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Putting the soldier at the centre of AI design (Studio)

14th October 2021 - 16:00 GMT | by Studio

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Militaries are turning to soldier-centred design to maximise the benefits of AI technology, placing humans at the centre of their development efforts.

Brought to you in partnership with Systel

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a core focus for the US Army and its allies.

While it holds vast potential, AI is a complex and challenging area with many possible pitfalls. Crucially, AI must support and empower soldiers, with autonomous systems maximising human capabilities, and it must not hinder them.

Through soldier-centred design (SCD), militaries are introducing AI-based technologies, with the soldier at the heart of the development.

While in the past, soldiers were often expected to adapt and conform to systems and platforms, the opposite will now be the case.

SCD is now front and centre for organisations such as the US Army Futures Command (AFC), which has increasingly focused on concepts like soldier touchpoints. These aim to generate and incorporate soldier feedback for the equipment they will use at an early stage.

It’s also a significant theme for industry. Aneesh Kothari is vice president for marketing at Systel, a manufacturer of rugged computers like the Kite-Strike mission computer.

Kothari explains that the goal of SCD is to ‘ensure we’re not designing AI-enabled technology systems in a vacuum, but in a spiral development fashion, with constant communication and engagement with our customers and always keeping our focus on the end user, the soldier ’.

AI should help offload the cognitive burden from the warfighter, acting as a force multiplier in the field.

When direct user input and feedback becomes paramount, ‘that’s where the concept of soldier-centred design and the various soldier touchpoints have become mission-critical’.

Kothari used the example of Kite-Strike, which the company launched in late 2020. Since that time, the computer has undergone several iterations and improvement cycles, he said, with customer feedback the driving mechanism, through a range of engagements, technology rodeos and more.

‘All of this is really a testament to the idea of “Lean and Agile” design and development methodologies.’

The rise of AI has enormous implications, with some likening it to ambitious undertakings on the scale of the Manhattan Project and other national-level efforts. In order to succeed, it’s critical to embrace and leverage a vast range of partners, both industry and academic.

For example, the US Army Research Laboratory has worked closely with Carnegie Mellon University on a range of R&D efforts, said Dr Doug Matty, director for US Army AI Capabilities.

The technology should be seen first and foremost as an enabler for soldiers and commanders, Matty said. Technology can today handle much more than soldiers can visually on a common operating picture, he noted.

‘What we’re finding is, rather than just trying to put everything up on a screen, which would be very cluttered, and almost impossible for any individual to assess and understand everything there, we’re allowing the AI to track all of those possibilities, regardless of the level of uncertainty, and then make those recommendations,’ Matty said.

AI has rapidly expanded as a priority for industry, with a range of AI-based software and hardware systems and platforms on the market or under development.

For example, Anduril Industries offers the Lattice platform, an AI software backbone that combines computer vision, machine learning and mesh networking to fuse data into a single, autonomous operating picture. This approach is an integral part of the company’s counter-UAS efforts.

Shane Arnott, Anduril Industries’ chief engineer, said such AI capabilities could support customers in a range of crucial areas, such as border protection, with Lattice empowering the operation of sentry towers, for instance.

‘They have visual sensors being trained by computer vision to be able to sift the wheat from the chaff, if you will, in trying to find the targets that are out there.’

All of this depends on the human element, with a need to ensure that human-machine teaming works as effectively and efficiently as possible.

This could also open the door to new approaches and concepts, like gamification, where ideas from the gaming world can be applied to technological development in other domains.

It’s about starting with today’s legacy systems and adapting, Arnott said, while also ‘thinking about the quantum leaps of throwing out the old C2 concepts, bringing in gamification, bringing in different ways of presenting and traversing large amounts of data, but doing that at human speed’.

It’s vital to train soldiers and operators to adapt to this data-driven future, a goal that meshes well with the soldier-centred design. According to Matty, leadership is a crucial aspect, with the US Army focusing on developing leaders who understand AI.

‘They have to be technically and tactically proficient … you don’t just jump from zero to 60.’

In the coming years, AI presents endless opportunities for militaries, increasing effectiveness and efficiency in many areas while reducing human workloads and vulnerabilities.

However, we must get it right, using techniques like soldier-centred design to maximise the technological potential.

The technology is now at a point where AI combat is not only feasible and possible, ‘but it’s actively occurring’, Kothari said.

‘It’s propelling us to try to be at the forefront and do everything we can to support our customers [through the] idea of AI being a teammate, a soldier in the field, taking cognitive and other burdens off our men and women who are serving, as well as keeping our soldiers safe.’

That’s why AI is such a gamechanger – the capacity to remove risk from the equation to the greatest degree possible. Through concepts like SCD, this can be achieved to the maximum advantage of individual soldiers.

‘And that’s in any situation that involves combat,’ Kothari says. ‘That’s what excites us as a company, and that’s what we keep at the forefront in the projects and products we’re developing to help support the space.’

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