On the website of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), a robot-like hand reaches out to touch a human hand through a pane of glass as a bright light illuminates the importance of re-tooling the workforce for the arrival of artificial intelligence (AI).

The illustration is part of the VA’s promotion of its AI Communities, launched last year “to explore artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other frontier technologies and the impacts they will have on veterans and their families.” So far, VA officials said, nearly 600 employees have signed up, exchanging ideas over email groups and an intranet hub.

“The promise and the potential of artificial intelligence is really enormous,” said Gil Alterovitz, director of the VA’s National Artificial Intelligence Institute. The department recently published a list of 41 potential use cases for AI at the VA, in line with the requirements of Executive Order 13960, “Promoting the Use of Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence in Federal Government.” The use cases include physical therapy support, colon polyp detection, and seizure detection.

“AI can lead to the next wave of new technologies that help us grow our economy faster, make our society better, and make our military more effective. It’s absolutely critical for our Federal government to get ahead, not only by dedicating resources but also by training the workforce to be AI ready,” observed Yll Bajraktari, who served as executive director of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence.

AI can be applied to government missions as diverse as national security, drug and human trafficking, energy resilience, cyber threat monitoring, and administration of social programs such as Medicare and unemployment insurance, noted Diana Gehlhaus, a research fellow at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University. She’s a co-author of an October 2021 report, “U.S. AI Workforce: Policy Recommendations.”

“There is so much untapped potential in the use of artificial intelligence within the federal space,” explains Bob Venero, Founder and CEO of Future Tech. “Our customers are looking at use cases across training, simulation, faster disaster recovery, fraud detection, and cybersecurity. Without a strong foundation of AI expertise, the federal government and their federal system integrators may be left behind in the innovation and progress curve.”

Meeting Federal AI skills needs “is a budget problem, and it is also a people, process, and technology problem,” Gehlhaus said. People may have cultural inertia, a “this is how we’ve done things” mindset, she said. “Senior leaders might not understand the technology and so they are not comfortable. Then there are the actual skills of people operating these systems or administering them. They would need some just-in-time training or targeted upscaling.”

Recent MeriTalk-Future Tech research shows that 95 percent of Federal IT decision makers say their organization is investing in-house AI skills development, and that 87 percent feel their workforce has only a fraction of the knowledge they need. Gehlhaus and other experts stress that the need for training extends beyond technical staff to executives, program managers, procurement professionals, and others.

Bajraktari noted: “The government has to have employees who understand what’s possible, how to change business models, and how to implement change.”

Throughout the government, these and other efforts are underway to train employees and the future workforce, and identify staff with AI skills:

  • President Biden on Oct. 17 signed the Artificial Intelligence Training for the Acquisition Workforce Act into law. The law aims to improve the Federal workforce’s understanding of AI and ensure its ethical and safe use. It requires the Office of Management and Budget to develop a training program that helps Federal employees who purchase and manage AI technologies to better understand their risks and benefits
  • The Defense Innovation Unit is building an AI-powered talent-matching platform called GigEagle that will enable DoD reservists and National Guard members to build profiles that highlight their civilian expertise and find short-term work with DoD organizations seeking specialty skills, including AI
  • The U.S. Army Intelligence Center of Excellence Warrant Officer Advanced Course includes a day-long AI/ML seminar intended to serve as a primer for military intelligence soldiers on AI, machine learning, and data science
  • The U.S. National Science Foundation’s Data Science Corps seeks to expand data-science skills by bringing students and local organizations together to use available data to solve community problems
  • The VA is running an AI Tech Sprint in which teams compete to build prototype tool that will help agencies understand their employees’ skill sets in fields such as AI and curate individualized learning pathways

This is all happening amid growing agreement on the need to retool the workforce for AI. In its final report, issued in March 2021, the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence said, “Despite exciting experimentation and a few small AI programs, the U.S. government is a long way from being ‘AI-ready.’ … “This is not a time to add a few new positions in national security departments and agencies for Silicon Valley technologists and call it a day. We need to build entirely new talent pipelines from scratch. We should establish a new Digital Service Academy and civilian National Reserve to grow tech talent with the same seriousness of purpose that we grow military officers.”

Sixty-seven percent of respondents to the Future Tech-MeriTalk survey said workforce preparation for AI needs more urgency. In the meantime, 59 percent said they are using Federal systems integrators to meet AI staffing and professional development needs.

At the VA, leaders are developing key performance indicators and timelines for a formal AI training program, Alterovitz said. Retooling takes time, so it’s also “really important for the Federal government to be able to recruit and retain that AI talent to remain at the leading edge,” he said.

If agencies “put the investment in now – into the individuals, into the technologies – the true rate of returns are significantly higher than what any of them believe is even possible,” predicted Michael Shepherd, senior distinguished engineer at Dell Technologies.

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MeriTalk Staff