No ‘magical pixie dust’: DoD’s AI exec says driving high quality data is main priority – Breaking Defense
DoDIIS Worldwide Conference Day 1

No ‘magical pixie dust’: DoD’s AI exec says driving high quality data is main priority – Breaking Defense

DoDIIS Worldwide Conference Day 1

Department of Defense Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer Dr. Craig Martell spoke at the DoDIIS Worldwide Conference, Dec. 13, 2022, at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center in Texas.

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer (CDAO) initially thought his job would entail producing tools for the Defense Department to do modeling, but over his first few months on the job his priorities have shifted instead to “driving high quality data.” 

“Why do I believe driving high quality data is the most important? Well, first of all we have massive amounts of data…distributed all over the world,” Craig Martell said Tuesday at the DIA DoDIIS Worldwide Conference in San Antonio, TX. “Some portion of that data is going to be really effective for decision making at scale and other parts of that data is going to be totally ineffective for decision making. And so a large part of our job is figuring out the ways to manage that data, so that the data that’s effective for decision making is front and center for decision makers when they need it.”

The CDAO office “originally thought our job…was to produce tools for those in the government to do modeling. We no longer think that’s the case,” Martell said, because it’s not folks in DoD who are building out the actual models.

“What’s going to be the case very much more often is folks in the Department are going to go to contractors and say ‘I need a model,’” he said.

Martell added that his office wants to help “getting labeled data right and being able to monitor the model after deployment.” To that point, his office wants to build a “scaffolding” around those models, which would be built by industry and academia, that would help folks build and use them. 

“No vendor is going to label your data for you,” he said. “So it’s incumbent upon us as a centralized supporter of AI in the department to give you the tools, abilities, and consulting, to be able to build that labeled data so that you can hand it to industry, and they can build a model that works for you.”

Martell, who was named DoD’s first CDAO earlier this year, told Breaking Defense in an exclusive first interview April 21 that DoD could benefit from hiring someone with his industry background “who knows how to bring real AI and analytical value at scale and speed.”

During his remarks on Tuesday, Martell said what most people think and demand of AI is “magical pixie dust.”

“What they’re really saying is, excuse my language, ‘Damn, I have a really hard problem and wouldn’t it be awesome if a machine could solve it for me?’ he said. “But what we really can deliver in lieu of that — because I’m here to tell you that we can’t deliver magical pixie dust, sorry — but what we can deliver is really high quality data.” 

As CDAO, Martell plays a key role in the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) effort (his office has been tasked with creating a “data integration layer”) and other key AI and cloud efforts in the department, including the recently awarded Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability contract.

“I’m really looking forward to JWCC…We can’t do what we want to do without a really great cloud environment at the tactical edge,” Martell said. “So I’m really looking forward to JWCC.”

During a Dec. 8 press briefing following the JWCC contract awards, DoD Chief Information Officer John Sherman said he’s “working closely” with Martell on the cloud effort.

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