Tech Start-Ups Try to Sell a Cautious Pentagon on A.I.


Tech Start-Ups Try to Sell a Cautious Pentagon on A.I.

When he reflected on his time as a Navy SEAL serving in Afghanistan a decade ago, Brandon Tseng wondered why he and his team did not have any way to see inside buildings they were about to raid and reduce the chances of walking into a deadly trap.

He brought that question to his brother Ryan, a tech whiz who had invented a type of wireless cellphone charger when he was in college. After Brandon Tseng left the military, he joined with his brother to find ways to apply technology to national security challenges and quickly had what he remembers as his “aha” moment.

The rapidly emerging field of artificial intelligence, he believed, could be applied to fast-evolving hardware like drones to transform how they are used in war, like sending a tiny, self-piloted vehicle to do reconnaissance inside a structure that troops were about to enter. Even fighter jets could perhaps be turned into A.I.-controlled robot drones.

The company the Tseng brothers created in 2015, named Shield AI, is now valued by venture capital investors at $2.7 billion. The firm has 625 employees in Texas, California, Virginia and Abu Dhabi. And the Tsengs’ work is starting to show real-world results, with one of their early products having been deployed by the Israel Defense Forces in the immediate aftermath of the coordinated attacks last month by Hamas.

“HiveMind is operational,” said Brian Marchini, an aerospace engineer for Shield AI, referring to the company’s artificial intelligence program. “We have control,” he told the human pilots sitting in a tower above him, who until that point had been remotely directing the drones.

More fundamentally, the Tsengs and their team have so far won only a tiny sliver of funding from the Pentagon, at least by the standards of the multibillion-dollar contracts that go to the traditional arms makers like Lockheed, Boeing and Northrop Grumman. If solving the technological problems and building the systems they envision is the first challenge, cracking the byzantine and cutthroat government procurement culture is the second, one they have come to recognize requires lobbying and a deep understanding of how Washington works.

The task is all the more complicated because the Pentagon is moving slowly and cautiously — too cautiously, critics say — away from its focus on big weapons platforms like planes and ships to embrace smarter systems and the potential of artificial intelligence.

“Put simply, the Pentagon needs to accelerate — not slow — its adoption of responsible A.I.,” Michèle A. Flournoy, a deputy under secretary of defense in the Obama administration, said in a recent article in Foreign Affairs.

“If it doesn’t, Washington could lose the military superiority that underwrites the interests of the United States, the security of its allies and partners, and the rules-based international order,” said Ms. Flournoy, who has advised Shield AI.

Shield AI’s 125-pound V-Bat drone, lifting off vertically from the remote weapons testing center in North Dakota and filling the air with the smell of fuel, was loaded with software seeking to do far more than what an autopilot program could.

What distinguishes artificial intelligence from the programs that have for decades helped run everything from dishwashers to jetliners is that it is not following a script.

These systems ingest data collected by various sensors — from a plane’s velocity to the wind speed to types of potential threats — and then use their computer brains to carry out specific missions without continuous human direction.

“A brilliant autopilot still requires that you tell it where to go or what to do,” said Nathan Michael, Shield AI’s chief technology officer and until recently a research professor at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University. “What we are building is a system that can make decisions based on its observations in the world and based on the objectives that it is striving to achieve.”

When Shield AI sent three of its drones on an early test run, they ran into trouble: The drones were sending too much data back and forth. “We were bludgeoning the available bandwidth,” explained Mr. Marchini, the Shield AI aerospace engineer, resulting in adjustments to fix the problem.

The Nova 2 also at times had issues operating indoors, running into shower curtains. It turned out that its propeller was making the curtains move, confusing the device.

The challenges of developing a system that can carry out a mission on its own and make decisions about when to unleash lethal weapons are complex enough that some of Shield AI’s competitors are aiming for more incremental progress, such as better autopilot tools.

Merlin Labs is focusing on a system that can fly one of the Pentagon’s giant transport planes or refueling tankers, first with just one pilot instead of two and eventually entirely on its own.

Another competitor, Anduril, is building a software system to integrate all of the data that will flood into the Air Force from drone and satellite sources to help human pilots find and strike targets. It is also building a new generation of robot drones that can fly on their own.

“What we are talking about is not just building a pilot,” said Christian Brose, the chief strategy officer at Anduril. “It is building a weapons system. And the weapons system encompasses piloting.”

But progress still was slow. Mr. Burkhalter told Brandon Tseng during their government affairs update meeting — a reporter from The Times was allowed to sit in the room and listen — that he had been unable to secure support this year to set up the new Pentagon unit they hope will be called the “Joint Autonomy Office,” meaning a decision on it will be pushed until at least 2025.

So at least for now, Shield AI’s search for meaningful revenue continues.

“Shield has a really great software technology. This is their key asset,” said one of the company’s lead investors, Peter Levine of the venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz. “But look, it’s never a done deal. I deal with start-ups all the time. There’s a lot of complexity and a lot of hurdles that start-ups face.”


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