But our current digital reality looks very different, even sobering. After September 11th, we fought terrorists for almost 20 years and remained a flip-phone military in today’s smartphone world. The infrastructure to support a robust digital force is sorely lacking. As a result, the members of the service lead personal lives that are digitally connected to almost everything and military lives that are connected to almost nothing. Imagine having some of the best hardware in the world – stealth fighters or space planes – backed by the worst data plan in the world.
Meanwhile, the accelerating global information age remains dizzying. 2020 is on the right track to produce 59 zetabytes of data. That’s a one followed by 21 zeros – more than 50 times the number of stars in the observable universe. On average, each person contributes 1.7 megabytes of content online per second, and increasing. Slogans like “data is the new oil” emphasize the economic import, but not the full potential. “Data is“More awesome captures its ever-evolving, artificially intelligent future.
Will Roper is the acquisition manager of the Air Force and the Space Force.
The rise of artificial intelligence has come a long way since 1945 when visionary mathematician Alan Turing hypothesized that machines would one day play intelligent functions like chess. Aided by the rapid advances in data processing – millions of times over over the past 70 years – Turing’s vision was realized just 52 years later when IBM’s Deep Blue defeated reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov with selected moves that were labeled “almost” human. “But that impressive feat would be dwarfed in 2016 if Google’s AlphaGo shocked the world with one Furthermore-human, even beautiful step on the way to victory over 18-time Go world champion Lee Sedol. This now famous move 37 of game two was the death knell of human primacy in strategy games. Machines are now teaching the world’s elite to play.
China took note of this more than usual. We got frustratedly used to them copying or stealing U.S. military secrets – two decades after 9/11 are plenty of time to watch and study. But China’s ambitions go far beyond copying or surpassing our military. AlphaGo’s victory was a Sputnik moment for the Chinese Communist Party and sparked its own NASA-like response: a national mega-project in AI. Although there is no moon in this digital “space race”, its giant leap could be the next industrial revolution. The synergy of 5G and cloud-to-edge AI could radically evolve the Internet of Things, enabling ubiquitous AI and all of the economic and military benefits it could offer. Not only our military needs digital urgency: our nation needs to wake up fast. The only thing worse than the fear of the AI itself is the fear of not having it.
There is a glimmer of hope. The Air Force and Space Force had their own “Move 37” moment last month during the first AI-enabled launch of a cruise missile at blazing machine speed. While it did so in the true sense of the word, this turning point lasted seven years and incorporated technologies like hypervelocity cannons, fighters, computer clouds, virtual reality, 4G LTE and 5G, and even Project Maven – the Pentagon’s first AI initiative. In no time at all, we launched an internet of military things.
The Air Force and the Space Force are working at unprecedented speed (at least for the Pentagon) and extending this “IoT.mil” to the entire military – and not a moment too soon. Since AI outperforms human performance in more than just chess and go, traditional roles in warfare are not far behind. “Whose AI will it overtake?” Is an operational question in the digital space race. Another reason is how our military finally got off the launch pad.
More than seven years ago, I pioneered the development of hypervelocity cannons to repel missile attacks with inexpensive rapid-fire projectiles. I also started Project Maven to target potential threats to machine speed. However, with no plug-and-play defense infrastructure in place, these systems got stuck in airplane mode. The Air Force and Space Force later gave me the much-needed opportunity to build this digital infrastructure – cloud, software platforms, corporate data, even coding capabilities – from scratch. We had to be a good software company to be a software capable force.
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