Deploying Big Data to Defend the US

Why you should care

Because the military may soon be able to understand almost everything it sees. 

Data from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies stream in every second of every day from nearly every corner of the globe, fed by a vast and varied network of data-gathering devices and systems controlled by the United States, including a constellation of satellites, squadrons of drones and other surveillance tools.

These platforms generate massive amounts of information; the Navy alone creates a Library of Congress’ worth of ISR data every day, but the vast majority of that goes unanalyzed. In fact, according to a 2014 Rand report:

As little as 5 percent of the Navy’s intel reaches the right analyst.

Other experts cite even more modest figures. “We analyze 0.5 percent or less than 0.5 percent of all the data that’s available to us,” says Michael Moskal, manager of research programs at Modus Operandi, a company that contracts with the Department of Defense on big-data analysis. “What are we going to do with the other 99.5 percent of the data? What intelligence is lost?”

Now, however, the DOD is trying to narrow the gap between information and analysis by deploying artificial intelligence to enhance that crucial military state — situational awareness. The program at the forefront of this effort is Project Maven. Launched in 2017, the initiative established an Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team to “accelerate DOD’s integration of big data and machine learning … [turning] the enormous volume of data available … into actionable intelligence and insights at speed,” claims an April 2017 Department of Defense memorandum.


Project leaders first focused Maven on drone video, which was inundating analysts with daily terabytes of footage. Before the military turned to AI, “it took a team of analysts working 24 hours a day to exploit only a fraction of one drone’s sensor data,” Gregory Allen, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, writes in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

The Maven team initially aimed to create an algorithm by the end of 2017 to help fight ISIS. That ambitious goal bore fruit in December, when the team deployed an algorithm that could identify objects of interest, like cars. “Eventually, we hope that one analyst will be able to do twice as much work, potentially three times as much, as they’re doing now. That’s our goal,” Marine Corps Col. Drew Cukor, chief of the algorithmic cross-functional warfare team, noted at the 2017 Defense One Tech Summit.

Whoever becomes the leader in [artificial intelligence] will become the ruler of the world.

Vladimir Putin, Russian president

To be sure, some experts cite the challenges of long-term planning for AI research and development when it comes to the military. One example: The brass has difficulty defining what role it wants AI to play in the country’s security. “The way they dictate their needs to us may not be their true problem, and we have to translate that to the AI world,” says Moskal. 

And not everyone is enthusiastic about AI finding its way into military operations. Stephen Rodriguez, a senior fellow with New America’s International Security program, is worried that it will lower the barriers to lethal uses in warfare, which may become destabilizing. Other experts are concerned about giving automated weapons the authority to harm people, although military officials say that kind of autonomy won’t happen anytime soon.

But the concerns reflect the public’s general distrust of artificial intelligence. Moskal says this wariness will decrease as the technology matures and becomes more reliable. Still, even Col. Cukor noted at the tech summit that combining machine and human knowledge is the best way to use AI. Perhaps a machine’s computational capability paired with a human’s ethics and intuition could create the most effective eyes in the sky the military has ever seen.

At least that’s the dream. Meanwhile, the U.S. sprints full speed ahead on what’s being called an “AI arms race.” China has rapidly growing AI sectors in Beijing and Shenzhen, already strong tech ecosystems, according to a 2017 McKinsey report. In November, South Korea announced plans to invest $940 million in a public-private AI research center, with the goal of incorporating AI into its military operations by 2025. As for Russia, President Vladimir Putin said in an “open lesson” to Russian students in September, “Whoever becomes the leader in [artificial intelligence] will become the ruler of the world.”

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