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Editor’s note: This is part of a series looking at the rise of artificial intelligence technology tools such as ChatGPT, the opportunities and risks they pose and what impacts they could have on various aspects of our daily lives.
HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Considering the light-speed ascension of artificial intelligence in seemingly all avenues of society, it only makes sense that the U.S. military would be leaning into the world of AI, too.
Just last month, AI was used to pilot a U.S. military aircraft for the first time ever.
And, as it turns out, Hill Air Force Base is indeed embracing artificial intelligence through the AI Accelerator Program.
The program is a partnership between the Department of the Air Force and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology aimed at looking into how AI can be applied to an Air Force setting.
"The Department of the Air Force got smart and said ‘Hey, let’s actually find people who have problems within the Air Force or Space Force and then let’s match them with these professors who are doing similar research or research that could help and then let’s actually fund this research from the lab and send it directly to the people in the field who need it," said Braden Eichmeier, a computer scientist for the 518 Software Engineering Squadron at Hill Air Force Base.
"That’s kind of the spirit of the AI accelerator as a whole," he said.
Eichmeier is currently serving as a fellow for the program, working and researching alongside MIT professors and other professionals to bring the technology and AI skills he learns through the program to Hill Air Force Base.
As one of a handful of airmen selected, Eichmeier brings his significant background and personal interest in AI into the program.
Eichmeier’s interest was first piqued during his junior year of high school when he wrote his first line of code to program a robotic forklift.
That one line of code propelled him to Utah State University, where he received his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, doing all of his elective courses in robotics and AI. From there, he received his master’s in robotic systems development from Carnegie Mellon University, which Eichmeier described as a "huge AI school."
No C-3PO yet
When discussing AI now, Eichmeier said it’s important to break it down into different categories.
The first is what he described as "AI in general," or "any computer program that performs like a human or better."
The second category is advanced machine learning, or what most people think of when discussing AI.
"When you think of a program that gets experience and it learns from examples and it performs very well — probably what most people are thinking of," Eichmeier said.
"Star Wars" fans and fans of the science fiction genre, in general, are probably familiar with the third genre, which Eichmeier dubbed the "Hollywood special."
Think C-3PO, a programmed droid in "Star Wars" that is fluent in more than seven million forms of communication or J.A.R.V.I.S, — which is literally an acronym for Just A Rather Very Intelligent System — Tony Stark’s personal AI system in the Marvel movies.
"That’s not going on at all. We’re not even anywhere close to any sort of technology like that," Eichmeier said.
It is the advanced machine learning category that Eichmeier is focused on through the AI Accelerator Program. More specifically, Eichmeier’s work in the program is centered around ensuring that AI is coming up with correct answers and solutions not because it is getting better and better at randomly guessing but because it actually understands.
"What we want when we make an AI program is to make sure that it, one, performs the best it can but two, that it gets the answers correct for the correct reasons," Eichmeier said. "We’re doing research to make sure that we can prove that it’s going to work well because it knows what it’s doing."
When thinking about AI on a larger scale, Eichmeier said that its potential is dependent on how innovative humans are and how they decide to utilize it, noting that in general, we’re seeing AI in every facet of life.
"Our laptops are getting smarter with how they’re processing and cooling, our cars are getting smarter with how they’re protecting us, so it’s just going to be more and more big," Eichmeier said.
When looking at the military, Eichmeier said that the Department of Defense isn’t shying away from the "mentality of innovation" for those looking to be trailblazers in the field of AI.
At the same time that the DOD is pushing for innovation, it’s also prioritizing ethics.
"They’re really pushing for high ethics on how can we understand these new technologies that are going on and how can we either leverage them ethically to our advantage or how can we protect ourselves from them being used against us," Eichmeier said.
He equates this approach to how the rise of social media could’ve been handled, in his eyes.
"It’s not until it got big that we had to look into (it) and say, ‘Wow, there are some problems here that we really need to combat and fix,’" Eichmeier said. "Instead, they’re doing the upfront legwork and efforts to make sure that it’s being used ethically and responsibly both for and against us."
Eichmeier himself said that the DOD is leaning into the spirit of innovation — something he certainly carries within himself — making it no surprise that he was selected to work on AI through the AI Accelerator Program.
"I’ve been really excited as I’ve been going through this to say, ‘OK, how can this help other people on base? How can I bring back the spirit of innovation and the spirit of pushing yourself to better heights? How can we bring this back to make Hill the best unit we can be?’" Eichmeier said.