Artificial Intelligence is a once-in-a lifetime commercial and defense game changer
If you haven’t paid attention, now’s the time.
Some specific defense related AI applications are listed later in this document.
We’re in the Middle of a Revolution
Imagine it’s 1950, and you’re a visitor who traveled back in time from today. Your job is to explain the impact computers will have on business, defense and society to people who are using manual calculators and slide rules. You succeed in convincing one company and a government to adopt computers and learn to code much faster than their competitors /adversaries. And they figure out how they could digitally enable their business – supply chain, customer interactions, etc. Think about the competitive edge they’d have by today in business or as a nation. They’d steamroll everyone.
That’s where we are today with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. These technologies will transform businesses and government agencies. Today, 100s of billions of dollars in private capital have been invested in 1,000s of AI startups. The U.S. Department of Defense has created a dedicated organization to ensure its deployment.
But What Is It?
Compared to the classic computing we’ve had for the last 75 years, AI has led to new types of applications, e.g. facial recognition; new types of algorithms, e.g. machine learning; new types of computer architectures, e.g. neural nets; new hardware, e.g. GPUs; new types of software developers, e.g. data scientists; all under the overarching theme of artificial intelligence. The sum of these feels like buzzword bingo. But they herald a sea change in what computers are capable of doing, how they do it, and what hardware and software is needed to do it.
This brief will attempt to describe all of it.
New Words to Define Old Things
One of the reasons the world of AI/ML is confusing is that it’s created its own language and vocabulary. It uses new words to define programming steps, job descriptions, development tools, etc. But once you understand how the new world maps onto the classic computing world, it starts to make sense. So first a short list of some key definitions.
AI/ML – a shorthand for Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning
Artificial Intelligence (AI) – a catchall term used to describe “Intelligent machines” which can solve problems, make/suggest decisions and perform tasks that have traditionally required humans to do. AI is not a single thing, but a constellation of different technologies.
Data Science – a new field of computer science. Broadly it encompasses data systems and processes aimed at maintaining data sets and deriving meaning out of them. In the context of AI, it’s the practice of people who are doing machine learning.
Data Scientists – responsible for extracting insights that help businesses make decisions. They explore and analyze data using machine learning platforms to create models about customers, processes, risks, or whatever they’re trying to predict.
What’s Different? Why is Machine Learning Possible Now?
To understand why AI/Machine Learning can do these things, let’s compare them to computers before AI came on the scene. (Warning – simplified examples below.)
Classic Computers – Programming
Classic Computers – Compiling
The code is then compiled using software to translate the programmer’s source code into a version that can be run on a target computer/browser/phone. For most of today’s programs, the computer used to develop and compile the code does not have to be that much faster than the one that will run it.
Classic Computers – Running/Executing Programs
Once a program is coded and compiled, it can be deployed and run (executed) on a desktop computer, phone, in a browser window, a data center cluster, in special hardware, etc. Programs/applications can be games, social media, office applications, missile guidance systems, bitcoin mining, or even operating systems e.g. Linux, Windows, IOS. These programs run on the same type of classic computer architectures they were programmed in.
Classic Computers- Hardware
The CPUs (Central Processing Units) that write and run these Classic Computer applications all have the same basic design (architecture). The CPUs are designed to handle a wide range of tasks quickly in a serial fashion. These CPUs range from Intel X86 chips, and the ARM cores on Apple M1 SoC, to the z15 in IBM mainframes.
In contrast to programming on classic computing with fixed rules, machine learning is just like it sounds – we can train/teach a computer to “learn by example” by feeding it lots and lots of examples. (For images a rule of thumb is that a machine learning algorithm needs at least 5,000 labeled examples of each category in order to produce an AI model with decent performance.) Once it is trained, the computer runs on its own and can make predictions and/or complex decisions.
Just as traditional programming has three steps – first coding a program, next compiling it and then running it – machine learning also has three steps: training (teaching), pruning and inference (predicting by itself.)
By running an algorithm selected by a data scientist on a set of training data, the Machine Learning system generates the rules embedded in a trained model. The system learns from examples (training data), rather than being explicitly programmed. (See the “Types of Machine Learning” section for more detail.) This self-correction is pretty cool. An input to a neural net results in a guess about what that input is. The neural net then takes its guess and compares it to a ground-truth about the data, effectively asking an expert “Did I get this right?” The difference between the network’s guess and the ground truth is its error. The network measures that error, and walks the error back over its model, adjusting weights to the extent that they contributed to the error.)
Just to make the point again: The algorithms combined with the training data – not external human computer programmers – create the rules that the AI uses. The resulting model is capable of solving complex tasks such as recognizing objects it’s never seen before, translating text or speech, or controlling a drone swarm.
Inference can even occur locally on edge devices where physical devices meet the digital world (routers, sensors, IOT devices), close to the source of where the data is generated. This reduces network bandwidth issues and eliminates latency issues.
Machine Learning – Performance Monitoring and Retraining
Just like classic computers where software developers do regular software updates to fix bugs and increase performance and add features, machine learning models also need to be updated regularly by adding new data to the old training pipelines and running them again. Why?
One Last Thing – “Verifiability/Explainability”
Understanding how an AI works is essential to fostering trust and confidence in AI production models.
It’s taken decades but as of today, on its simplest implementations, machine learning applications can do some tasks better and/or faster than humans. Machine Learning is most advanced and widely applied today in processing text (through Natural Language Processing) followed by understanding images and videos (through Computer Vision) and analytics and anomaly detection. For example:
Skip this section if you’re interested in national security applications
Hang on to your seat. We’re just at the beginning of the revolution. The next phase of AI, powered by ever increasing powerful AI hardware and cloud clusters, will combine some of these basic algorithms into applications that do things no human can. It will transform business and defense in ways that will create new applications and opportunities.
Advanced virtual assistants can listen to and observe behaviors, build and maintain data models, and predict and recommend actions to assist people with and automate tasks that were previously only possible for humans to accomplish.
Supply chain management
AI applications are already appearing in predictive maintenance, risk management, procurement, order fulfillment, supply chain planning and promotion management.
AI applications are already appearing in real-time personalization, content and media optimization and campaign orchestration to augment, streamline and automate marketing processes and tasks constrained by human costs and capability, and to uncover new customer insights and accelerate deployment at scale.
Making business smarter: Customer Support
AI applications are already appearing in virtual customer assistants with speech recognition, sentiment analysis, automated/augmented quality assurance and other technologies providing customers with 24/7 self- and assisted-service options across channels.
Much like the dual-use/dual-nature of classical computers AI developed for commercial applications can also be used for national security.
Fusing and making sense of sensor data (detecting threats in optical /SAR imagery, classifying aircraft based on radar returns, searching for anomalies in radio frequency signatures, etc.) Machine learning is better and faster than humans in finding targets hidden in a high-clutter background. Automated target detection and fires from satellite/UAV.
Other examples include:
AI empowers other applications such as:
AI/ML in Collection
The front end of intelligence collection platforms has created a firehose of data that have overwhelmed human analysts. “Smart” sensors coupled with inference engines that can pre-process raw intelligence and prioritize what data to transmit and store –helpful in degraded or low-bandwidth environments.
AI-enabled natural language processing, computer vision, and audiovisual analysis can vastly reduce manual data processing. Advances in speech-to-text transcription and language analytics now enable reading comprehension, question answering, and automated summarization of large quantities of text. This not only prioritizes the work of human analysts, it’s a major force multiplier
AI can also be used to automate data conversion such as translations and decryptions, accelerating the ability to derive actionable insights.
Human-Machine Teaming in Tasking and Dissemination
AI-enabled systems will automate and optimize tasking and collection for platforms, sensors, and assets in near-real time in response to dynamic intelligence requirements or changes in the environment.
AI will be able to automatically generate machine-readable versions of intelligence products and disseminate them at machine speed so that computer systems across the IC and the military can ingest and use them in real time without manual intervention.
Human-Machine Teaming in Exploitation and Analytics
AI-enabled tools can augment filtering, flagging, and triage across multiple data sets. They can identify connections and correlations more efficiently and at a greater scale than human analysts, and can flag those findings and the most important content for human analysis.
AI can fuse data from multiple sources, types of intelligence, and classification levels to produce accurate predictive analysis in a way that is not currently possible. This can improve indications and warnings for military operations and active cyber defense.
But because a large percentage of it is open-source AI is not limited to nation states, AI-powered cyber-attacks, deepfakes and AI software paired with commercially available drones can create “poor-man’s smart weapons” for use by rogue states, terrorists and criminals.
AI-enabled malware can learn and adapt to a system’s defensive measures, by probing a target system to look for system configuration and operational patterns and customize the attack payload to determine the most opportune time to execute the payload so to maximize the impact. Conversely, AI-enabled cyber-defensive tools can proactively locate and address network anomalies and system vulnerabilities.
Adversarial attacks against AI fall into three types:
AI Attack Surfaces
Electronic Attack (EA), Electronic Protection (EP), Electronic Support (ES) all have analogues in the AI algorithmic domain. In the future, we may play the same game about the “Algorithmic Spectrum,” denying our adversaries their AI capabilities while defending ours. Other can steal or poison our models or manipulate our training data.
Of course more data only helps if the data is relevant to your desired application. Training data needs to match the real-world operational data very, very closely to train a high-performing AI model.
Improved Machine Learning algorithms
The first Machine Learning algorithms are decades old, and some remain incredibly useful. However, researchers have discovered new algorithms that have greatly sped up the fields cutting-edge. These new algorithms have made Machine Learning models more flexible, more robust, and more capable of solving different types of problems.
Open-Source Code, Pretrained Models and Frameworks
Previously, developing Machine Learning systems required a lot of expertise and custom software development that made it out of reach for most organizations. Now open-source code libraries and developer tools allow organizations to use and build upon the work of external communities. No team or organization has to start from scratch, and many parts that used to require highly specialized expertise have been automated. Even non-experts and beginners can create useful AI tools. In some cases, open-source ML models can be entirely reused and purchased. Combined with standard competitions, open source, pretrained models and frameworks have moved the field forward faster than any federal lab or contractor. It’s been a feeding frenzy with the best and brightest researchers trying to one-up each other to prove which ideas are best.
The downside is that, unlike past DoD technology development – where the DoD leads it, can control it, and has the most advanced technology (like stealth and electronic warfare), in most cases the DoD will not have the most advanced algorithms or models. The analogy for AI is closer to microelectronics than it is EW. The path forward for the DoD should be supporting open research, but optimizing on data set collection, harvesting research results, and fast application.
Instead of investing in massive amounts of computers needed for training companies can use the enormous on-demand, off-premises hardware in the cloud (e.g. Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure) for both training machine learning models and deploying inferences.
While AI can do a lot of things better than humans when focused on a narrow objective, there are many things it still can’t do. AI works well in specific domain where you have lots of data, time/resources to train, domain expertise to set the right goals/rewards during training, but that is not always the case.
For example AI models are only as good as the fidelity and quality of the training data. Having bad labels can wreak havoc on your training results. Protecting the integrity of the training data is critical.
AI is also poor at estimating uncertainty /confidence (and explaining its decision-making). It can’t choose its own goals. (Executives need to define the decision that the AI will execute. Without well-defined decisions to be made, data scientists will waste time, energy and money.) Except for simple cases an AI can’t (yet) figure out cause and effect or why something happened. It can’t think creatively or apply common sense.
AI is not very good at creating a strategy (unless it can pull from previous examples and mimic them, but then fails with the unexpected.) And it lacks generalized intelligence e.g. that can generalize knowledge and translate learning across domains.
Skip this section if you’re interested in national security applications
Advances in language understanding are being pursued to create systems that can summarize complex inputs and engage through human-like conversation, a critical component of next-generation teaming.
A Once-in-a-Generation Event
Imagine it’s the 1980’s and you’re in charge of an intelligence agency. SIGINT and COMINT were analog and RF. You had worldwide collection systems with bespoke systems in space, air, underwater, etc. And you wake up to a world that shifts from copper to fiber. Most of your people, and equipment are going to be obsolete, and you need to learn how to capture those new bits. Almost every business processes needed to change, new organizations needed to be created, new skills were needed, and old ones were obsoleted. That’s what AI/ML is going to do to you and your agency.
The primary obstacle to innovation in national security is not technology, it is culture. The DoD and IC must overcome a host of institutional, bureaucratic, and policy challenges to adopting and integrating these new technologies. Many parts of our culture are resistant to change, reliant on traditional tradecraft and means of collection, and averse to risk-taking, (particularly acquiring and adopting new technologies and integrating outside information sources.)
History tells us that late adopters fall by the wayside as more agile and opportunistic governments master new technologies.
Skip this section if all you need to know is that special chips are used for AI/ML.
Cost and speed make it virtually impossible to develop and deploy cutting-edge AI algorithms without state-of-the-art AI chips. Even with state-of-the-art AI chips, training a large AI algorithm can cost tens of millions of dollars and take weeks to complete. With general-purpose chips like CPUs or older AI chips, this training would take much longer and cost orders of magnitude more, making staying at the R&D frontier impossible. Similarly, performing inference using less advanced or less specialized chips could involve similar cost overruns and take orders of magnitude longer.
In addition to off-the-shelf AI chips from Nvidia, Xlinix and Intel, large companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, have designed their own chips to accelerate AI. The opportunity is so large that there are hundreds of AI accelerator startups designing their own chips, funded by 10’s of billions of venture capital and private equity. None of these companies own a chip manufacturing plant (a fab) so they all use a foundry (an independent company that makes chips for others) like TSMC in Taiwan (or SMIC in China for for its defense related silicon.)
A Sample of AI GPU, FPGA and ASIC AI Chips and Where They’re Made
skip this section if you want to believe it’s magic.
They differ based on:
Supervised Machine Learning – Categories and Examples:
Unsupervised Machine Learning – Categories and Examples
Difference between supervised and unsupervised learning
The main difference: Labeled data
Reinforcement Machine Learning – Categories and Examples