For years, the Defense Department’s most senior leadership has lamented the fact that US military and spy agencies, where artificial intelligence (AI) technology is concerned, lag far behind state-of-the-art commercial technology. Though US companies and universities lead the world in advanced AI research and commercialization, the US military still performs many activities in a style that would be familiar to the military of World War II.
As of this month, however, that has begun to change. Project Maven is a crash Defense Department program that was designed to deliver AI technologies—specifically, technologies that involve deep learning neural networks—to an active combat theater within six months from when the project received funding. Most defense acquisition programs take years or even decades to reach the battlefield, but technologies developed through Project Maven have already been successfully deployed in the fight against ISIS. Despite their rapid development and deployment, these technologies are getting strong praise from their military intelligence users. For the US national security community, Project Maven’s frankly incredible success foreshadows enormous opportunities ahead—as well as enormous organizational, ethical, and strategic challenges.
As its AI beachhead, the department chose Project Maven, which focuses on analysis of full-motion video data from tactical aerial drone platforms such as the ScanEagle and medium-altitude platforms such as the MQ-1C Gray Eagle and the MQ-9 Reaper. These drone platforms and their full-motion video sensors play a major role in the conflict against ISIS across the globe. The tactical and medium-altitude video sensors of the Scan Eagle, MQ-1C, and MQ-9 produce imagery that more or less resembles what you see on Google Earth. A single drone with these sensors produces many terabytes of data every day. Before AI was incorporated into analysis of this data, it took a team of analysts working 24 hours a day to exploit only a fraction of one drone’s sensor data.
Now that Project Maven has met the sky-high expectations of the department’s former second-ranking official, its success will likely spawn a hundred copycats throughout the military and intelligence community. The department must ensure that these copycats actually replicate Project Maven’s secret sauce—which is not merely its focus on AI technology. The project’s success was enabled by its organizational structure: a small, operationally focused, cross-functional team that was empowered to develop external partnerships, leverage existing infrastructure and platforms, and engage with user communities iteratively during development. AI needs to be woven throughout the fabric of the Defense Department, and many existing department institutions will have to adopt project management structures similar to Maven’s if they are to run effective AI acquisition programs.
To its credit, the department selected drone video footage as an AI beachhead because it wanted to avoid some of the more thorny ethical and strategic challenges associated with automation in warfare. As US military and intelligence agencies implement modern AI technology across a much more diverse set of missions, they will face wrenching strategic, ethical, and legal challenges—which Project Maven’s narrow focus helped it avoid.