WASHINGTON — The man in charge of machine learning at ride-share company Lyft will soon lead efforts to accelerate, align and harness data, analytics and artificial intelligence at the Department of Defense.

The Pentagon on April 25 named Dr. Craig Martell as its first chief digital and AI officer, a position that was unveiled late last year and is still being fleshed out.

Martell previously worked at Dropbox, where he was also head of machine learning, and LinkedIn, where he led “a number of AI teams and initiatives,” according to the Pentagon. Before that, he was a tenured computer science professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.

The department had been looking both inside and outside the Pentagon to fill the role.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks in a statement Monday said Martell’s appointment will speed development and fielding of AI, data analytics and machine-learning technologies, areas the department has identified as critically important in an increasingly tech-centric world.

“He brings cutting-edge industry experience to apply to our unique mission set,” Hicks said. The Defense Department as of April 2021 had more than 685 artificial intelligence projects under its umbrella, including several for major weapons systems.

Martell said in a LinkedIn post April 25 that he was “honored and proud to have been chosen for this role.” He will begin in June, according to the same post.

The CDAO will oversee the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, Defense Digital Service and the chief data officer, acting as an integrator, coordinator and expeditor. The position reports directly to the deputy defense secretary.

The Defense Department last month named Margaret Palmieri, more of a department insider, as deputy CDAO.

The digital-first office achieved initial operating capacity at the start of February, less than two months after it was established. It is expected to be fully up and running later this year.

In a March 2021 interview, Martell said when he thinks about what AI specifically is, he finds “the algorithms mathematically fascinating,” but finds “the use of the algorithms far more fascinating.”

“But what’s more interesting to me is, what do those correlations mean for the people?” Martell said on the Me, Myself and AI podcast. “I think every AI model launched is a cognitive science test. We’re trying to model the way humans behave.”

Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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