Before it can be used, expensive military equipment like a brand-new tank must go through a lot of testing. Istari, a company backed by Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google and current chair of Alphabet, believes that some of this work can be done more efficiently in the virtual world.
Computer models of the chassis and engines, for example, are usually stuck on separate digital drawing boards. However, Ishtari uses machine learning to virtually put together and test war machines. It might sound boring, but Schmidt says it can bring some new ideas from the tech industry into US military engineering. With Istari, “internet-type usability” is being brought to model and simulation development, he says. This is very exciting because it opens the door to future physical systems having the flexibility of software.
Schmidt’s unique role as a bridge between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon is reflected in the company’s culture. Digital twins, or virtual copies, are commonly used in manufacturing and could speed up Pentagon hardware development. Istari is a component of a larger effort by Schmidt to introduce Silicon Valley innovations and mindsets to the United States military.
Schmidt’s 2016 revelation about the dismal state of technology at the Pentagon inspired this quest. While still serving as Alphabet’s chair, he accepted an invitation from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter under President Obama to lead the Defense Department’s efforts to update its outdated systems through the Defense Innovation Board. Schmidt started his new job with an eye-opening tour of US labs and bases.
Will Roper, now the founder and CEO of Istari and previously an assistant secretary of the Air Force focused on technology, recalls, “I got to run around with Eric and look at how the department was engaging on commercial technology.” Roper claims that the entire Department of Defense was using outdated methods to create software in the 1980s and 1970s. He shared the opinion of many other Pentagon officials that Schmidt’s assessment of the department’s issues and his determination to find solutions had them impressed.
Google had only a few hundred employees when Schmidt became CEO in 2001, and it was barely turning a profit. He left Alphabet in 2017 after building it into a sprawling, highly profitable company working on cutting-edge AI, self-driving cars, and quantum computers, among other projects.
Schmidt believes that the United States government can gain an advantage over other global powers by inventing new technologies and implementing them successfully. He might be in a prime position to help the Pentagon acquire the technology it needs to achieve its goals. His connections to business, however, raise concerns about the best way for the United States to bring its public and private sectors into harmony. While technological advancements have long been essential to US military might, some worry that military AI will introduce unanticipated hazards.
A Bad System with Good People
Schmidt uses Zoom to talk about his vision for a more modern Department of Defense, one that can quickly and easily use solutions made by companies like Istari, from his office in New York. Wearing what appears to be an orange sweater made of fine wool, he casually considers reorganizing the United States military from the ground up.
Schmidt says, “Let’s pretend we’re going to build a better war-fighting system,” and then he lays out the massive changes that would be required for the world’s most formidable military force. “We could start a technology company,” she said. After that, he draws a picture of an internet of things future that could be dangerous. “It would construct a large number of low-cost, highly mobile, attributable devices, or drones, equipped with sensors or weapons, and networked together.”
According to Schmidt, the current Pentagon’s issues have little to do with a lack of resources, personnel, or willpower. The US military, he says, is made up of “great human beings inside a bad system” because it was designed for a bygone era characterized by large, slow, and expensive projects like aircraft carriers and a bureaucratic system that prevents people from moving too quickly. Independent research and testimony to Congress have both shown that the Department of Defense (DOD) can take years to decide what software to buy and how to get it. By the time the software is finally used, it may be out of date. Schmidt says that this is a big problem for the US because new technologies in computing, software, and networking could change the way wars are fought in a big way.