Understanding artificial intelligence (AI) and how it relates to matters of national security has become a top priority for military and government leaders in recent years. A new three-day custom program entitled Artificial Intelligence for National Security Leaders—AI4NSL for short—aims to educate leaders who may not have a technical background on the basics of AI, machine learning, and data science, and how these topics intersect with national security.
“National security fundamentally is about two things: getting information out of sensors and processing that information. These are two things that AI excels at. The AI4NSL class engages national security leaders in understanding how to navigate the benefits and opportunities that AI affords, while also understanding its potential negative consequences,” says Aleksander Mądry PhD ’11, the Cadence Design Systems Professor at MIT and one of the course’s faculty directors.
Organized jointly by the MIT School of Engineering, the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, and MIT Sloan Executive Education, AI4NSL wrapped up its fifth cohort in April. The course brings leaders from every branch of the US military, as well as some foreign military leaders from NATO, to MIT’s campus, where they learn from faculty experts on a variety of technical topics in AI, as well as how to navigate organizational challenges that arise in this context.
“We set out to put together a real executive education class on AI for senior national security leaders,” says Mądry. “For three days, we are teaching these leaders not only an understanding of what this technology is about, but also how to best adopt these technologies organizationally.”
The original idea sprang from discussions with senior US Air Force (USAF) leaders and members of the Department of the Air Force (DAF)-MIT AI Accelerator in 2019.
According to Major John Radovan, former deputy director of the DAF-MIT AI Accelerator, in recent years it has become clear that national security leaders needed a deeper understanding of AI technologies and its implications on security, warfare, and military operations. In February 2020, Radovan and his team at the DAF-MIT AI Accelerator started building a custom course to help guide senior leaders in their discussions about AI.
“This is the only course out there that is focused on AI specifically for national security,”
says Radovan. “We didn’t want to make this course just for members of the Air Force—it had to be for all branches of the military. If we are going to operate as a joint force, we need to have the same vocabulary and the same mental models about how to use this technology.”
After a pilot program in collaboration with MIT Open Learning and the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Radovan connected with faculty at the School of Engineering and MIT Schwarzman College of Computing, including Madry, to refine the course’s curriculum. They enlisted the help of colleagues and faculty at MIT Sloan Executive Education to refine the class’s curriculum and cater the content to its audience. The result of this cross-school collaboration was a new iteration of AI4NSL, which was launched last summer.
In addition to providing participants with a basic overview of AI technologies, the course places a heavy emphasis on organizational planning and implementation.
“What we wanted to do was to create smart consumers at the command level. The idea was to present this content at a higher level so that people could understand the key frameworks, which will guide their thinking around the use and adoption of this material,” says Roberto Fernandez, the William F. Pounds Professor of Management and one of the AI4NSL instructors, as well as the other course’s faculty director.
During the three-day course, instructors from MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and MIT Sloan School of Management cover a wide range of topics.
The first half of the course starts with a basic overview of concepts including AI, machine learning, deep learning, and the role of data. Instructors also present the problems and pitfalls of using AI technologies, including the potential for adversarial manipulation of machine-learning systems, privacy challenges, and ethical considerations.
In the middle of day two, the course shifts to examine the organizational perspective, encouraging participants to consider how to effectively implement these technologies in their own units.
“What’s exciting about this course is the way it is formatted first in terms of understanding AI, machine learning, what data is, and how data feeds AI, and then giving participants a framework to go back to their units and build a strategy to make this work,” says Colonel Michelle Goyette, director of the Army Strategic Education Program at the Army War College and an AI4NSL participant.
Throughout the course, breakout sessions provide participants with an opportunity to collaborate and problem-solve on an exercise together. These breakout sessions build upon one another as the participants are exposed to new concepts related to AI.
“The breakout sessions have been distinctive because they force you to establish relationships with people you don’t know, so the networking aspect is key. Any time you can do more than receive information and actually get into the application of what you were taught, that really enhances the learning environment,” says Lieutenant General Brian Robinson, the commander of Air Education and Training Command for the USAF and an AI4NSL participant.
This spirit of teamwork, collaboration, and bringing together individuals from different backgrounds permeates the three-day program. The AI4NSL classroom not only brings together national security leaders from all branches of the military, it also brings together faculty from three schools across MIT.
“One of the things that’s most exciting about this program is the kind of overarching theme of collaboration,”
says Rob Dietel, director of executive programs at the Sloan School of Management. “We’re not drawing just from the MIT Sloan faculty, we’re bringing in top faculty from the Schwarzman College of Computing and the School of Engineering. It’s wonderful to be able to tap into those resources that are here on MIT’s campus to really make it the most impactful program that we can.”
As new developments in generative AI, such as ChatGPT, and machine learning alter the national security landscape, the organizers at AI4NSL will continue to update the curriculum to ensure it is preparing leaders to understand the implications for their respective units.
“The rate of change for AI and national security is so fast right now that it’s challenging to keep up, and that’s part of the reason we’ve designed this program. We’ve brought in some of our world-class faculty from different parts of MIT to really address the changing dynamic of AI,” adds Dietel.
This story was written byand published in MIT News on June 30, 2023. Photos courtesy of Gretchen Ertl.