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The Pentagon sees Artificial Intelligence (AI) and related technologies as key enablers of future military operations. But the Defense Department faces challenges as it seeks to acquire them. “All the services are actually quite engaged in a campaign to understand where advanced artificial intelligence and autonomy can be inserted to help defeat adversaries across the spectrum of potential conflicts that we might find ourselves in,” Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Paul Selva said, at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “It’s very compelling when one looks at the capabilities that AI can bring to command and control and the capabilities that advanced robotics might bring to a complex battle space,” he added.

In April, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work established an algorithmic warfare cross-functional team at the Pentagon to advance these efforts. “Although we’ve taken steps to explore the potential of AI, big data and deep learning, I remain convinced that we need to do much more to take advantage of recent and future advances in these critical areas,” he said.

The Defense Department is exploring how best to acquire artificial intelligence tools, Marine Col. Drew Cukor, the chief of the algorithmic warfare team, said at a recent military technology conference in Washington, D.C. “I wish we could buy AI like we buy lettuce,” he said.

As reported on nationaldefensemagazine.org, the U.S. government issued a broad announcement for algorithm development contracts. Vendors will be selected through a competitive selection process. The technology must then be integrated and fielded, and once an algorithm is put on a platform it must be optimized over its lifecycle, Cukor said. Cukor’s team has been given rapid acquisition authorities to look at other ways of procuring the technology. It is “an opportunity for about 36 months to really explore … what are the best ways to engage industry so that we come out of this advantaging the taxpayer and the warfighter,” he said. While much attention has been paid to advances that potential adversaries such as Russia and China are making in the field of artificial intelligence, the Pentagon is also facing stiff competition at home as it searches for computer science talent.

“We’re in an AI arms race, and it’s happening in the industry,” Cukor said. “The big five internet companies really are pursuing this heavily”.

He noted that Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, is now referring to Google as an AI company. “Everyone is in this space and there’s just a ton of money being invested in it”, Cukor said. Commercial tech giants spent about $20 billion to $30 billion last year on these technologies. Companies in Silicon Valley and other technology hubs are paying top dollar to attract talented workers.

“What I notice from the government perspective as I go around is that these young software engineers are essentially making NFL salaries,” Cukor said.

Rather than engaging in an unwinnable bidding war for their services, the Pentagon should appeal to AI experts’ patriotism and their desire to work on challenging projects that are unique to the military, he said.

Meanwhile, Cukor’s team is looking to procure cutting-edge technology from the commercial industry.  That could prove challenging, said Paul Scharre, director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

In many cases, “they’re not companies that are really familiar with working with DoD, and there are some that really want nothing to do with DoD,” he said.

The Pentagon acquisition system is too slow, and the profit margins too low, for many commercial firms to want to do business with the department, he said. Those that do engage are sometimes disappointed, he added.

To be successful, Pentagon officials looking to buy AI technologies are going to have to go around the traditional acquisition system, said Scharre, who is leading the new artificial intelligence and global security initiative at CNAS.

Google and other firms in Silicon Valley aren’t the only companies pursuing AI technology.

“We’re beginning to see more traditional defense industrial partners innovating in that space as well,” Selva said recently.

But the traditional defense industry is facing some of the same challenges as the Pentagon when it comes to competing with the commercial industry, said Tom Jones, who recently served as Northrop Grumman’s vice president of advanced concepts and technologies.

Commercial companies are “assigning thousands of engineers to go work on incorporating machine learning and AI into their product lines,” he said. “The amount of money that’s going in there is something we simply can’t keep pace with in the defense industry. That’s a hard problem to solve because a lot of the best minds are moving to these large commercial ventures,” he said.