US Gearing Up for Digital Arms Race
August 29, 2017
the straight-laced world of the U.S. military, the big room with glossy
white paint stands out.
Beyond the desks lined with computer screens, the overhead projectors or
the digital clock displaying the time in various world cities, the walls
demand your attention.
They are covered from floor to ceiling with questions, equations,
sketches and ideas — scribbled frantically or in moments of inspiration
— all representing the best thinking of some of the U.S. military’s best
“There are precious few places in this building where you can write on a
wall,” said Albert Bolden, not surprisingly given that this is, after
all, part of a military base.
But according to Bolden, the director of innovation at the U.S. Defense
Intelligence Agency, that’s part of the point for the so-called
Innovation Hub, or iHUB.
“People from across the agency can come into this space and figure out
how to solve our problems,” he said.
'Relevant in this digital age'
While all this may sound like a feel-good tale of military structure
melding with Silicon Valley ingenuity to make life easier by using
technology, it is actually about much more.
“If we don’t embrace it, our adversaries will,” said outgoing DIA
Director, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart. “The fight for remaining relevant in
this digital age is what keeps me awake.”
And Stewart was clear. It is, in many ways, an arms race.
“Our adversaries have been modernizing,” he warned, speaking to a small
group of reporters in August, as the agency welcomed private companies
and academics to the iHub for a series of so-called Industry Days.
And it is these encounters between the DIA’s own top thinkers and some
of the best outside of government that form a second, crucial component
of the iHub strategy. It is a chance to see how off-the-shelf
technologies might be able to help solve problems the agency’s analysts
One company making a pitch to be part of this overall effort is an
Austin, Texas-based artificial intelligence start-up called
SparkCognition already has attracted interest from the U.S. Air Force.
And companies like Verizon and Boeing are now investing more than $30
million in the company's neural networks, designed to mimic the
functionality of a human brain in order to predict likely outcomes.
“What we’ve done is automate that research that a data scientist would
do,” said SparkCognition’s Sam Septembre following a question-and-answer
session at the DIA’s iHub.
Instead of taking weeks or days, however, Septembre said
SparkCognition’s systems can deliver results in hours or even minutes.
“We’re not just a black box,” added the company’s director of business
operations, Timothy Stefanick. “We have why the [computer] model thought
SparkCognition says its platforms already have succeeded in predicting
Brexit, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. And the company
says it nearly correctly predicted President Donald Trump’s victory in
the 2016 U.S. presidential election by looking at sales of campaign
merchandise, like Trump’s “Make America Great Again” baseball caps.
“The human factor got involved and skewed it,” said Stefanick,
explaining that in the run-up to the election, the company’s analysts
didn’t trust the initial prediction of a Trump victory because it
differed so much from the polls. He said they then decided to have the
computer models take into account additional factors, causing them to
predict a Trump loss.
AI for video
Another company vying for a DIA contract is Percipient.ai, which focuses
on applying artificial intelligence to video.
“This is a kind of capability that helps you get into productive
analytics and helps you protect forces,” said company co-founder, ret.
Brig. Gen. Balan Ayyar, a former U.S. Air Force intelligence officer who
commanded a task force in Afghanistan.
“You can check any person in any video,” he said.
Ayyar and fellow Percipient.ai co-founder Raj Shah, say their platform
can save analysts considerable time, for example scouring hundreds of
hours of video from the scene of a terror attack to quickly identify if
any suspected terrorists were nearby.
Even mobile phones could be used to track potential adversaries,
programmed to vibrate, for instance, if a person of interest turns up in
“With this kind of system, the [terror] watch list could be much, much
bigger,” said Shah, who previously headed up Google Maps.
Already, Ayyar and Shah say Percipient.ai’s systems can identify
suspicious activity, or tradecraft, like the use of specific getaway
Handwriting on the wall
For DIA, the early results have been promising.
“We’ve seen examples when machines are able to provide insights to the
analysts that they haven’t had,” said Randy Soper, a senior DIA analyst
for analytics modernization.
To speed up the process, DIA even awards seed money — up to about
$250,000 — to projects that have shown the most promise.
Two have already been approved and another four projects are set to
receive funding once the once the money becomes available.
More projects could soon be added to the list. DIA’s Innovation Hub is
still considering the latest pitches from industry and academia, like
those from SparkCognition and Percipient.ai.
The agency says that overall, the response has been “overwhelming.”
But the success in reaching out to industry and academia also has
brought some changes to the program.
week [August 22], the DIA opened up a new Innovation Hub.
At first glance, it looks sleek and modern, a row of screens and a
digital world clock etched smoothly into wood-paneled walls, while a
large conference table dominates the center of the room.
To be sure, it seems like quite a departure from the old iHub, which
almost had the feel of a useful but makeshift classroom.
Some things, though, have not changed. The wood-paneling only extends so
far. Much of the rest of the room is covered in that white, glossy
“You can still write on the walls,” said one official.