‘AI Is Not a Technology’ and Other Thoughts

By Stew Magnuson

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TAMPA, Florida — Most defense industry conferences deliver what is promised: business intelligence on present or future government requirements that can lead to contracts.

And the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference organized by the National Defense Industrial Association in May did a better job of delivering the goods than most trade shows.

There were numerous in-depth briefings conducted by the program executive offices spelling out all the unclassified technologies they were developing along with upcoming opportunities.

In fact, the PEOs had more than one session. So, if an executive missed one while attending another, he or she could catch it later in the conference.

But every once in a while at these conferences, a speaker will deliver a presentation that isn’t about business but more about ideas.

Such was the case on the final day of the show when Thomas Kenney, Special Operations Command chief data officer, spoke to a roomful of attendees and delivered a series of ideas rather than contract opportunities.

We have seen many executives like Kenney over the years serving in various posts. They have done quite well for themselves in the private sector as entrepreneurs or investors and when asked to serve, they do so out of patriotism or the hope that they can change from the inside an organization not known for embracing business innovation.

They are certainly not motivated by the salary but can probably afford to take the pay cut.

According to Kenney’s official bio, “His primary duty is to accelerate digital capabilities for the entire Special Operations Forces enterprise through collaborative efforts with industry, academia, DoD and other government agencies.”

Before joining SOCOM, Kenney was a “serial entrepreneur” with his feet firmly planted in both worlds, serving two decades as an Army Reserve and National Guard officer.

SOCOM Commander Army Gen. Richard Clarke personally recruited him to come work at the command to help it achieve its “AI-enabled future,” Kenney said in his speech.

His talk on the final day was well attended, but still only a fraction of the 17,000 registered attendees were there.

So, for those who missed the talk, here is a series of somewhat random direct quotes to ruminate over.

“… We certainly have plenty of data at SOCOM. The Department of Defense certainly has plenty of data. But what are we using that data for?

It is a hard question to answer when we don’t even necessarily know where all the AI data is …”

“… The asymmetric advantages to bolster deterrence means when we think about our data and some of the challenges we have, we want to share it with our partners. We want to share with our industry partners and our coalition partners. But one of the challenges that we face today in the greater DoD is we struggle even internally to share data between silos …”

“… The people that need [data], really need to be able to get access to it and that is what creates digital transformation. When that democratization of data is across the entire DoD, the opportunities are absolutely endless …”

“… Everybody says AI/ML. Well, the reality is machine learning is just one aspect of artificial intelligence. There’s natural language processing. There are neural networks. There’s deep learning, convolutional neural networks. There are all kinds of other capabilities that are out there that realize the promise of AI …”

“… AI is not a technology. I think all of us are mature enough at this point in our understanding of the technology when it comes to AI that AI is not a product that you find. AI is the realization of the implementation of technologies that you use every day …”

“… Tactical edge to strategic decision making doesn’t happen unless we actually get to that point of adoption [of AI]. Great technology is nothing if it’s not used …”

“… Humans are absolutely more important than hardware. But let’s not forget that humans can be augmented and enhanced with hardware …”

“… Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced. I tell you what, neither can AI algorithms, neither can data science models. These systems take time to develop. We need the data that is created for us to be accessible to us and to be understandable by us to be able to use it.

So, we can’t just mass produce digital transformation …”

“… The true democratization of being able to do advanced computing shouldn’t just be with the engineers. It should be with those subject matter experts that are on the battlefield every single day and understanding what needs to be done and then partner with them to help us to realize their vision …”

“… One of the really interesting things that we’re seeing in Ukraine today is the Ukrainians are learning more about what’s going on through social media than maybe they are through their own intelligence sources. … You can click on YouTube and look at a live CCTV in Ukraine right now …”

“… Understanding data and speed is one of the most important things that we can do. We can’t just rely on the humans understanding the data, we need to augment the human-to-machine teaming — between the human and the data flow — to really get at some of the strategic decision making that we need to make …”

Topics: Special Operations, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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