Tech, retailers join Pentagon’s AI unit to help with COVID-19 logistics

New predictive technology could help retailers and Pentagon get supplies to where they are needed most

The Air Force’s Air Mobility Command transportedof 13 pallets containing 500,000 COVID-19 testing swabs aboard a C-17 Globemaster III from Italy to Memphis, Tenn., in mid-March.  (Air Force via Getty Images)
The Air Force’s Air Mobility Command transportedof 13 pallets containing 500,000 COVID-19 testing swabs aboard a C-17 Globemaster III from Italy to Memphis, Tenn., in mid-March. (Air Force via Getty Images)
Posted April 2, 2020 at 6:30am

Top U.S. tech companies and the country’s largest retailers have teamed up with the Pentagon’s artificial intelligence team to build a new platform that would help predict and address shortages of water, medicines, food, medical supplies and other essentials across the country as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads.

The Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, which was started in 2019 to serve as a clearinghouse for the military’s artificial intelligence work, has launched a new effort called Project Salus —  named after the Roman goddess of safety and well-being — said Nand Mulchandani, the chief technology officer of the center.

By combining data from the Census Bureau, Medicare, hospitals, and projections about how the COVID-19 pandemic is spreading, as well as data from retailers on how key items are moving off their shelves, the project aims to apply artificial intelligence technologies to develop a predictive model for where shortages may occur.

They are working toward a “common view and a predictive capability to truly understand where the next problem sets are going to be and bringing to bear all of the logistical capability” of the Pentagon, Mulchandani told CQ Roll Call in an interview.

Mulchandani declined to name the tech companies or the retailers involved in the project because the work is still underway and a prototype of the data platform is expected to be ready this Friday. But he said the companies involved in the effort include the biggest tech companies that bring a “combination of scale, cloud computing infrastructure, and data.”

Loading the player...

U.S. deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic have surpassed 4,000, and the White House has said that as many as 240,000 Americans may succumb to the virus. Retailers across the country are confronting shortfalls of toilet paper, soap, and other cleaning supplies as consumers have stockpiled those items after being ordered by governors to stay indoors for as long as two months in some cases. Online retailers of food and other items also have struggled to keep up deliveries of perishables to consumers.

Consumable supplies of vital protective gear for hospital workers including masks, gloves, and others also are running low.

The U.S. Northern Command, which has the responsibility for the defense of the U.S. homeland, along with National Guard units, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, could use information about projected shortfalls from the new Pentagon project to move essential items to specific locations around the country, while retailers could use the projections predictively to restock their shelves, Mulchandani said.

[Artificial intelligence recruited to find clues about COVID-19]

The data being drawn from retailers does not include any personally identifiable information of consumers and the project will be fully vetted by lawyers before being deployed. The project itself has received a so-called mission assignment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency so that the military can undertake domestic tasks that normally it may be prohibited by law from taking on, he said.

The Pentagon plans to hand off the data platform either to the Northern Command, the National Guard or FEMA once it clears the prototype phase, Mulchandani said.

Out of Project Maven

The intelligence center emerged from an experimental effort called Project Maven that was launched in 2017 to analyze and identify objects from drone videos obtained in the fight against the Islamic State. The center also has applied those techniques to help National Guard units combating wildfires in California and hurricanes elsewhere.

By flying drones equipped with full-motion video sensors over wildfire zones the Pentagon was able to assist firefighters with live fire locations using specialized maps sent to hand-held devices, Air Force Lt. Gen. John N.T. “Jack” Shanahan, who heads the intelligence center, said in a recent interview. The firefighting program eventually will be handed off to National Guard and local units, Shanahan said.

The firefighting project also helps the Pentagon’s artificial intelligence efforts, Shanahan said, by helping understand how to ingest large quantities of live data from a highly dynamic situation, coordinate efforts with multiple agencies, and deliver results in a timely manner. “If you take wildfires, there’s applicability to what you encounter in combat,” he said.

One of the key goals of Shanahan’s office is to change the U.S. military’s culture from the industrial-age emphasis on hardware and weapons to the digital age emphasis on data. The United States and China are racing to gain an advantage in artificial intelligence-enabled tools that will allow their militaries to respond to threats at computer speeds rather than at human decision-making times.

Although most large brick-and-mortar retailers such as Walmart, Target, Safeway, as well as online marketplaces like Amazon, have large volumes of sophisticated data on the sales of the goods they carry, they rarely share even aggregate information with each other, and “that’s where the government comes in as a market maker, as a neutral third party that can say ‘listen we’ll bring in all the data,’” Mulchandani said.

Typically when called on to assist during natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes or the current pandemic, National Guard units, and FEMA officers operate with “zero information on retail stores” and the kinds of supplies the stores might be carrying or running out of, Mulchandani said.

Mulchandani, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur who sold one of his companies to Cisco before taking up his position at the Pentagon, said he had heard that National Guard members sometimes have had to go into retail stores and manually count the number of water bottles on shelves.  

“Instead of our soldiers wasting time walking in there and counting [water bottles], and it’s completely inaccurate the minute” they walk out of the door, because the items may be sold immediately thereafter, the intelligence center's effort aims to provide a birds-eye view of a shortage brewing in a region, he said.

The National Guard, FEMA and other government agencies could then mobilize and move resources to where they need to be to supplement efforts by retailers, he said.

This story has been clarified to explain that the Pentagon's Salus project will be fully vetted by lawyers before it is deployed.