Alphabet Chairman Commits to Tackling Military Modernization Challenges

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Alphabet Chairman Eric SchmidtWhen former Defense Secretary Ash Carter selected the head of Google to lead his Defense Innovation Board, many questioned what level of engagement Eric Schmidt would be able to dedicate to help modernize the military.

However, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., has quickly learned many of the military’s most pressing challenges on multiple visits to military bases and labs even picking up much of the military verbiage.

Schmidt spoke about some of these challenges and proposed solutions at the Future of War Conference hosted by Defense One and New America in Washington D.C. on March 21. The software engineer and businessman tackled issues like acquisition reform, rapid prototyping, cybersecurity and autonomy.

Along with Schmidt, the Defense Innovation Board is a collection of leading businessmen, technologists and scientists including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Linked-In Co-founder Reid Hoffman, and famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. The board issued sweeping recommendations in January to include establishing a chief innovation officer in the military that reports directly to the secretary of defense.

Many of Schmidt’s comments on March 21 at the Future of War Conference included mentions of these recommendations along with further details about what motivated them. For example, Schmidt and board members warned U.S. military leaders that China had made substantial investments in artificial intelligence technologies. In order to keep up, the U.S. military needed to make it a greater priority.

“Our competitors are clearly investing in these areas,” Schmidt said. “The Chinese with DGI are the largest investors in AI.”

He said the military also needs to make cybersecurity a larger priority developing computer science into an integral component into all commands. Specifically, Schmidt recommended the military upgrade it Windows machines. The secured networks are well protected, but the unclassified networks with downgraded Windows machines are most susceptible, Schmidt told the audience.

In order to keep up with threats, Schmidt said the Pentagon needs to keep investing in new agencies like the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), the Defense Digital Service and the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) – agencies dedicated to trying new approaches with commercial technology firms.

One of the common challenges these agencies face when recruiting new technology firms is getting them through the acquisition process. Schmidt said there are “too many rules” in that process “that don’t make sense” and scare off many companies. Before acquisition reform is done by Congress, though, the military should make better use of “waivers,” Schmidt said.

The Alphabet chairman was also impressed by the scale of the network of DoD labs. He said the military needed to take better advantage of this asset to invest in R&D projects and accomplish technology breakthroughs like the military has done in the past.

In fact, Schmidt said “my career and my world is largely due to DARPA” sighting the discoveries founded by the Pentagon’s leading R&D agency.

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