Technology, Innovation and Modern War — Class 8 — Chris Lynch and Nand Mulchandani
We just held our eighth session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern War. Joe Felter, Raj Shah and I designed a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies — Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy.
Today’s topic was Artificial Intelligence and Modern War.
Catch up with the class by reading our summaries of the previous seven classes here.
Some of the readings for this class session included What The Machine Learning Value Chain Means For Geopolitics, How Artificial Intelligence Will Reshape The Global Order,An Understanding Of Ai’s Limitations Is Starting To Sink In, and The Panopticon Is Already Here.
AI and The Department of Defense
In our last class session General Shanahan, described the mission of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (the JAIC) which is to insert AI across the entire Department of Defense. He also said, “The most important hire I made in my time at the JAIC was the chief technology officer, Nand Mulchandani.” Nand changed the culture of the JAIC, bringing in Silicon Valley tools for product development, product management and for the first time a culture that focused on UI/UX, MVPs and continuous integration and deployment.
In this class session Nand Mulchandani, JAIC CTO who just completed an extended stint as Acting Director, continued the discussion of AI and the role of the JAIC.
In addition to Nand, the class also heard from Chris Lynch, founder of the Defense Digital Service (DDS), now the CEO of Rebellion Defense, a new vendor of AI to the DOD. One of the main purposes of the class is to expose our best and brightest to DoD challenges and inspire them to serve. Chris’s story of why he started DDS and how he built the team is a model for how you create a movement.
I’ve extracted and paraphrased a few of their key insights below, but there are many others throughout this substantive discussion, and I urge you to read the entire transcript (here and here) and watch the video.
How the JAIC is Organized
The JAIC is a tiny team, yet we have a product directorate with 32 products that we’re building across six verticals — all the way from warfighter health to Joint warfighting to Business Process automation, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, cybersecurity and predictive maintenance. And we own the AI autonomous weapon systems ethics and policy for the DOD.
We have an acquisition arm and Congress is probably going to give us acquisition authority this year. And we have a missions team headed up by a one-star Flag Officer with six O-6 level officers (Colonels and Navy Captains) heading up the different missions.
Selling JAIC Like Enterprise Sales
When General Shanahan brought me in a year and a half ago, we were focused on building one-off products that in some sense were what I called “using a peashooter against a tank.” One product at a time wasn’t going to change the trajectory of the DOD. This is where I brought in the thinking of how we build businesses here in Silicon Valley. We needed to be building leveraged business models in scale. Leverage is a key part of how you change a 3-million-person organization through technology.
Everything that we do at the JAIC has to be built and done with leverage in mind. I organized my missions teams like an enterprise sales team. We took all the colonels and the captains and said, “You are now going out there and finding the repeatable customer patterns. You’re not finding the one-off custom projects to come build. Instead you need to find the patterns, where I can build a single piece of IP or technology and then “sell it” to all the combatant commands and services equally.” Because doing one-offs is never ever going to change the DOD.
JAIC Is Applied AI — Focused on Impact
AI is not a single technology. It’s picked up every piece of technology in statistics and regression and we’re dealing anywhere from string data to numeric data to audio, language, still image things, full motion video object recognition.
But we take this technology and apply it to a particular set of customer problems and focus on the impact. I take a very practical approach to this. I’m an entrepreneur and an implementation guy. So, my focus is on practical ways of moving this big rock, in a in a tactical, tangible way, slowly and surely, while big thinkers will the work on the broader theoretical pieces.
For instance, inside the DOD we have aging equipment and we have a number of business processes that are really less than optimum. How do we tackle those with AI which can become quick wins so that success begets success?
However, using AI for new warfighting capability that’s much, much more complicated. That’s the stuff that Rebellion and Anduril and a number of other companies are helping us with.
Connecting Systems End to End
We’re applying AI across the board. Take a look at the diagram below. On the left is the Pentagon with highly connected data centers with high bandwidth. And on the right, you’ve got the tactical edge, where we’ve got UAVs, tanks, spacecraft, etc.
At the JAIC we’re focusing on what we call the autonomy space — close combat, AI for small unit maneuvers, around things for SOCOM, and what the Marines and others are going to have to do with the new National Defense Strategy and new operational concepts.
And then we’re also focused on autonomy. The magic words — Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) and the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS)– are the automation pieces. How do you connect all of our systems end to end? That requires targeting logistics, fires, everything else. Today, it’s a process that’s half manual, half PowerPoint, half Excel, half whiteboard, and half a bunch of lieutenants, majors and colonels all drawing stuff and cobbling it together. If we agree that the next generation of warfare is going to be fought at the speed of software, you need these end-to-end systems all connected together in a backplane, a platform.
Now the problem is, in the diagram below on the left, this is what our DOD architecture looks like today. It’s a bunch of vertically integrated snowflake applications with a mouse and a keyboard and a screen. Applications are developed in silos, making it impossible to enable centralized functionality.
And for students of economics, you see the cost curve. The graph on the left just doesn’t work. Your marginal costs and your average costs of building software do not go down over time. What’s ironic is that software is one of the few businesses where the more you build, the cheaper it gets, it should.
The curve you want is on the right — lower marginal cost per application, rapid development, increased developer productivity, etc. And the only way you’re going to get there is through building common platform services and the application architecture that internet-scale companies do today. And in the DOD that discussion and ideas are completely missing. And so we continue to build stuff as it is on the left. The discussion we’re having in the Pentagon is how do we move things from left to the right.
Moving from Vertical Silos to Horizontal Platforms Enables “Software defined warfare”
Our observation is that the architecture of DOD systems is vertically scaled. What that means is that for that last few decades the goal for every weapon system is about how does each generation get a bigger and bigger version of the same weapon system?
Today that means we just made our targets bigger for our adversaries. Think of a giant aircraft carrier sitting out in the ocean with a hypersonic missile targeted against it. It’s like a giant, vertically scaled data center that we used to have 15, 20 years ago. The architecture changes we need to make in our design for the next generation Combat Systems are precisely the same things that we had to do to change the way we operated data centers. Which is moving from stateful, long running, individual systems, to horizontally scaled, stateless systems. We need them attritable, able to work in denied and degraded environments.
This is what we’re thinking when we call it “software defined warfare.”
However, AI as a services-oriented architecture has to get built out on top of an infrastructure platform. The biggest problem is that no one in the DOD owns running that. So while others can run the JEDI cloud for the DOD, nobody owns running application services for the DOD. And the JAIC can’t run them because we’re not an operational software organization.
Joint Common Foundation
One of the biggest mandates we’re focused on now is the Joint Common Foundation, the JCF. It’s an AI development and data environment for the DOD that democratizes access to compute and data.
The vision is a tactical team sitting out in one of our remote bases. Imagine if they can power up a secure laptop, crank out 30 lines of Python code; and grab a set of services — logistic services, mapping services, targeting services, etc,– that are DOD wide available directly through the JCF; and crank out a piece of code that they get into production, use it for a month and then throw it away.
That is the reconfigurability and speed that we need to have at the DOD. So if we are ever in combat, the reconfigurability of our infrastructure, whether it be hardware infrastructure at the tactical edge or a back end systems to react, that is the level of game that we have to have, or we’re toast. That’s it. It’s that simple.
Culture and the culture of change — Getting the Job to Run the Defense Digital Service
In 2015, the Chief Technology Officer at the White House, Todd Park, mentioned I ought to meet with the Department of Defense who were thinking of creating the Defense Digital Service, a DOD version of United States Digital Service. The goal was to bring modern, private-sector tools, technology, and talent into the DOD to solve high-impact challenges.
And Todd Park said, there’s going be a lot of people who want to do this, who want to lead innovation and a lot of people are going to come through, they’re going to pitch their version. I thought about the job like a startup. I came in with a pitch around a “SWAT team of nerds,” one that would work on problems of impact and things that matter. I remember the first time I walked into the waiting room for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. It felt like “Shark Tank.” There were a bunch of other people all going in to do their pitch and talk about their idea for what they wanted to build. Some of them had presentations, and all of them had things printed out of course, because it’s the Department of Defense. Here, we’re talking about technology and innovative ideas, and doing things different with technology and software, and of course, nobody was able to do an actual presentation with a computer.
I chose to show up that day representing what I thought was the culture of what it had to be from the very beginning. That if we tried to build the bridge by being what they were, it wasn’t going to be right. It wasn’t going to be authentic. And we would never attract the best people into the most important mission in the entire world — the mission of defense and national security.
So I showed up in a hoodie and I showed up as me. I didn’t print off a presentation. I pitched the idea, let’s do the SWAT team of nerds. And, and I can remember it felt really, really, weird standing in that office with people in suits and people in uniform in the military. It was just such a different world, completely and totally unlike anything that I had ever seen.
And you know, that’s what they wanted. And that’s what I wanted to be in that part of the story. Because I felt it was important that we actually get people to show up to do the mission. I think that that’s probably one of the most critical things that became the basis of how I thought about what we were building.
Recruiting for the Defense Digital Service
I told people, I want you to leave your job where you’re paid more than what I’m going to pay you. I want you to leave your job, where you’re getting free meals, where you’re living and working around a bunch of other software engineers. And I want you to come into a place that is going to be so unbelievably difficult, frustrating, sometimes demoralizing, and very, very difficult. I want you to come into that.
And I want you to give me six months to one year. But I also just want you to be you.
And when you leave, if you do your job here, if you do the thing that we showed up to do, and if we are successful in what we’re trying to accomplish, it will change your life until the day you die. You’ll never be able to get it out of your blood. And that’s the place that we built. I think that that’s the culture, I think that’s the right place to be.
Because it allowed us to show up in what we were comfortable wearing, we became known as, the people in hoodies. And you would have the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff doing a presentation for newly minted generals. And they would show a slide with a picture of me with orange tennis shoes on. And it just became our uniform. And it also made it really easy to be like, “Oh, that’s Chris Lynch. He’s a nerd, right? That’s the person that I want to talk to.”
And that was the culture that we decided to build. Just keep focused on results and not getting caught up in sizzle. But getting caught up in real things, in building real tangible stuff. And I think we were successful.
Starting Rebellion Defense
When I left the Defense Digital Service, I felt like I was standing at the shore of this vast sea of all the things that I might do next.
Rebellion Defense was built around the idea of let’s do something spectacular. Let’s continue that mission, but at a scale that would be impossible inside the DOD. And we would be able to bring in incredible new people who wanted to work on something meaningful and impactful.
Surprises from Being Outside the Government Selling In
It’s funny, one of the things I never had to worry about on the inside of the Pentagon was budget. As it turns out, finding who has a budget and can allocate funds is a lot more complicated than you’d think. Just because you find someone who has a budget, they have to find a contracting office to do the buy.
My second point is, if you simply believe that you’re going to show up with an awesome product and awesome technology, guess what? That doesn’t mean anything. if you’re selling this customer technology you already lost. The DOD is a mission-driven organization. Which means you have to understand what they are doing. If there’s a person saying, “Oh I need more AI and ML,” they’re likely not the person who has the budget at the end of the day.
Next, this space has a lot of companies in it that have been here for much longer than you. And you probably don’t know anybody in this space. They do. They know them all. They previously have occupied the jobs that the current people in those roles are doing. And so they have all those relationships. That’s a moat.
And incumbents and competitors say they do pretty much anything that you will say that you do. They’ll say, AI and Machine Learning? We do AI/ML on quantum clusters with Cheddar cheese. And literally, I have had people who send me the most random word-salad construction of words and phrases, I don’t even understand what you’re saying. I get that all the time. I can’t tell you the weird stuff that I get sent my way.
So you have to find that partner that has a belief in solving a problem. They have to know what is real and what is not.
How Will AI Be Used? Why Should Silicon Valley Engineers and Our Students Get Involved?
We either show up or we cede our ability to influence and decide on that policy.
If the world’s greatest technologists do not show up and build the systems for the Department of Defense, to lead in this area and decide the ethical and moral boundaries that we believe in, and that we as a nation are comfortable with, somebody else is going to show up and lead in the way that those technologies are built. And they will decide how they’re used and that will be the definition of ethics and morality.
So you have one very, very simple choice: Show up. If you don’t show up, then you don’t get to play a part in the discussion. Because if other countries who do not share your beliefs become the leaders in how these capabilities are used in a military context and they deploy them, it doesn’t matter what you think. That becomes the norm.
I believe that technologists — people like you, and people like me — we can’t give that up to somebody else. I don’t want somebody less capable than the best in this country to show up and build those systems.
If you can’t see the video click here
— The JAIC acts like DOD’s AI service bureau, building leveraged business models in scale.
- It’s working on a portfolio of 32 products in 6 verticals across the DOD
- It’s looking for repeatable customer patterns
— It’s applying AI to both autonomy and automation applications
- For example, the Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2)and the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS)
— The DOD needs to move from vertical silos to horizontal platforms
- AI needs to become a services-oriented architecture built out on top of an infrastructure platform
- Hopefully the Joint Common Foundation will do just that
— Built the Defense Digital Service as a SWAT team of nerds
— How he motivated his team is inspiring:
- “If you do your job here, if you do the thing that we showed up to do, and if we are successful in what we’re trying to accomplish, it will change your life until the day you die. You’ll never be able to get it out of your blood. And that’s the place that we built.”
— Surprises at Rebellion Defense included:
- How to find customers with a budget
- Competing with incumbents who came from the revolving door
- Competing with other companies who claim “we can do that, too”
— Why work with the DOD on AI?
- “If the world’s greatest technologists do not show up to lead and decide the ethical and moral boundaries that we believe in, and that we as a nation are comfortable with, somebody else is going to show up and lead. And they will decide how they’re used and that will be the definition of ethics and morality.”
— Show Up