Defense Department boosts its artificial-intelligence programs

The Pentagon should know that opacity breeds criticism. Yet it has been largely mute on the artificial-intelligence initiative that it rolled out in mid-2018, hiding behind a “classified” veil. That changed last week when the Defense Department released a public version of its strategy. The 17-page document is short on detail; it should still cause a stir among technology insiders. In particular, protecting billions of dollars in artificial-intelligence capabilities is a steroid diet for US-based cybersecurity companies.

From Washington’s perspective, the news conference that broadcast the report underscored a sobering reality. There was a de facto admission that the United States may be trailing developments in China and Russia. In response, the decade ahead will likely see the Pentagon sponsor a stream of hefty, multi-million dollar projects in the artificial-intelligence sphere. There may be echoes of the 1960s space race between the United States and Soviet Union.

The report is a coming-out party for JAIC. The Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, likely to have three or four outposts nationwide, will coordinate expertise across military branches and vet individual projects valued at greater than $15 million. JAIC will also sponsor its own proprietary work.

One real-world example of where this artificial-intelligence focus may lead is Project Maven, launched in April 2017. The initiative is designed to help the Pentagon sort through video surveillance to support drone strikes. Key components were outsourced to Google; employees subsequently protested the weaponization of artificial intelligence. At a military level, though, early versions of Project Maven were so successful that the development budget was quickly expanded.

Large tech companies are not the only winners. We offer three practical recommendations for cybersecurity startups:

Build ecosystem ties. The Pentagon’s move will augment the already-robust startup ecosystem in Washington. At least metaphorically, cybersecurity firms should get better connected there by hiring an industry-specific public relations consultant or even opening a government relations office.

Get to know DARPA. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is likely to play an important role in complementing the work spearheaded by JAIC. The longstanding Pentagon unit commonly awards prizes, rather than grants or contracts, that can spiral upwards into the millions of dollars.

Explore allied opportunities. In the vernacular, a Pentagon contract implies work on advanced military systems. The institution, however, has many facets, including healthcare and finance. The Defense Department’s move on artificial intelligence will transform these areas too.

One defining element of the Pentagon’s approach is to build out its artificial-intelligence capabilities on the back of infrastructure that has been put in place by big tech. There may be limits to that approach. Google, for instance, will no longer work on weapons-related programs, given the internal fiasco over Project Maven. But these large, cumbersome enterprises will be looking for bolt-on capabilities. Young firms in the cybersecurity trade could benefit from corporate venture capital, while more established firms could be fielding calls from a strategic acquirer or two.

The Defense Department’s attention is now centered on artificial intelligence, rather than cybersecurity, but the two are inescapably tied to each other. Cybersecurity is actually downplayed in the just-released strategy report. There is a passing reference which reads: ‘We will increase our focus on defensive cybersecurity of hardware and software platforms as a precondition for secure uses of AI.” As a call-to-action, the statement is subtle, but direct.

Our Vantage Point: Given the high stakes, the cybersecurity industry is set to benefit impressively from renewed emphasis by the Pentagon on artificial intelligence. Opportunities are not limited to headline military programs. They extend to defense administration.

Learn more at the US Department of Defense.

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