Adm. Samuel Paparo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, speaks at WEST 2024.

Feb 15 2024

WEST 2024: Artificial Intelligence Still Needs a Human Touch

While AI has promise in many military systems, it will probably support troops and sailors rather than acting alone, experts say.

Artificial intelligence can be a valuable military tool, but several top military officials and industry experts said this week that they believe it will work best only if humans remain involved in its use.

Speaking at WEST 2024 in San Diego, several officials talked about the coming use of AI in the Navy’s future hybrid fleet, a combination of manned and unmanned vessels. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Lisa Franchetti said that prototyping is getting closer.

“But the other part of unmanned is that it’s not really unmanned,” she said. “Unmanned systems have an enormous potential to multiply our combat power by complementing our existing fleet of ships, submarines and aircraft through manned-unmanned teaming.”

The Navy already uses AI and machine learning in shipyards to assist in maintaining, repairing and delivering platforms, as well as to support the fleet in lifecycle maintenance, she said. This frees sailors to do less repetitive tasks, but more complex actions will still require their involvement.

“Allow machines to do tasks and calculations that machines do better, and overlay human judgment when it’s required,” said Adm. Samuel Paparo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. “Never abdicate decisions on human life to machines.”

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AI Challenges Must Be Met for Success in a Complex Environment

“AI is just math,” said John Long, the deputy Navy chief AI officer at the Office of Naval Research. “I worry less when it’s paired with a human.”

So far, artificial intelligence has been used in back-office environments, “because, let’s be real, that’s what we in industry have been able to prove works,” said Terry Halvorsen, IBM vice president for federal and a former CIO for both the Navy and the Department of Defense. “They want to move into warfare, and we have to prove it works.”

AI still faces technological challenges that must be overcome before it can be adapted for use in a complex military environment. What happens, for instance, if an adversary inserts nonsensical data into the AI’s sources, asked Sam Tangredi, a professor and Leidos Chair of Future Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College.

But nonadversarial problems can also affect an AI’s ability to do its job. As an AI algorithm “soaks up data from the internet, it gets the conspiracy theories, too, and applies that to whatever the subject is,” he said. “AI can be deceived.”

Sensors that gather information in conflict areas can lose the ability to detect information cleanly as a battle continues, he added, and AI does not work as well with degraded or incomplete information.

LEARN MORE: Industry can be a valuable partner for an agency deploying AI.

Humans Must Remain in the AI Loop

That’s another reason why humans should remain in the loop when AI is deployed, said Katie Rainey, the director of science and technology for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific.

“Neural networks can find random patterns with 99 percent accuracy, but there are a lot of situations where they don’t make sense,” she said. “The operator has so much expert knowledge. When you can use expert knowledge, you should.”

The promise of AI remains, however, and federal agencies believe it’s imperative to explore the options it provides. But agencies are also looking to industry to give them advice on how to proceed.

“What do I need help in? AI,” said Rear Adm. Christopher Bartz, Coast Guard CIO recently named acting deputy CIO for the Department of Homeland Security. “How do I buy it, how do I train it, how do I sustain it, how do I make sure it’s not hallucinating?

DHS is preparing to hire about 50 AI specialists, Bartz said, a nod to the importance of the tool. “AI is going to fundamentally change everything for us,” he added.

To learn more about WEST 2024, visit our conference page. You can also follow us on X (formerly Twitter) at @FedTechMagazine to see behind-the-scenes moments.

Elizabeth Neus

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