WASHINGTON ― The Pentagon’s onerous acquisition pipeline is “antithetical to prioritizing” artificial intelligence and must change if the country hopes to stay ahead of China, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said Friday.

“The regulations are essentially antithetical to prioritizing AI. They’re built around large weapon systems of a hardware kind, and the real strength of our nation will come from the strength of our software and AI activities,” Schmidt, the chairman of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, told lawmakers.

At a hearing on the the commission’s new recommendations, its members highlighted ways to retool Defense Department acquisition management system, in addition to boosting AI research and development spending by $40 billion over the next five years.

The report, which presents the race to get the country “AI-ready” by 2025 as an existential national security challenge, also teed up legislation to address it as lawmakers draft the annual defense policy bill. The 756-page report includes dozens of recommendations across the federal government.

Asked by House Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems Chairman Jim Langevin, D-R.I., whether new software acquisitions pathways and pilot programs established by last years National Defense Authorization Act were sufficient, Schmidt said they were only “helpful.”

“I do know many, many software companies who want to work with the government and in particular with a DoD, and they cannot find a corresponding customer or user or buyer or someone who can work with them,” Schmidt said. “My own view is that the DoD should set up some kind of technology insertion program, where they literally go and try to get this stuff in, because it’s so strategic and so important to the mission of the DoD.”

Commissioner Gilman Louie, the former chief executive of In-Q-Tel, the intelligence community’s venture capital arm, said DoD needs regulatory and cultural change adapted to software that continuously evolves and must be “consumed as a fuel that fuels our systems.”

“All of our acquisitions are designed for building big systems, and these kind of monolithic upgrades,” Louie said. “Our adversaries are not doing that. For us to be competitive and for us to have the best software, as it’s happening, we need to reform how we do it.”

The Pentagon’s push to change the way it buys software with a new “color of money,” and agile procurement process, “is only a start,” Louie said. He added: “We need professionals who know how to acquire software and understand the basic underpinnings of AI.”

Funding is part of the solution, former Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, the commission’s vice chairman, told lawmakers.

“We think AI adoption has to be accelerated,” Work said. “One of the ways to get these algorithms and models across the valley of death and into the hands go the warfighter would be if Congress would create a dedicated AI fund, specifically designed to speed operational prototyping and transition overseen by the undersecretary for R&E.”

Rapid adoption also requires “strong top-down” leadership at DoD, Work said, and there were several recommendations to that effect. The solutions included

  • Making the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering the co-chair and the chief science adviser to the Pentagon’s powerful Joint Requirements Oversight Council, which makes decisions on major weapons platforms. The undersecretary would also oversee a dedicated AI fund.
  • Asking Congress to direct DoD to form a steering committee on emerging technology, with representation from the intelligence community, that would drive emerging technology strategy and spending decisions for integrating AI.
  • Having the Pentagon prioritize adoption of commercial AI solutions, especially for its core business processes and administrative processes, as well as logistics and sustainment systems.
  • Integrating technologists at every level in the defense department, both on the administrative side and operational side. This would mean standing up AI development teams at the joint warfighting combatants commands.

If adopted by the Defense Department as envisioned, AI would help both commanders and troops in battle.

“Without question, an AI-enabled force is going to be more effective,” Work said. “Enabled systems can make targeting more discriminant and precise, thereby reducing civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure and other protected entities. It will improve the tempo speed and scale of operations, and it will enhance the way the battlefield can be monitored. It will help the way that commanders understand what is happening in the battlespace.”

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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