Joint Artificial Intelligence Center Keeps Branching Out
Defense Dept. photo by Lisa Ferdinando
When the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center was stood up in 2018, it was established to bring together the Defense Department’s various AI programs and projects.
Two years later, JAIC is pivoting to new mission sets, expanding its portfolio and more closely working with industry.
The organization is currently working on 30 different projects across six different areas including joint warfighting operations, warfighter health, business process transformation, threat reduction and protection, joint logistics and joint information warfare.
The center is built “around getting a spark going or getting a prototype or making a market in some way, and then handing it off for transition and scaling right to a customer,” said Nand Mulchandani, JAIC chief technology officer. “We’re now starting to demonstrate great and exciting success across those products.”
The joint warfighting mission initiative is the organization’s flagship product and is looking at means to transform the way the United States will go to war, Mulchandani said during an exclusive interview with National Defense on his first day back as chief technology officer after serving as the acting head of JAIC.
In late September, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Michael Groen was confirmed by the Senate to serve as its director.
“Our early products … were really focused on kind of starter AI projects when it came to things like predictive maintenance and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Mulchandani said. “The algorithms were not that hard. … [However,] joint warfighting is the hardest problem at the DoD for us to take on.”
The center is starting with technology such as human-machine teaming and decision support, Mulchandani said.
“There are different ways of displaying information, about communicating information, about absorbing information,” he said. “We’re spending time with our commanders, with training and education, etc., on how to absorb AI-enabled systems. And we want to do that in a very systematic, deliberate way where we start out with human-machine teaming, decision support, etc., and then work our way toward things like autonomy and others.”
Joint warfighting will contribute to many Pentagon efforts such as joint all-domain command-and-control and the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System program, he said.
In May, the center awarded the joint warfighting operations initiative’s prime contract to Booz Allen Hamilton. The contract has an $806 million ceiling.
However, the center would likely not spend all of the funding because the entire budget of the JAIC over a couple of years is around $800 million, Mulchandani said during a recent briefing with reporters.
Despite the center being gung-ho about the initiative, a continuing resolution for fiscal year 2021 — which began Oct. 1 — could have an outsized effect on joint warfighting programs, he noted.
“What this really impacts … is new starts, our ability to start a bigger new project that we have been potentially forecasting for starting with new FY ‘21 money,” he said. That will require some programs to be delayed.
However, JAIC “will be receiving some money as part of the CR that will allow us to kick-start some of these new projects and things along the way, and then scale them ... when we get out of the CR mode” after a full-year appropriations bill is passed by Congress, he added.
JAIC had been planning for a continuing resolution for some time, Mulchandani noted.
“Many of our projects and products … have actually been pre-funded through much of the money that we got in FY ‘20,” he said. “We have contracts and vendors and other things working months and months out into the new fiscal year. … We’re not in a crisis mode at all.”
Meanwhile, JAIC’s relationship with industry has continued to improve over the past two years, Mulchandani said.
When it was first stood up, much attention was put on what some perceived to be a reluctance from Silicon Valley to work with the Pentagon.
“A lot of people ask us [about] the whole thing with Google and Project Maven and whether that’s still” a strained relationship, he said, referring to a 2018 incident where thousands of Google employees signed a letter objecting to the company’s work with the Defense Department’s Project Maven, a pathfinder AI effort to better analyze drone footage. Google subsequently backed out of the program.
However, JAIC collaborates closely with the tech giant now, he said.
“We’re working with Google on a number of projects directly ... whether it be health or other types … of products there,” he said. “We have contracts with Google that we’re working on, but all the other bigger vendors as well.”
Mulchandani said JAIC is working with all of the largest technology companies in Silicon Valley.
“Name an AI vendor and we either have work going on with them, or they’re involved in some way in some of the newer projects that we’re doing,” he said.
As the organization continues to work with industry, it is setting up initiatives to better take advantage of rapid acquisition, Mulchandani said.
It currently has partnerships with a number of contracting vehicle organizations such as the General Services Administration, the Defense Innovation Unit and the Defense Information Systems Agency. Additionally, legislation is currently in front of Congress that could grant JAIC direct acquisition authority.
“We obviously are very excited about that, [but] it’s not done yet,” he said. “When the final vote happens and we do get it, we’ll be very pleased and happy, and if we don’t get it, well, we’ll still be obviously continuing business with the partners that we have.”
The center is also working on an acquisition effort called Project Tradewind which is a way for JAIC and the Defense Department writ large to better reach out to small companies, he said.
Contract vehicles will be created that any organization across the department will be able to use to gain access to “teensy weensy, little companies that normally would hate to work with — or wouldn’t know how to work with — the DoD,” Mulchandani said. “They can use Project Tradewind’s acquisition frameworks to be able to interact with us in a very low overhead way.”
During remarks at the Defense Department’s Artificial Intelligence Symposium and Exposition, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper touted the work JAIC has done since its inception.
“We have come a long way since establishing the JAIC two years ago,” he said. “Today, more than 200 talented civil service and military professionals work diligently to accelerate AI solutions and deliver these capabilities to the warfighter. From helping the Joint Force organize, fight and win at machine speed, to enhancing wildfire and flood responses through computer vision technology, the JAIC is utilizing every aspect of AI as a transformative instrument at home and abroad.”
The center is lowering technical barriers to AI adoption by building a cloud-based platform to allow Defense Department components to test, validate and field capabilities with greater speed and at greater scale, he said.
“The goal is to make AI tools and data accessible across the force, which will help synchronize projects and reduce redundancy, among many other benefits,” he said.
JAIC is also working on ways to better train the Defense Department’s acquisition workforce to buy AI products, Esper noted.
The organization, in partnership with the Defense Acquisition University and the Naval Postgraduate School, was slated to launch an intensive six-week pilot course in October to train over 80 defense acquisition professionals of all ranks and grades. The trainees will learn how to apply AI and data science skills to operations, Esper said.
The Defense Department plans to request additional funding from Congress for the services to grow the effort over time, he said.
Dana Deasy, the Pentagon’s chief information officer, noted JAIC’s journey is still evolving. Meanwhile, the military is “generating positive momentum from our early days as AI pioneers toward a mature organization of AI practitioners,” he said.
The center is now starting to deliver real AI solutions to the warfighter while leading the Defense Department in AI ethics and governance, he noted.
Its budget is also growing. It went from $89 million in fiscal year 2019 to $268 million in fiscal year 2020, and the Pentagon plans to spend more than $1.6 billion over the next few years thanks to strong bipartisan support from Congress and Defense Department leadership, Deasy said.
The organization is already generating early returns on investment in its mission initiatives, from predictive maintenance to business process transformation, Deasy noted.
The center recently delivered an innovative engine health model predictive maintenance capability that is being utilized by Black Hawk helicopter maintainers from the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Aviation Regiment, he said.
Additionally, JAIC — via its business process transformation initiative — is delivering language-processing AI applications to the Washington Headquarters Service and the Pentagon’s administrative and financial management teams, Deasy said.
“These capabilities are automating the review of thousands of documents and memos for consistency, accuracy and compliance, thus increasing speed and efficiency while reducing manual, laborious processes,” he said.
The center is also laying down the foundations for the Joint Common Foundation, an AI development environment that will broaden opportunities for developers across the Pentagon to build and deliver artificial intelligence capabilities in a secure DevSecOps infrastructure, he said. According to the General Services Administration, DevSecOps promotes a cohesive collaboration between development, security and operations teams as they work toward continuous integration and delivery of products.
However, “while we develop and deliver these important near-term projects, we have to be ready for the contingencies of a changing and unpredictable operating environment,” Deasy said. “This is why I believe the true long-term success of the JAIC will depend on how the organization adapts and delivers real-world solutions when the strategic landscape and priorities change.”
The organization is already proving it can adapt via its Project Salus effort — which is named after the Roman goddess of health and well-being — that has helped with the federal government’s COVID-19 response, he said.
“Working alongside a team of private industry partners, the JAIC developed a predictive-logistics AI dashboard platform for the U.S. Northern Command that enabled National Guard teams to assist states and municipalities with mitigating panic buying and managing supply chains,” he said.
“That project went from concept to code in a matter of weeks. More importantly, it demonstrated the JAIC’s ability to support the emergent needs of a combatant commander and deliver real AI solutions during a national emergency.”