Is Artificial Intelligence Ready for the Tactical Edge?

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tactical edge

Advances in artificial intelligence make battlefield AI more capable than ever before by enabling higher volumes of data to be processed and delivering analyses in shorter timeframes.

Dr. Bruce Jette, Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisition, Logistics and Technology (ASA(ALT)), recently commented that with AI’s beginning to perform tasks like combat decisions, and with industry further developing battlefield AI’s ability to enhance the warfighter’s situational awareness, it is increasingly clear that the future battlefield will include varied applications of AI. AI will be utilized at the tactical edge of all domains, ranging from the ground war to cyberspace, making it necessary to integrate AI into the multi-domain fight. 

“The potential of artificial intelligence at the tactical edge really can’t be overstated,” remarked Amy Dideriksen, Lead Researcher for Systems Advanced Technologies at Collins Aerospace. “The kind of deep analytics that it’s brought to other industries, like finance and robotics, would be similarly transformative on the battlefield.” Dideriksen, who is a co-author of “The Value of Cognitive Workload in Machine Learning Predictive Analytics,” which explores the development of deep neural networks based on training data sets to predict future states of performance, points out that artificial intelligence and machine learning play a significant role in preparing the warfighter before they enter the battlefield.

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However, while there are significant opportunities for battlefield AI to make the warfighter more effective, and more lethal, there are still technical hurdles that need to be addressed. 

“When we get into some of the more exquisite warfighting functions,” which happen at the tactical edge, Jennifer Edgin, Assistant Deputy Marine Commandant for Information, commented at this year’s virtual Sea-Air-Space, “that’s where we start to…get into advanced AI technology concepts.” 

These areas though, require development before they can be effectively utilized on the battlefield. 

Rear Admiral David Hahn, then-head of the Office of Naval Research and speaking on the same panel, went further and expanded on Ms. Edgin’s comments. “Algorithmic investment, machine learning, big data, uncertain data, and the time scales at which everyone expects solutions to hard problems,” were all areas that needed to be further developed for battlefield AI to really function at the tactical edge. 

According to the Admiral, an AI would need more capability to adapt to the “fog of war”—the uncertainty and chaos that one finds on a real battlefield. 

“As we look at the typical things we expect a commander to do, there is lots of data input…and we expect…humans to weed through that, form the appropriate picture, and then judge. That’s a very difficult thing to do,” even with many years of experience. And even still, RADM Hahn noted, “sometimes it’s wrong.”

Moreover, dealing with the kind of data that one would expect at the tactical edge, which could be incomplete or intentionally misleading, plays exactly to an AI’s shortcomings, as they often find it difficult to adapt in ways that they were not trained to do. Which brings RADM Hahn to conclude that asking such a machine to come up with an equal or better solution than a real, breathing human may be an unrealistic expectation at this point.

In addition, AI tools that are to be deployed to shooters at the tactical edge need to be, in Ms. Edgin’s words, “democratized,” so that a warfighter engaging hostile forces can effectively use an AI’s capabilities without intensively specialized training or devoting too much of their attention. “What that’s going to mean,” Ms. Edgin stressed, “is that it’s not going to take a PhD or subject matter expert to use [AI tools].”

However, in line with Dr. Jette’s comments, successfully integrating AI at the tactical edge is key to the military’s efforts to overmatch its peer and near-peer competitor states. 

While recognizing the ethical considerations tied to AI advancements, “we’ll see where [AI development] takes us,” Hahn commented. “As the state of play with artificial intelligence continues to mature, we’re going to start challenging the underlying principles there.”

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The Modern Battlespace, brought to you by Collins Aerospace, explores the latest trends and issues that are impacting the evolution of the battlespace and the technology solutions supporting it. The editorial team will talk with experts and get their insights, opinions, and best practices on issues impacting the warfighter