PITTSBURGH — A key piece of the Pentagon’s plan to beat China and Russia in the high-stakes artificial intelligence race lies inside a research facility along the Allegheny River here, where a small but select U.S. Army team has been tasked with creating the weapons, vehicles and sensors needed for 21st-century combat.
Inside, the U.S. military is feverishly working to incorporate AI into its operations in a myriad of ways, including drones and robots to ferry wounded soldiers away from the battlefield, software that can spot a hidden enemy force over a hill, AI programs that can give generals and line soldiers a fuller picture of a confusing battle, and even algorithms that can outperform any resume in determining the right men and women for a specific job.
Those projects, and a host of others, form the backbone of a major Pentagon initiative that carries far-reaching implications for the 21st century global balance of power. The Army’s AI Task Force, created earlier this year as part of the Defense Department’s broader effort to turn what was once science fiction into reality, has brought together military officials and academic leaders at Carnegie Mellon University, an institution considered to be the birthplace of AI research.
Tucked in a spot more than two miles off the main campus that is unlikely to be found unless one knew where to look, the school’s National Robotics Engineering Center serves as the epicenter of a partnership between the Army and academia. On the center’s sprawling warehouse floor, prototypes of military vehicles, robots, self-driving cars and a host of other gadgets undergo constant testing and tweaking.
Beyond the mind-blowing experimentation and next-level research, Army leaders keep an eye on the bigger picture. The nation’s security, they say, requires keeping a step ahead of adversaries in the rapidly evolving world of AI.
“I think it’s a national imperative,” Col. Doug Matty, deputy director of the Army’s AI Task Force, told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview. The Times was granted access to the facility this week, though many of the projects on display involve sensitive or proprietary research and cannot be publicly revealed.
“We’re still coming to grips with the power that advanced analytics, artificial intelligence, can provide,” Col. Matty said. “We know there are orders of magnitude of improvement that are available when you solve the right problem with the right technology.”
Next great challenge
The Army task force is just one example of how the Pentagon views AI as a central piece of America’s national defense — at a time when many private analysts are warning Russia and especially China have opened a significant lead in many fields of research.
The Defense Department’s recent AI strategy declared that the technology “is expected to impact every corner of the department, spanning operations, training, sustainment, force protection, recruiting, health care and many others.”
Inside the Pentagon, the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) coordinates efforts across the military branches — including the Army — in pursuit of a seamless strategy with one simple goal: to be the world’s leader in AI.
Reminiscent of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo space program, the AI all-hands push requires that the military work closely with outside partners and attract the brightest minds in the nation.
“If we do not find a way to strengthen the bonds between the United States government and industry and academia, then I would say we do have the real risk of not moving as fast as China when it comes to” artificial intelligence, JAIC Director Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan told reporters during a recent briefing at the Pentagon.
It’s clear, administration officials and analysts say, that America’s chief rivals have similar goals. China is aggressively researching AI and has committed billions of dollars to an effort to revamp its own military for next-generation fights.
In a speech late last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Beijing must improve its AI capabilities so the nation is not reliant on military hardware and software from other nations.
China will “ensure that our country marches in the front ranks where it comes to theoretical research in this important area of AI, and occupies the high ground in critical and AI core technologies,” he said.
Russia also is pursuing a comprehensive AI strategy to aid its military, academic institutions, health care system, and other areas of its society. Much like the U.S., Moscow’s approach relies heavily on ramping up cooperation and coordination between the military, academic and private sectors.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is now reportedly reviewing a draft of the nation’s AI strategy and may soon announce massive new investments into the technology.
The right partner
For the U.S., military officials say finding the right partner in the quest for AI dominance was crucial. Leaders at Carnegie Mellon say their campus — and the school’s decades-long reputation as a hub of AI research — provide a unique environment and a top-of-the-line facility that’s already equipped with hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment.
“That’s one of the reasons the Army is here,” Joshua Cauvel, technical program manager at the school’s Robotics Institute, told The Times.
Indeed, Army leaders say their AI team was given an ambitious mission with little time to waste. Building facilities from scratch wasn’t an option.
“The hypothesis was, ‘Can you turn your timeline from years to months?’” Col. Matty said. “And what we’re seeing is with the right resources, with the right technical support, with the infrastructure you have to have and the leadership support, … you can change months, weeks, to even days in terms of progress. And you see it right in front of you.”
For example, the Army AI Task Force says that fully automated medical evacuation aircraft could be deployed in as little as five years. Such a revolutionary change would not only take rescue pilots out of harm’s way, but would also free up the men and women traditionally tasked with evacuation to perform other missions.
Beyond the exciting battlefield capabilities, officials also point to less glamorous benefits AI can provide. The Army task force is rethinking its “talent management” strategy to better incorporate technology, with AI algorithms under construction that will better analyze a soldier’s education and experience when it comes to making assignments.
The idea, officials say, is to use AI to dig deeper and find information that could be missed on a resume or even in face-to-face conversations.
That project and others, Col. Matty said, is an example of how the Army isn’t simply eyeing new technology as it comes online and then figuring out what to do with it.
“We’re trying to solve the maze backwards,” he said. “What we’re doing is starting at the finish.”