Aerial view of Rosslyn, Virginia.

Aerial view of Rosslyn, Virginia. Brian Gratwicke via Flicker/CC2.0

A New Industrial Base Is Taking Shape. Call It the Military-AI Complex.

The most essential Pentagon suppliers will be the ones that master robotics and artificial intelligence.

Look across the Potomac River toward Rosslyn, where the corporate logos of government contractors crown a parade of office towers that follows the river past the Pentagon. The skyline, like America’s defense industrial landscape, is changing. Soon, 25,000 Amazon employees will be climbing the Metro escalators to work in Crystal City each morning along with the tens of thousands of workers from military, intelligence, and the defense industry organizations.

The arrival of Amazon’s HQ2 in the cradle of U.S. government contracting comes at a portentous time for the Defense Department. Technology is altering what makes us strong, prosperous, and secure. The defense industrial base is becoming the strategic innovation base. Today’s leading digital companies have disrupted every industry they have touched, from publishing to automotive. Could Amazon and the rest of the “FAANG companies”—Facebook, Apple, Netflix, and Google—or one of a handful of pure-play artificial-intelligence companies, such as the authors' SparkCognition, become fixtures of this new industrial base?

While that remains to be seen, the Pentagon supplier that can master robotics and AI will become the most essential of the firms that build America’s arsenal. Moreover, the Defense Department’s practices will increasingly resemble those of this new wave of strategically important companies because that is what the current revolution in warfare requires.

Related: The Pentagon Must Pay More than Lip Service to Innovative Companies

Related: Lasers, AI, Hypersonics Top DARPA’s Small-Biz Wishlist

Related: China Is Closing the Innovation Gap: Report

The world is on the doorstep of an artificial intelligence- and robotics-driven revolution in conflict that, after decades of looming just over the horizon, now is a near-term certainty. Just as industrial-age tanks and machine guns devastated World War I battlefields and the U.S. Air Force’s GPS-guided weapons headlined the 1991 Gulf War, social media algorithms and AI-equipped robotic swarms will decide conflicts. Data is not just the new oil, as the saying goes. Data is also the new ammunition. 

The Pentagon is preparing accordingly, doing everything from standing up an Army Futures Command to engaging technology luminaries with the Defense Innovation Board to establishing a Joint Artificial Intelligence Center to reforming mid-tier acquisitions policy. But it needs to do more — and do it faster — if the U.S. military is to prevail in future machine-speed conflicts. Fortunately, the Pentagon and its suppliers can learn from the digital disruptors in areas such as robotics, acquiring groundbreaking capabilities, software ecosystems, data management, and symbiotic innovation strategies.

Taken together, today’s leading digital companies have many of the traits for a reimagined, expanded defense industrial base, one that reflects the social, political, and strategic power of companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Moreover, the most strategically important machine learning and robotics technologies will likely originate in non-defense firms based on their overall investment, market-driven innovation cycles, and talent acquisition. U.S. defense policy is shifting but the speed of technological advancement remains far faster. In recent House testimony, DOD Chief Information Officer Dana Deasy said acquisition changes will come from asking “how do we move to a more startup mentality when moving to technologies like AI?” 

Well, here is how. 

Be aggressively robotized. While autonomous robotic swarms will become a staple of future battlefields, the nations that can harness automation for logistics, supply, and maintenance will have a decisive operational – and economic – edge. 

As of 2017, Amazon reportedly had more than 100,000 robots on the job. This is especially relevant to the Defense Department and the future strategic innovation base because the shift to process automation is driven by the speed-and-cost expectations of “divinely discontent” customers, as CEO Jeff Bezos called them in the company’s 2017 annual report. Such automation — though unlikely to go as viral as a bounding robot biped — is of extreme consequence in the business world, to politics, and to American society. 

Be highly acquisitive. In 2012, Facebook purchased Instagram for $1 billion; two years later it bought WhatsApp for $19 billion and virtual-reality company Oculus for $2 billion. With deep corporate coffers, Facebook could have built and marketed its own competing platforms. But this approach allowed Facebook to establish itself immediately with a suite of technologies it could integrate into its central products, while still allowing these separate entities to develop in parallel into innovative platforms in their own right. 

Be software-driven. As machines learn to code faster and more accurately than humans, smaller and smaller organizations will be able to develop their own software applications to best suit their mission requirements. For all the beauty of an iPhone or iMac, Apple’s products are only as good as the software that runs on them —which gets better every day as developers bring new ideas to market through the App Store. 

Think data, data, data. The importance of being able to effectively wield data at every level of Defense Department operations – from recruiting at home to finding targets abroad – cannot be overstated. Precision is expected in American military operations, which generally reduces the reliance on rampant destructive, kinetic military force. Groups that glean insight from what will be essentially a limitless pool of data will tip the balance even further toward precision and decreased destruction; to be sure, getting the right data at the right moment will be an enduring challenge during conflicts but the ability to develop such an insight with alternative data sets is an altogether novel paradigm. Whether it is creating the world’s most popular search engine or developing open-source machine learning algorithms, data is at the center of everything Google pursues. Currently, Google’s search engine processes tens of thousands of searches each second. Meanwhile, a broader and more decentralized array of devices, from smart TVs to mobile phones to fitness trackers, gather more and more data each day. 

Pivot purposefully: A successful organization must be able to hold the virtual and physical in tension, while finding ways to develop both in a symbiotic manner underpinned by data analytics. In yet another sign of the sea-change in studio-developed entertainment, Netflix won 23 Emmy Awards this fall — as many as Amazon. While Netflix will still send you DVDs by mail, the company moved beyond that revenue stream years ago as advances in servers and telecom bandwidth allowed them to supplant the physical with the virtual. Its entry into the capital-intensive and hands-on business of film and show production is backed by years of data about customer tastes and preferences. 

These are just a few of the lessons from leading technology companies in what it will take for America to have a globally dominant strategic industrial base. Fortunately, with the varied examples of innovation U.S. digital disruptors have already pioneered and demonstrated, the Pentagon need not look much farther for inspiration than its own backyard.