Air Force partners with MIT to launch AI accelerator

It's the latest thread in the Department of Defense's growing interest in artificial intelligence.
Air Force
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson speaks at the U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2017 in Colorado Springs, Colo. (DoD Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann)

A new program that will strive to make “fundamental advances” in artificial intelligence is coming from the Air Force and MIT, the two organizations announced Monday.

The “MIT-Air Force AI Accelerator” will support at least 10 MIT research projects in areas like disaster relief, medical readiness, data management, maintenance and logistics, vehicle safety and cyber resiliency. Project teams will be made up of MIT faculty, staff and students, as well as members of the Air Force. The Air Force plans to invest around $15 million per year in the collaboration.

“MIT is the leading institution for AI research, education, and application, making this a huge opportunity for the Air Force as we deepen and expand our scientific and technical enterprise,” Heather Wilson, secretary of the Air Force, said in a statement. “Drawing from one of the best of American research universities is vital.”

“This collaboration is very much in line with MIT’s core value of service to the nation,” Maria Zuber, the school’s vice president for research and the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, said. “MIT researchers who choose to participate will bring state-of-the-art expertise in AI to advance Air Force mission areas and help train Air Force personnel in applications of AI.”


The accelerator is just the latest thread in the Air Force’s — and Department of Defense’s — interest in artificial intelligence. Recently, building AI systems for defense has been a bit of a fraught topic.

For example the Pentagon’s Project Maven, an artificial intelligence and machine learning initiative that aims to help Air Force analysts make better use of full-motion video surveillance, was caught up in a bunch of drama last summer. Google, after pressure from employees, eventually announced that it would not seek to renew its contract for the project.

In June 2018 the DOD launched its Joint AI Center (JAIC), with the goal of exploring and developing the defense agency’s use of the “profoundly significant” technology that is artificial intelligence. Among its various goals, JAIC aims to increase the DOD’s collaboration with academia and the private sector.

The Air Force also runs another kind of accelerator — a focused, short-term program for up and coming tech startups — in partnership with TechStars in Boston. The program introduced its 2019 cohort in February.

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