Optimizing Academia for AI Mission Priorities

By Michael Arendt, PhD, Artificial Intelligence Consultant

Disclaimer – The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Department of Defense or the United States Government.

How does the United States Government, and more specifically, the Department of Defense (DoD), optimize its engagements with students, academia, and universities to best serve the warfighter and taxpayer in pursuit of its artificial intelligence (AI) mission priorities?

This is the first in a series of three articles that will explore the unique aspects of government engagement with academia in support of our strategic national AI missions. Each article will discuss a different series of critical issues that are vital to this conversation as we work to bridge the gap between our current national technological needs and the talent of our workforce.

Today, war is increasingly fought from a distance — virtually — by remote control, automated systems, artificial intelligence and social media.

What’s Imperative for Immediate Change

There’s an incredible amount of change that has taken place in the last few years as it relates to the nature of 21st century warfare. The current war in Ukraine has highlighted, in real-time, the rapid pace and impact of these technological changes. As recently noted in an article by Gregory Allen, of the AI Governance Project,  “Artificial intelligence [and] machine learning has become an increasingly capable and increasingly widespread factor…It’s been quite useful for tracking what’s going on in Ukraine. “The United States Department of Defense and our allies are taking advantage of what’s been built over the past five years.”[1]

In addition, a recent article by the LA Times gave a thought-provoking illustration of just how AI has been influencing so-called “Virtual Warfare” over the last few months alone:

You surf the internet on a stolen cellphone, nervously scrolling through Ukrainian news feeds, TikTok videos and tweets about the stalled Russian military convoy to which you belong. You’re struggling to cut through the fog of war. Off in the distance, you hear a buzzing noise, like a swarm of bees. It gets louder — then suddenly, intense flashes light up the tent. Blasts rip through the frigid air. You look outside just in time to see three small spider-like “octocopter” drones, controlled by Ukrainian hobbyists lurking nearby, whiz away as acrid clouds of smoke billow from burning supply trucks. Welcome to the world of virtual warfare. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates just how fast the battlefield is changing. Today, war is increasingly fought from a distance — virtually — by remote control, automated systems, artificial intelligence and social media.[2]

Because of disruptive advancements such as these, there is an urgent demand to educate, train, recruit, and retain the best technical talent in the United States to support our national security priorities. While much has been said about the importance of the Federal Government, and more specifically the DoD, to work more closely with academia in general, the need within the field of AI and other related emergent technologies is an imperative.  

As discussed in the final report published in 2021 by the National Security Commission on AI (NSCAI), the “greatest impediment to the United States being AI-ready by 2025” is not a lack of technology or funds but, rather, the “alarming talent deficit” within the DoD and Intelligence Community. The report continues, “national security agencies need more digital experts now, or they will remain unprepared to buy, build, and use AI and its associated technologies…”[3] 

But what must be done to bridge this gap and ensure that we can support the on-going and meaningful engagement with academia at all levels (from Middle School to High School to College and Graduate Level students and faculty) will be of fundamental importance. If the US is to correct the AI talent deficit problem to leverage our needed growth in AI and related innovative technologies, we must first identify the primary objectives we seek to achieve via academic engagement in order to support the mission fully.

Initial Objectives for Collaboration with Academia in AI

While not intended to be a comprehensive list, below are some initial areas of focus that should be on partnerships & collaboration, building awareness, solution development, and recruiting.

Partnerships & Collaboration – Strategic level partnerships, such as Memorandums of Agreement (MOAs) or Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs), Cooperative Research & Development Agreements (CRADAs) and other types of agreements between the DoD or US Government & academic institutions with Science Technology Engineering & Math (STEM) programs that support AI and related fields across the United States are needed. By creating these initial strategic commitments and partnerships between the government and our top academic institutions, the door for additional opportunities to share information, data, work with students, provide funding opportunities, and exchange knowledge can be unrestricted. Without a commitment on paper at a high-level, every engagement becomes a unique, one-off that must be subsequently approved, managed, & funded at the individual level when needed. Given the difficulty of navigating the Federal bureaucracy, these one-off engagements with academia are not the long-term, scalable approach that will address our AI talent deficit in either the near or long-term.

Awareness – Building awareness through curriculum development and exchanges (Gov’t to academia as well as academia to Gov’t), lecture/speaker series that focuses on relevant topical areas, mission needs, and emergent priorities for government & DoD missions related to AI are needed for students of all ages. These types of programs will help our students to understand better the role the government and military play in our everyday lives, the importance of public service, and the value of pursuing STEM education and degrees. This approach will also ensure that the most cutting-edge research and academic pursuits around AI can be integrated into Government workforce training and curriculum to upskill current Government or military personnel.

Solution Development – Leveraging students, faculty, and researchers to develop the next generation, cutting edge AI solutions and related technologies is another imperative. By collaborating with academia to deliver foundational technologies that push the current innovation envelope, will drive the industry towards new solutions in fields that might not currently be well understood, feasible, possible, or profitable for the private sector. Academia, specifically, can serve as a test bed and proving ground, allowing for key advancements to drive where the private sector should be headed in the years to come. These areas of interest include AI, machine learning, deep learning, quantum computing, internet of things (IoT), autonomy, virtual reality, augmented reality, and blockchain.

Recruitment of World-Class Talent – Recruitment of students via internships & full-time employment opportunities must be addressed immediately as part of a comprehensive strategy for bridging the gap between AI needs and talent in the workforce. While education & training are the cornerstones of an AI-enabled workforce, recruitment & retention of highly knowledgeable, skilled, and experienced personnel into Government service is the capstone that we must achieve as a penultimate objective of the aforementioned priorities in partnerships & collaboration, awareness, and solution development.  These recommendations only represent some initial high-level actions for the government and DoD to engage academia on behalf of the warfighter and taxpayer. In our next article, we’ll dive deeper into specific programs and opportunities for students from middle school through graduate school to become engaged with the DoD and Federal Government’s AI mission priorities.

[1] https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2022/04/ai-already-learning-russias-war-ukraine-dod-says/365978/

[2] https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-04-07/ukraine-war-virtual-drones-ai-social-media

[3] https://www.nscai.gov/2021-final-report/