A board of top technology experts voted Thursday on a proposed set of ethical principles for the Defense Department to follow as it expands its foray into artificial intelligence. But, members noted, the Pentagon needs to take a serious look at how it trains and assigns troops for these high tech jobs if it ever hopes to fulfill AI’s potential promise to the military.

Service members with coding and data analysis skills are getting trapped in the rigid path to promotion and senior management that grows privates to sergeants major and lieutenants to flag officers and leaves little room to diverge and maintain a career That’s according to one member of the Defense Innovation Board, who specializes in workforce issues.

“These skills simply aren’t supported within any established career tracks,” Jen Pahlka, founder of Code for America, told an audience Thursday at a public board meeting at Georgetown University in Washington. “While we are waiting for the personnel systems to catch up with the new skill requirements, the department is under-utilizing existing talent and we’re losing people to frustrating.”

The DIB stood up in 2016 as a Pentagon initiative to tap Silicon Valley tech gurus for their best practices, as the department looks to use more software that can do its own problem solving and reasoning in weapons systems, data analysis and more. It includes current and former executives from companies like Google and Facebook, business and engineering academics and even astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson.

They serve as an advisory panel to guide senior Pentagon leadership through its efforts to use the most advanced technology, which to date has included creating a set of ethical standards and providing recommendations on how best to posture the department to take advantage of artificial intelligence capabilities ― which very much includes talent and workforce management, according to Pahlka.

As part of its research, the board interviewed more than 50 uniformed and civilian members of the department to ask how the Pentagon manages personnel with high-end digital skills. Pahlka shared the stories of two, an officer and a noncommissioned officer.

The first, a logistician, earned a master’s degree in business with a data analytics emphasis, hoping to follow on with a “utilization tour” to put his skills to work.

“But instead of putting this officer in a data-centric role, the Army sent him to a major training center and then assigned him to serve as a medical corps service officer,” Pahlka said. “This is completely unrelated to his training as a logistics officer or to his MBA."

A year later, he was up for another move, she said, so he went to an intensive operations research/systems analysis training. And that was followed by a personnel development job.

“And what he does there is essentially office work,” she said. “He makes PowerPoint presentations and builds briefing binders ... we’re really wasting this man’s abilities."

The NCO, an Air Force imagery analyst, is a self-taught coder.

“He jokes that he’s a student at YouTube University with a degree in ‘using Google effectively,’” Pahlka said.

But there is nowhere to use his skills on active duty, she said, and an imminent promotion to technical sergeant was going to take him further from his job expertise and more onto the management side, which the promotion system is set up to do. So he’s decided not to reenlist and instead, to take a civilian coding job.

The board’s recommendations are two: Streamline the assignment process for troops with high-tech skills, so they can work in offices like NavalX or the Defense Innovation Center; prioritize getting skilled service members into jobs that use those skills, as a means of retaining that talent; and put a special focus on recruiting those included to do these tech jobs.

Pahlka took the recommendations a step further, adding that there should be a DoD functional community manager for AI, to give special consideration to service members working, for example, coding and analytics.

Changes coming?

Many of DIB’s concerns and recommendations dovetail with suggestions that have been made in and around the Pentagon for the last decade. Some of those have included direct-assessing “cyber warriors” into higher ranks to put their pay more on par with civilian jobs, or giving technical experts an off-ramp from the up-or-out promotion system so that they can remain in a rank that makes them most operationally relevant.

For the purposes of AI and other specialized technology skills, the services are within their statutory limits to create flexibility for service members who want to use them. But, Pahlka said, change isn’t coming fast enough to keep up with the drain happening already.

One shift on the horizon, that will effect officers throughout all career fields, is an overhaul to the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, which established those tight career tracks and discourage anyone who isn’t gunning to pin on a star one day.

The Pentagon’s 2019 authorization act gave it authority to overhaul DOPMA, and each of the services is working on what that will look like for their own members.

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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