The Pentagon’s needs one central hub to manage all of the data supporting artificial intelligence across the services — and the newly stood-up Joint Artificial Intelligence Center should be the entity to take that on, said Steve Walker, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

DARPA has funded foundational AI work for 56 years, now concentrating on what Walker calls third wave AI that focuses on human and machine interaction as well as building “trust and explainability” of the data, Walker said during a panel discussion at the Defense News Conference on Sept. 4.

“Everybody should own it, but I think there’s a real need in [the Department of Defense] to understand how to do what we call AI engineering,” he said. “We can do the foundational part, the research, but who’s going to manage the data? Who’s going to update the data as it changes? Who’s going to update the algorithms as the data changes?

"I know that the Joint AI Center has stood up in the department. I’ve encouraged them to take that on for all of DoD and all the services. I think that would be an excellent role for them.”

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Established in June 2018, the Joint AI Center is an effort to accelerate the Pentagon’s adoption and integration of AI at scale. As a center of excellence, Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, JAIC’s director, said the organization was intended to expand beyond product delivery to include “strategic engagement and policy, plans and analysis, and intelligence and more.” It’s been billed as a clearing house for organizing the DoD’s thinking and projects related to AI.

That said, it’s too soon to know whether JAIC will take Walker’s advice and serve as a central manager of sorts for AI data; he did say leadership seemed “amenable” to the idea.

A centralized hub for data could also ease efforts underway by agencies. The Air Force has people plugged in with the JAIC effort, as well as DARPA and academic institutions. The service is starting an AI accelerator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where members of the Air Force are embedding with the university’s computer science and AI lab.

“We’re trying to make it real, to take some of what Dr. Walker and his team had been working on and turn it into something that our airmen out in the field can use across the spectrum,” said Gen. Stephen “Seve” Wilson, Air Force vice chief of staff. “Whether you’re logistics, whether you’re an operator, whether you’re space. I would make it real.”

At the end of the day, successful AI efforts are based on big data sets. Without that underlying data, the Pentagon is “building a house on sand,” said Juliana Vida, the chief technical adviser for the public sector at Splunk, Inc.

“If you don’t get the foundation right, the input into the machine-learning algorithm is not going to be complete. It’s not going to be correct. Even though it’s not cool and it doesn’t go bang and it’s not sexy, the data is the underlying piece to all of these other technologies,” Vida said.

Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.

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