The Air Force Distributed Common Ground System, also referred to as the AN/GSQ-272 SENTINEL weapon system, is the Air Force’s primary intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection, processing, exploitation, analysis and dissemination system

Jun 04 2020

How AI Will Impact the GEOINT Workforce

Recent research indicates that even though artificial intelligence will become the norm, workers and agencies are not ready for the shift.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has long been a proponent of artificial intelligence technology, seeing it as a tool that enhances the work of its analysts.

The NGA, which collects and examines geospatial intelligence and distributes data to the Defense Department and national security community, is one of several defense-related agencies that have embraced AI. Specifically, the NGA sees AI-powered computer vision as a way to automate certain kinds of image analysis, which will free up analysts to perform higher-level work.

In April, Breaking Defense reported that the NGA was in the midst of “finalizing its first-ever technology strategy, designed to lay out its evolution to a data-centric operation using machine learning and artificial intelligence to speed information to users in the Intelligence Community and the military.” That strategy, released May 29, calls for bringing AI, cloud and high-performance computing into the mainstream of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT).

Despite the enthusiasm for AI, there is cause for concern, according to recent research. While 77 percent of GEOINT stakeholders (including 85 percent of those in the federal government) agree that human-machine teaming will be the industry’s new normal within just five years, the GEOINT workforce has half (or fewer) of the skills needed to actualize AI benefits, according to a report from MeriTalk and the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). READ MORE: Find out how NOAA is using AI to help protect endangered species. 

How AI Can Be Integrated into GEOINT

The report, based on a survey of 150 federal, state and local, and higher education GEOINT stakeholders, found that 54 percent of federal respondents believe the workforce skills gap will be the biggest hurdle to adopting AI over the next decade. 

“Addressing skills gaps and diverse backgrounds and experiences in preparation for a much more complex fourth wave will be not be an easy task, especially without appropriate funding and community support,” Camelia Kantor, vice president of academic affairs at USGIF, says in a statement. “With strong partnerships, such as the one with MeriTalk, we hope to be able to ride along all the future AI waves in our lives.”

More than 40 percent of organizations are currently benefiting from or implementing at least one AI program, according to the report. Of those, the initial applications they are focusing on include data mining, analysis, fusion and processing (7 percent); geographic information system and analysis (69 percent); and data visualization (67 percent).

The initial benefits of using AI include faster decision-making (71 percent), accelerated data analysis (64 percent), enhanced accuracy in image classification or object detection (49 percent) and having more time available for mission-critical tasks or innovation (49 percent).

More work needs to be done to improve users’ skills though. Among federal respondents, 50 percent say their workers need to acquire advanced statistics, analytics, or mathematical modeling skills over the next five to 10 years; 52 percent say that critical thinking skills need to be enhanced; 58 percent say the same about data mining or interpretation; and 42 percent think data visualization skills need to be improved. 

READ MORE: Find out how NOAA is using AI to help protect endangered species.

Encouragingly, 73 percent of federal respondents say they are currently investing in AI skills development. 

Among all survey respondents, the steps they say their organizations or institutions have taken to help prepare the GEOINT workforce for AI include increased training for current GEOINT workforce (41 percent), increased discussions of AI applications and expected impacts (41 percent), increased focus on diversity of background and experiences (34 percent), hiring external support/consultants to aid in AI assessment and implementation (31 percent), and increased hiring of AI-specific subject matter experts (31 percent). 

“If you're not hip to AI, you’re DOA in GEOINT,” Steve O’Keeffe, the founder of MeriTalk, says in a statement. “We can choose to ride the new wave or get drowned by it. Good time to learn to swim.”

U.S. Air Force