International adversaries have some advantages in the artificial intelligence race but the U.S.’s strengths—people and results—are more important, according to a key Defense Department official.
Given its population, China may have a larger pool from which to extract data for use in artificial intelligence applications. But more important than the quantity of data being processed, is an eye for outcomes and people who can achieve them while working within the confines of democracy.
“It’s a competition of ideas,” said DOD Chief Data Officer David Spirk. “It’s a competition across the continuum of competition with people who don’t have the values of America and our partners and allies. And if we don’t encourage that talent to come in, to be a part of this movement, not just in the Department of Defense, but in the U.S. government … then we will fall behind.”
Spirk spoke Wednesday during a webinar held as part of the Cyber Media Forum, a George Washington University program on national security issues. He detailed efforts to implement a May 5 memo from Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks on creating a data advantage and reacted to the recent announcement of a new chief digital and artificial intelligence officer, who he would now report up to.
“I honestly, I truly do view this as a positive thing,” Spirk said, noting that the initial memo on creating a data advantage had suggested such a post might be appropriate. “It’s going to allow us that stronger alignment to really accelerate into the future in a more formal manner. I don’t view it as a bureaucracy, if anything, I think the establishment of this activity knocks down some bureaucratic walls because it puts all of us under one vision that a CDAO can come in and lead.”
Spirk said realizing the department’s objective of becoming a data-centric organization is not important for its own sake and can sometimes be dizzying as its goals range from creating internal efficiencies to obtaining a leg up on the battlefield.
“I think it is important to recognize that this isn’t about creating, you know, a data religion, this is about generating outcomes,” he said. “So you can definitely find your head on a swivel and be exhausted at the end of the day because all of it’s about leveraging the data that you have for your unique mission.”
Pressed for examples, Spirk said the department’s been able to save $50 million and improve readiness by using a platform to manage engine data in real time to see when parts need to be changed out instead of relying on a disconnected system where flight hours are manually inputted.
He also noted the regular use of live data instead of Powerpoint presentations in meetings of senior-most department leaders to “to drive the conversation and drill down into decisions.”
Throughout his remarks, Spirk stressed the importance of people—young people in particular, who he said are rich in their understanding of data—over new technology acquisitions for analyzing needs and figuring out how to meet them—what he called “the art of the possible.”
“It’s about the talent,” he said. “We have a lot of vendors who spend a lot of time bringing us fantastic things. But if all we do is chase tools and chase software, but we don’t spend the requisite amount of resources and time and attention on increasing data fluency now, we won’t have people who really truly understand the opportunity that’s in front of them.”