The U.S. Department of Defense will for the first time be using large-scale artificial intelligence systems that could automate mundane tasks and augment the work of military members as a result of an $885 million five-year contract, said Josh Sullivan, senior vice president at government consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.
The technology will allow the Defense Department to better compete with nations including China and Russia, said Mr. Sullivan, who leads the analytics business for Booz Allen.
“Part of this is (about) making sure our government has the access to the best technology and using it responsibly in service of our citizens and warfighters,” he said.
The use of AI systems such as neural networks that mimic the human brain could help the Defense Department sift through the “overwhelming” amount of data related to such areas as national security and health care. In turn, soldiers and military members can be freed up to identify threats on the battlefield sooner, spend more time with military patients and work on problems that require higher-level contextual reasoning, Mr. Sullivan said.
For example, hundreds of soldiers today watch video feeds from drones and cameras and do basic labeling and object identification, he said. With neural networks, an AI system can watch perhaps 12 or 15 feeds simultaneously and identify objects such as trucks, cars, weapons and hangars.
“That’s a tremendous time saving for a soldier and frees them up to do a lot more interesting thinking about a problem,” Mr. Sullivan said.
Specifics of the AI contract are still being developed, and Mr. Sullivan did not say if or how any of the proposed AI systems would be used in identifying and tracking potential drone targets.
Alphabet Inc.’s Google recently decided not to seek renewal of a Pentagon contract that had become the focus of internal debate around the use of the tech giant’s AI technology related to the identifying and tracking of potential drone targets.
Mr. Sullivan said projects related to that would be classified, but that all AI initiatives will go through a review process to determine whether it meets Booz Allen’s own standards and values.
AI systems also can help military doctors speed up the detection of growths such as lung cancer lesions, and reduce the number of false positives in health scans, he said. Cardiologists, on average, spend 20 minutes during each patient visit highlighting certain areas of photographic images of the heart. An AI system could help speed that process up, allowing doctors to spend more time with military patients, he said.
The contract also will go toward expanding AI-focused pilot programs that are already underway at the Defense Department. Those include using AI to find new approaches for treating traumatic brain injuries and to quickly measure key indicators of heart disease, Mr. Sullivan said.
The contract was awarded to Booz Allen by the General Services Administration’s Federal Systems Integration and Management Center. The GSA is an independent agency within the government that oversees supplies and services for other federal offices including procurement for enterprise information technology.
The AI systems will be developed in part by vendors as well as software engineers and developers at Booz Allen and the Defense Department, Mr. Sullivan said. None of the systems are meant to replace soldiers or employees within the Defense Department, he said. Rather, they’re aimed at making their jobs easier — a common theme among private sector users of AI, often known as “AI augmentation.”
In 2021, AI augmentation will generate $2.9 trillion in business value and recover 6.2 billion hours of worker productivity, according to forecasts from Gartner Inc.
Humans will still be needed to supervise the AI systems and to ensure that the data being used to train AI systems is unbiased, Mr. Sullivan said. Humans also will remain critical because advanced AI systems cannot yet explain the rationale behind their answers, he said.
A research effort at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is currently working to build “explainable AI” systems that can complex algorithmic-made decisions into language humans can understand.
“Humans are more important now than ever when it comes to applying AI because we have a moral compass, an understanding of legal and regulatory frameworks, and we care about preserving human life,” Mr. Sullivan said. “Machines are looking at math.”