Robotic Process Automation enters the DOD’s JAIC

Robotic Process Automation technology is now available at the DOD’s Joint AI Center. Here’s why. Written by Billy Mitchell) The Pentagon has never undergone a clean financial audit. Prior to 2018, the Department of Defense hadn’t done a comprehensive audit across its entire department. The results were not surprising to the military’s leadership. The Pentagon’s new artificial Intelligence capability head believes AI could play an important role in helping the DOD improve its accounting and make an audit more than a pipe dream.
JAIC was chartered to coordinate department-wide AI initiatives, such as its ongoing efforts in predictive maintenance and humanitarian assistance and natural disaster relief. However, program leader Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan stated that there are many manual processes within the department that could be automated to improve back-office efficiency by augmenting manual, manual work with algorithms and robots.
It’s not the most exciting area for big AI projects, but it could be the best place to find efficiency. Shanahan testified before a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee Tuesday. “This is where early gains in AI are being realized.” He said that RPA applications could have a “much shorter term return on investment” than DOD’s other AI applications.
JAIC had “early conversations” with the Pentagon’s chief data officer and chief management officer in order to predict the future direction of RPA adoption by the department.
Shanahan stated that “we weren’t even focusing on this smart automation until a few months ago.” I’m trying to figure how I set up a small office just focused that way.” JAIC won’t be leading that effort, he said. However, it will likely play a role in “leading other people to find out how to incorporate that into their back-office functions.”
Shanahan pointed out that finance, which is at the heart of the Pentagon’s pursuit for a clean audit, should be the first back-office function DOD should augment with AI. This would allow personnel to “do more work than they were capable of doing with [existing] tools,” Shanahan said.
He said that if it’s a bot versus a human, “there’s no doubt who gets there faster.” But humans shouldn’t be concerned about robots replacing them — “There aren’t enough people to go around.”
Shanahan stated that the main challenge in financial auditing of the largest enterprises in the world will be to scope it — “finding how big this audit is to go after it.”
The DOD Chief Data Officer is helping to explore this issue from the data side, which represents the critical base for AI. “Big decisions are made in the department using data that is very manual. The department’s leadership is interested in making these decisions faster and more efficiently.
Shanahan believes that back-office RPA’s success will increase as more people work with it and learn to embrace it. It’s called the “flywheel effect”.
He said that smart automation will catch on once a few people understand its capabilities. “But nobody believes it yet because it hasn’t been tested.” It’s the “show me” piece.
The Pentagon has made AI a priority in its fiscal 2020 budget proposal. The Pentagon requested $208 million from appropriators to scale JAIC as part of a $927million request to increase the development of AI, machine learning, and other fields. Last month, the Pentagon released an unclassified version its AI strategy.
Due to the ethical implications of being linked to warfighting or lethality, some Silicon Valley tech companies have resisted working with the Pentagon on its AI projects. However, financial and audit applications appear to be a neutral ground that DOD can use to attract innovative commercial companies as its partners.
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