INNOVATING WITH AI OR BLOCKCHAIN TECH? EXPECT THE DOD TO KNOCK ON YOUR DOOR.
Fresh-faced coders and cypher punks with start-ups working on AI (Artificial Intelligence) or blockchain innovations might soon find themselves “drafted” by the U.S. Department Of Defense (DOD).
The military plans to step up a search and acquire approach to “technology at the edges” happening outside the major industry players the DOD often deals with to procure technology.
It’s part of the vision of Dr. Craig Martell, the new Chief Digital and AI Officer (CDAO) at the Department of Defense.
Martell, who took the position in June, outlined the strategy, and also offered insights into U.S. tech support being given to Ukraine, in a Virtual Department of Defense Digital and AI Symposium.
During the symposium, Martell, speaking with DOD CIO John Sherman, said it wasn’t enough to rely on technology relationships with major corporations, given the pace of innovations happening at smaller companies.
In one exchange, Martell said his priority would be to try to enlist even very small start-ups:
MARTELL: So I was smiling through all of that because, you know, this is one of my largest concerns, is if we’re doing important AI at the edge, how do we get that data? How do we make sure that data’s fresh? How do we make sure it’s quality? So these are exactly the kind of things that CDAO is going to need. In particular, I sort of see us as a car that’s driving on the road that you’re building…
MARTELL: …that you’re building for us. And so this relationship’s going to be extremely strong. In addition, I like that you’re leveraging the relationship with industry, because it doesn’t make any sense for us to build things that we shouldn’t be building here. If industry’s got a solution, that’s the solution that we should use. One of the things that I want us to spend a lot of time thinking about though, John, is how do we not just go to the big players? How do we make it easy? How do we create a marketplace for startups, for medium-size, for small businesses? Because particularly in the AI space and I’m sure in many other spaces as well, there’s a lot of innovation happening in two-person shops or five-person shops. You know, a good brain with a good idea, we want to be able to leverage all of that.
The Trend Toward Hunting For Innovators Began with “18F”
Small companies have demonstrated time and gain an agility and ability to quickly develop tech innovations that, in aggregate, can outpace large corporations with bloated bureaucracies and procedures.
Those large companies have often responded by “innovating via acquisition”—ie., by buying up the innovating companies, especially when their tech threatens to compete with and possibly beat out products of those corporations.
The Trends Journal detailed the monopolistic and anti-competitive aspects of these practices by a handful of large tech companies, in “HOW BIG TECH MAINTAINS ITS MONOPOLY” (17 Aug 2021) and “HOW BIG TECH MAINTAINS ITS MONOPOLY: A FOLLOW-UP” (24 Aug 2021).
According to govtech.com, the United States General Services Administration (GSA) authorized the co-opting of personnel and ideas from the commercial IT industry beginning in 2014, via regulations referred to as 18F.
Since that time, states have also adopted 18F style procurement initiatives, seeking to attract innovative start-ups to work on government projects that are modularized, one of the core concepts of 18F’s method of operation.
18F also allowed for the loosening of vendor qualifying procedures, according to govtech.com.
What happens if a company doesn’t want to do business with the U.S. Military?
At least some employees at some of the largest tech companies including Google and Microsoft have at times galvanized protests against having tech innovations being used to conduct wars.
Military allied sources have consequently pushed back, often seeking to minimize how technology from civilian companies will be used.
To give one example, when some Microsoft employees organized and published a letter to try to prevent the U.S. Military from procuring HoloLens technology, former U.S. Air Force major general Robert Latiff commented to marketplace.org:
“I actually think that there is a lack of understanding. If we were asking the people at Google or Microsoft to build a bullet that exploded inside a person and just ripped them to shreds, that would be one thing. But we’re not asking them to do that. We’re asking them to provide data and information to make things better and more accurate. At least a small group doesn’t seem to be able to make that distinction. They view every piece of defense work as killing babies, to use a phrase from when I was coming up through the military. There’s no fine distinctions there. It’s all or nothing.”
Latiff is hardly a run of the military suit. Author of Future War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield, he is a recognized expert on military tech issues.
A 2020 NBC News story which also featured resistance from civilian tech company employees to having their IP used for military purposes, noted that literally thousands of intersections exist between civilian tech companies and military contracting.
Over the past two years, thousands of tech company employees have taken a stand: they do not want their labor and technical expertise to be used for projects with the military or law enforcement agencies.
“Knowledge of such contracts, however, hasn’t been easy for tech workers to come by.
…newly published research from the technology accountability nonprofit Tech Inquiry revealed that the Department of Defense and federal law enforcement agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have secured thousands of deals with Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Dell, IBM, Hewlett Packard and even Facebook that have not been previously reported.”
That Tech Inquiry report can be viewed here.
The NBC story observed that procurement contracts between the DOD and civilian tech companies were purposely written to be vague. According to quoted source Jack Poulson, a former Google research scientist:
“Often the high-level contract description between tech companies and the military looks very vanilla and mundane,” Poulson said in an interview. “But only when you look at the details of the contract, which you can only get through Freedom of Information [Act] requests, do you see the workings of how the customization from a tech company would actually be involved.”
Poulson pointed out that military personnel framed the matter not only as a patriotic duty of companies, but suggested that company employees had no right to try to influence their companies against working with the DOD.
Poulson observed that Defense Innovation Unit director Michael Brown argued that civilian workplaces should not be democracies:
“[T]he place to exercise [concern over weapons systems] is at the ballot box and we need to support the government,” Brown commented regarding tech employee objections to giving AI tech to the DOD for military drone applications.
If the Federal government can exert pressure on huge corporations to play nice with regard to providing military technology, imagine how persuasive they can be with tiny two and four person companies percolating a great idea.
And the new DOD Chief Digital and AI Officer has made it clear that he intends to be knocking on doors of not only the usual civilian tech company conduits, but on “edge” innovators too.