Business lessons from the Pentagon

A SMALL REVOLUTION has just occurred in America’s armed forces. They have, for the first time, deployed artificial intelligence (AI) to determine when a thorough check-up of a Black Hawk helicopter is in order. The algorithm, trained on maintenance records and sensor data, calculates how long the aircraft can fly safely in, say, a desert, before its engines should be cleaned to prevent sand melting into glass that could cause them to fail.

Such predictive maintenance is the most tangible product so far of the Joint AI Centre (JAIC). With 176 employees and an expected budget of $240m next fiscal year, up from $90m in this one, it lies at the heart of an ambitious effort to use machine learning and other AI to help the Pentagon run more efficiently and keep its technological edge, especially over China.

Yet when its first director, Lieutenant-General Jack Shanahan, steps down on June 1st, JAIC’s main output will not be whizz-bang software or even weapons, but infrastructure to develop them. “I did not want to create a classic insurgency organisation, but one that survives me,” says Lieut-General Shanahan. The way he has gone about it offers a case study in how large organisations struggle to adopt advanced technology.

Like many company bosses, top brass at the Department of Defence (DoD) in recent years began...



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