s Tradewind initiative that is designed to reach all corners of industry and academia and get contracts out quickly. “This is rapid done right and responsibly. Tradewind also adds more transparency to the process,” Will explained.

Ashley discussed her institute’s emphasis on the development of AI tools and their implications, she highlighted their key focus areas as assessment and governance, and AI workforce education and training.

Global Leadership in AI: An International Dialogue
“People, Process, Data, and Technology”

The global panel was led by Stephanie Culberson, the JAIC’s Chief of International Affairs, and included military representatives from Australia, Great Britain, and Singapore. The panel agreed that the three building blocks of any AI initiative are ethics, human capital, and organization. The importance of furthering responsible and safe AI on a global scale was emphasized. The global challenges around the organizing of AI are cultural and language differences, however, Stephanie assured that the JAIC is committed to working with their allies and partners to ensure the responsible acceleration of AI and interoperability.

Research and Engineering – A Perspective from Ms. Barbara McQuiston
“AI’s Potential is Enormous”

Ms. Barbara McQuiston, currently performing the duties of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, emphasized the enormity of AI’s potential to DoD – and our society at large. She highlighted R&E’s contributions to the Department’s technical growth and expansion, including providing technical risk assessments and championing emerging technologies that are leveraged for new warfighter capabilities that are developed rapidly and responsibly. “We are preparing and investing in the future of science and leading in AI,” Ms. McQuiston stated.

The State of AI at the DoD
“I have good news and bad news”

The JAIC’s Chief Technology Officer, Nand Mulchandani, shared that he has both good news and bad news about the state of AI in the Department. The good news is that there is a strong sense of tactical urgency and strategic patience. However, he warned attendees to “curb your enthusiasm.” Nand provided a bit of AI history, demonstrating how we arrived at our current posture and where society is within the “AI hype cycle.” He advised that the focus should be on establishing the right architecture and foundation for internet-scale software and technology. “Deploying current and future AI on this foundation will be dramatically easier and cheaper,” Nand advised. He also implored attendees to be smart about the timing and scale of AI investments, and manage its deployment as a portfolio instead of randomly throwing money at the challenge.

JCF Overview
“Accelerating AI Software Developed for the DoD”

The JCF Overview explanatory video featured Col Sang Han and Greg Allen from the JAIC, and also included JCF testimonials from partners across the Department. “The DevSecOps capabilities that the JCF brings not only solves software integration challenges, it also provides developers access to high-value data sets and reusable code libraries so no project has to start from scratch,” Col Han said. Various DoD partners shared how the JCF has lowered technology and process barriers to AI/ML development.

Fireside Chat with Michele Flournoy
“A Portfolio-Based Approach”

Michele Flournoy sat down with Nand Mulchandani to share her thoughts on the current state of AI within the Department. She called for a portfolio-based approach, modeled after those used by industry CEOs, instead of setting goals and programs in stone. “Look at objectives and re-examine effectiveness and then divest and adjust. This is difficult for Congress and the Department to do. Portfolios are about technologies, people, integration, and ultimately adoption,” Michele stated. She emphasized that DoD needs to modernize their approach to testing and requirements gathering if they are going to fully leverage AI and make decisions faster than our adversaries. “The next four years will have a profound impact on the next 40. I have tremendous faith in the DoD, but we need to maintain our edge that has protected the freedoms and security of our world.”

Global Competition Facing the DoD in the Digital Age
“We are Engaged in a Great Systems Conflict”

The JAIC’s Greg Allen hosted an esteemed panel of China experts including Dr. Tai Ming Cheung, Dr. Chris C. Demchak, and Elsa B. Kania. The panel discussed the great systems conflict between the U.S. and China. The panel agreed that the U.S. and our allies must collectively reduce China’s edge and establish the DoD’s major role in this collective response. Panelists explored China’s techno-security developments and nested development strategies. The panel also warned attendees that the Chinese military should be considered a serious contender, however, they face many of the same bureaucratic challenges that the DoD encounters.

How to do Business with the DoD
“Streamlining the Way DoD Does Business”

Will Roberts returned to present with Major Greg Sunbeck, DIU’s AI/ML Acquisition Chief, for a deeper discussion around DoD acquisitions. Both chiefs emphasized that their teams are working to streamline the way DoD does business and wants to assist Departmental partners with capturing the AI capabilities their missions require. They also called upon their partners to guide them as they begin to deliver AI using agile methodologies and work together to create integrated teaming with iterative delivery. Will again highlighted the Tradewind initiative that is poised to provide Other Transaction Authority (OTA) agreements and supporting online business processes to work with non-traditional companies, in addition to guiding the DoD through a AI-tailored agile delivery process from ideation to transition.

During day two of the Symposium, the audience will hear from Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John E. Hyten and General Richard D. Clarke. Additionally, there will be three tracks featuring enabling AI, implementing AI, and managing AI with breakout sessions representing a cross section of the DoD AI community and the JAIC.