Defense agencies have among the strongest motivations to adopt a group of technologies, known collectively as intelligent automation, given the ever-increasing volumes of data they need to analyze accurately, safely and quickly, in the interests of national security.
Intelligent automation is absolutely essential for the military.
Take ballistic missile defense, a vital part of many countries’ military activity. As many as a dozen satellite and sensor systems may be used in detecting hostile missile launches, with a further dozen systems involved in destroying such missiles. A defense agency could have just 8-10 minutes to decide whether a launch represents a threat, share findings with allies and decide what to do. The use of countermeasures has to happen quickly, given that missiles could impact 16 minutes after launch.
At the moment, there are humans in the loop between those systems and you cannot respond within 16 minutes, unless you are already in a state of high alert. Intelligent automation can rapidly integrate all the data from satellites and sensors and present findings, allowing personnel to decide what action to take.
Finding the right level of automation
Intelligent automation can be split into three levels of sophistication. The first level, robotic process automation, can make routine tasks more efficient in areas including finance, accounting, human resources and compliance, working with defense clients to automate payments between agencies, including securely accessing systems and obtaining and processing the data required.
The second level of intelligent automation, learning cognitive automation, often involves the use of natural language processing and chat-bots. Chatbots can understand sentiment and intent, they take care of multi-thread questions depending on the datasets plugged into them and they tend to learn over time based on interactions with humans.
`Virtual agents’ that use multiple channels including mobile and desktop computers, telephone and voice-activated speakers, are already used by some companies and civilian government organizations. They could allow military personnel to get answers to straightforward questions on travel or housing, pulling together data from different agencies, leaving humans in call centers to handle more complex queries.
The third and highest level of intelligent automation, reasoning cognitive automation, is able to derive insights from large amounts of data, including unstructured material such as written text, audio and video. In administrative work this has potential in recruitment and training, where existing staff records could be used to propose which specialisms a new recruit could be trained in.
But there is stronger potential for reasoning cognitive automation in improving battlefield decision-making. Currently, when a scout tank at the front of a group crossing hostile territory is running low on shells or fuel, it requires radio communication with the group commander to order another tank to take over the lead role. However, this process could be automated by analyzing data generated by the tanks.
Integrating all the data from an area into a battle management system can improve safety, by accurately keeping track of allied forces and friendly non-military personnel such as aid workers. Bringing all that data together is where intelligent automation comes in, given the large quantities that need to integrated quickly. This is particularly important for the most advanced drones, which can collect terabytes of data – including visual, radio and radar – in missions lasting more than 24 hours. Intelligent automation can allow this data to be analyzed in near real-time, highlighting what looks important within minutes rather than days later.
Military training for systems
With higher levels of intelligent automation, systems need to be trained with data that includes inputs and the conclusions drawn, allowing them to model which inputs should lead to which conclusions. This requires reliable sets of training data, some of which can be gathered from the routine use of military aircraft, ships and land vehicles. It can also be generated by digital simulations, war-gaming and physical military exercises, including how personnel behave in them.
Many defense agencies lack these at present, as militaries have tended to attract people who are good at operating machines and vehicles rather than computers, while defense-minded people with IT skills are often sucked into cybersecurity work.
It is vital for intelligent automation projects to use people with a strong understanding of the technology.
Intelligent automation projects also need strong cybersecurity, and defense agencies set high requirements, including controls on authentication and segmenting of duties. Intelligent automation techniques can themselves be used in building stronger cybersecurity, by analyzing data on previous attacks for patterns.
Rise of the humans
As the need for skilled humans in its development suggests, intelligent automation is less about raising a robot army and more about making defense personnel more effective. For an officer in the field this can mean less time spent on routine administration and more on mission-critical work.
The number of unmanned vehicles is expected to increase, including driverless tanks and fighter aircraft, as this will speed decision-making, reduce costs and remove personnel from harm’s way. But you won’t ever remove all the humans – you can’t. Indeed, defense agencies are likely to create new roles for people who can monitor and understand automated systems, to determine they run smoothly and safely.
Agencies feel much more comfortable in having a human in the loop.
Intelligent automation will involve significant changes in the way defense agencies work, and it can make sense to start with pilot projects. It can make sense to start with projects that are trained on structured data, such as that held within databases or spreadsheets, as they are easier to evaluate.
Simulations, war-gaming and physical military exercises provide a good place to trial intelligent automation, as well as gathering data for it. If an intelligent automation system can save the price – both financial and human – of a single aircraft or ship, it will easily justify its cost.