The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence is warning that the federal government, at all levels, doesn’t have the workforce it needs to stay on top of this emerging technology.
The commission, in its final report issued earlier this month, set an ambitious goal for the Defense Department and the intelligence community to be “AI-ready” by 2025.
The final report gives Congress 100-plus recommendations for the United States to stay ahead of AI competitors like China. Some call for greater AI leadership within the White House, Pentagon and Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Others call for exponential growth in the amount of federal research and development dollars spent fostering AI developments.
But several commissioners told members of the House Armed Services and House Oversight and Reform Committees that the most urgent need stems from the federal government’s inability to recruit and retain AI talent.
NSCAI Chairman Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, told lawmakers in a joint hearing Friday that there’s a “huge talent deficit” that will only worsen if defense and civilian agencies don’t develop career pathways for rising talent to stay in government service.
Schmidt agreed with other commissioners that DoD and civilian agencies could probably reskill a decent portion of the current workforce into AI-focused jobs. But until agencies figure out a way to identify employees with the skills and aptitude needed to succeed in AI-focused jobs, Schmidt said those employees will remain “underutilized.”
Former Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, the commission’s vice president, suggested adding a section on computational thinking in the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to highlight potential AI talent coming into military service.
Other commissioners proposed DoD and the federal government already have employees with the computational skills necessary to succeed in AI-focused jobs, even if they’re not currently serving in that kind of job.
While the federal government will always attract some talent with its unique mission, Schmidt said that talent will leave federal service for industry jobs without a clear career path for those employees.
“I was really struck in my work with the Defense Department of how many people work there for low and in difficult conditions because they were patriotic,” Schmidt said. “The ones that I spoke with did not fundamentally leave for money. They left because the opportunity in their career was more interesting in the private sector – that work that they wanted to do, they could not do well as federal or military employees. That’s got to get fixed.”
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a former commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, said the military will need AI expertise both in and out of uniform, or it will be unable to build the systems necessary to become AI-ready by 2025, as the commission recommends. DoD, meanwhile, is unlikely to develop expertise quickly enough on its own.
“The inability of our military digital subject-matter experts to spend their careers working in digital fields is arguably the single most important issue impeding modernization,” Clyburn said. “Without this career path. DoD will continue to struggle to recruit new talent, identify talent and retain the talent it already has.”
Clyburn said Congress should require DoD to create an emerging technology certification process. Servicemembers would earn these certifications by serving in non-critical emerging technology billets, fellowships with industry and academia, and through industry certification courses.
Federal advisory committees come and go, but Congress has taken a keen interest in the commission’s recommendations. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act passed with 13 of the commission’s recommendations included, focusing mostly on strengthening the STEM workforce.
Lawmakers also support plans for the U.S. Digital Service Academy, a university modeled after the military service academies, whose students would agree to five-year terms in government service after graduating.
Clyburn said it will take up to seven years for the first class to graduate, but said the investment is necessary to build a steady stream of AI talent in government.
Schmidt said several universities have offered to help the commission stand up the academy.
Cyber, Innovative Technologies, and Information Systems Subcommittee Chairman Jim Langevin (D-R.I) called the commission’s final report “foundational and enduring,” and said the HASC would unpack ways to implement the 50-plus recommendations that fit into the committee’s purview.
“We must move past old models of training and learning and establish a system to dynamically upskill the workforce as the technology evolves,” Langevin said.
Subcommittee Ranking Member Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) said the AI age comes with opportunities and significant risks, but that stakes for getting AI right could not be higher.
Stefanik said the AI talent deficit highlighted by the commission is the “greatest impediment” to getting the national security workforce AI-ready by 2025.
Work said the commission fears U.S. armed forces will lose their competitive military-technical advantage within the next decade if they don’t accelerate the adoption of AI. Maintaining a tactical advantage in AI, however, would improve military readiness.
“It will enhance the way the battlefield can be monitored. It will help the way commanders understand what is happening in the battlespace. It will also augment the abilities of service members, including the way they perceive, understand, decide, adapt and act in the course of all their missions,” Work said.