Pentagon Looks to AI to Sharpen Response to Coronavirus at Home

The Pentagon envisioned using artificial intelligence for humanitarian relief after typhoons in the Pacific and now is looking at ways to employ the nascent technology to respond immediately to the new coronavirus outbreak at home.

The Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, which heads Pentagon development of AI, is deep in conversation with U.S. Northern Command and the National Guard Bureau about the possibility, said Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, the center’s director. It could use data from commercial, academic, and government sources to coordinate the efforts to mitigate harm from the virus, identify infection hotspots, and possibly even direct the deployment of Guard forces and resources.

(Defense Department/Lisa Ferdinando)
Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center

The number of National Guard troops deployed across the country to combat the coronavirus has surged from hundreds last week to more than 9,000 Tuesday. Increasing numbers of infection across the country is likely to mean a bigger military role, which is managed at the federal level by Northern Command and the Guard Bureau.

“It’s very similar to the things we have been talking about our humanitarian assistance and disaster relief effort but just for the very real, very exigent circumstance of coronavirus,” Shanahan said in an interview.

The Pentagon created the AI center in 2018 amid a growing belief that the technology would transform warfare, and its earliest application was assisting firefighters during rampant California wildfires and maintenance of military equipment. It now plans to branch out to humanitarian relief and coordination of the department’s combatant commands on the battlefield.

Now, the pandemic gripping the country and threatening to collapse the economy has created a potential test for the center and its expertise, which Silicon Valley and big technology companies dominated until recently.

Leaning Forward

“We have been leaning pretty far forward to look at some opportunities to bring in data and do some data aggregation and analytics based on a little bit of machine learning, a little bit of natural language processing and then providing this into a common operating picture,” said Shanahan, who earlier headed Project Maven, the Pentagon’s maiden foray into AI that sorted thousands of hours of drone video footage.

Shanahan said he is optimistic that the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center will be able to help ease the crisis, though the lead military agencies are still discussing AI’s role.

“If I look back two years from now and the question is asked what did the JAIC do in response to coronavirus 19? If the answer is ‘nothing’ I ought to be held criminally liable for not doing anything,” he said.

A contribution to the crisis response could also demonstrate worth and sway the future of the AI center, which is less than two years old and still trying to carve out a permanent place within the vast department.

The Pentagon’s fiscal 2021 budget request would grow its funding to $290 million, up from $240 million. Shanahan, who will retire this summer, said success with new AI programs over the coming year is crucial and could be an existential issue for the AI center.

To contact the reporter on this story: Travis J. Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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