January 31, 2024Published Article

NC Military Report: Artificial intelligence and the defense industry

Author Dan Barkin of Business North Carolina

Business North Carolina

Good morning. Dan here.

I went to an event last week at N.C. State on artificial intelligence hosted by the Defense Alliance of North Carolina. It was the first of eight statewide conferences. Most will be at universities.

The military, a big part of the state’s economy,  is a major buyer of AI technology.  DANC wants to help our state compete in that market.

Part of this is finding out who is working on AI projects, by holding these conferences, and attracting companies, university researchers and military representatives. But it’s more than that.  Discussions at these events can surface ideas on how the state can lead in AI.  What policies, incentives and infrastructure are needed? Folks can meet and maybe collaborate.

DANC is a mix of defense contractors and high-ranking military retirees.  It is a trade organization that promotes the defense industry in North Carolina, but it is also a volunteer-driven think tank.

Four years ago, with the help of RTI International and the NC Department of Commerce, DANC studied how to grow the defense economy here. We have to pick our spots, because we don’t build aircraft carriers.

DANC’s report found six clusters in which we had advantages: advanced manufacturing, autonomous systems, data and knowledge management, materials, human performance and power.

The current initiative is kind of a follow-up, because AI has become a bigger deal. Every state should be doing an inventory of its AI assets. In the most recent NDAA - the National Defense Authorization Act - artificial intelligence is mentioned nearly 200 times.

The coordinator of this statewide tour is veteran entrepreneur Phil Williams, (right) who is chair of DANC’s science & technology forum. Two other key folks are attorney Lyle Gravatt, managing partner in the Raleigh office of the Michael Best law firm, and Kyle Snyder, a principal in the affiliated Michael Best Consulting. 

Gravatt works with his firm’s unmanned technology team and defense and national security group.  Snyder has experience in unmanned systems, artificial intelligence and robotics, both in the private sector, academia and government.

The questions

Gravatt and Snyder have spent months doing research and there are four questions they hope to begin answering with the conferences:  1) How prepared is North Carolina to capitalize on AI’s growth?  2) What industries are expected to be impacted by AI?  3) Where does defense innovation intersect with AI? 4) Are there solutions to deploy or issues that need to be explored further?  Last week, they shared some of the insights they have already gained:

AI is going to have a different impact in different regions and sectors. “Folks that can utilize the data and have access to the data and implementing technology are going to be the ones benefiting from it the most,” said Gravatt. That will tend to be in urban locations, where education levels are higher. And that will raise some equity issues that will need to be addressed.

Because AI involves moving massive amounts of data, it needs a robust infrastructure.  A lot of the discussion about broadband in recent years, particularly starting with the pandemic, focused on connecting homes in rural areas. Which is important.  But AI will put more demands on the infrastructure, in terms of data-transmission and storage requirements.

The goal of educating K-12 students about AI and machine learning is not to turn them all into programmers, but to show them “use cases,” said Gravatt. In other words, what problems can AI solve? What new products and services can it create? A decade ago, he said, “we had very little computer science education in the classroom. That has significantly improved.”  Beginning in 2026, North Carolina high school students must have at least one computer science class to graduate.  And the NC Department of Public Instruction just released its guidelines on AI in the schools.  “Their exposure to how this all works and how AI might be used in real world scenarios is going to help them as they go down the road in their careers, to implement those solutions,” said Gravatt.

–There are great opportunities for state governments in AI that can make them more efficient and free up resources. “One of the critical advantages that every state has now,” said Gravatt, “is that they’re sitting on a mountain of useful data. As soon as we can structure, label and warehouse that data in a unified system, the more we’re going to be able to use that data.”

Coming up

The next forums are Feb. 8 at UNC Wilmington and Feb. 22 at the TechNet conference on Fort Liberty (conference registration required). Then March 21 at UNC Charlotte,  April 2 at NC A&T, April 16 at ECU, May 2 at Wake Forest and May 16 at Duke.

N.C. State’s approach

One of the speakers at the DANC event last week was Dr. Alyson Wilson, (right) N.C. State associate vice chancellor for national security and special research initiatives. She is also principal investigator at the university’s Laboratory for Analytic Sciences, which was founded in 2013 by N.C. State and the National Security Agency.

Wilson talked about N.C. State’s Data Science Academy, an effort to provide all students with training.

The goal was to “operationalize the idea that data and data science are for everyone,” she said, not just computer scientists, mathematicians and statisticians.  “We’re also talking about agriculture. We’re talking about architecture.”

The academy teaches between 20 and 40 one-credit classes each semester open to the whole university.

She also talked about how artificial intelligence and robotics are having an impact on research productivity.

“Think about a discovery or materials laboratory.  You can do a lot of that repetitive work using robots and artificial intelligence, where the robot is smart enough to understand what’s happening experimentally and adapt.  And you don’t have to have students or the researcher doing every single step. If you can do that effectively, you can massively accelerate the amount of work that you do.”

Researchers who have motion-actuated cameras in the North Carolina forests are capturing lots of pictures of deer and the like, but “we don’t have enough students to look at millions of images,” to monitor for changes in the health of wildlife. But artificial intelligence can do that.

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