America's military is an early adopter of many technologies, and now there's quite a bit of attention to how new advances in the design of “virtual assistant” artificial intelligence (AI) entities might change the face of the US military.
But, is there more than one type of virtual assistant? One example could be military spouses who sign on to do administrative work from their home offices. The rise of human virtual assistants who work remotely has enabled traveling military spouses to achieve these types of trending career options.
But another type of virtual assistant is an AI "persona" that the military is using to grow their virtual capability and lighten the load on human personnel, including recruiters. (Read How is AI affecting the military market?)
Back in 2007, InformationWeek and other media outlets were already reporting on Sgt. Star – an interactive virtual assistant, or chatbot, with considerable personal specs: Sgt. Star is 27 years old, 6’3” and 212 pounds (we’re assuming he will stay 27 years old forever). He’s “in the field” now, answering user questions from a spot on the Army’s web site. (Read We Asked IT Pros How Enterprises Will Use Chatbots in the Future. Here’s What They Said.)
Using a proprietary ActiveAgent technology from the company Next IT, Sgt. Star is a virtual guide answering questions for those interested in military service.
“SGT STAR is your virtual guide to goarmy.com.,” reads the copy on the page where users can find this virtual resource. “He's here to help answer any questions you have about the Army. Just type in what you're looking for and he'll find the information you need — fast.”
Like many other artificial intelligence projects, Sgt. Star works in collaboration with human recruiters, instead of being a “virtual replacement.” Although Star has been able to answer basic questions with a high degree of accuracy, more in-depth inquiries are often sent to human representatives.
Rather than speculate on how well Sgt. Star works, it’s relatively easy to surf over to goarmy.com and give it a try.
Here’s what the virtual assistant had to say in response to our question: What’s it like in the Army?
“After all initial entry level training is completed, a typical day in the Army depends on your job,” Sgt. Star said. “Most Soldiers work Monday through Friday from 9-5, but actual work schedules depend on mission requirements and your Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). What you do on your off-time is up to you.”
From there, answers became more diverse.
Sgt. Star seems well equipped to talk about, for example, what you might encounter in the mess hall, but when asked about the dangers of wild animals in the field, the virtual assistant trots out the Army’s policy on pets on base.
The Future of Virtual Assistants
How Will Virtual Assistants Change the Military?
It's likely that as a highly efficient organization, the Army is going to utilize virtual assistance to enhance what a given office is capable of, whether that’s recruiting or scheduling operations or practically anything else.
Tyler Sweatt, a former Army officer and currently technology consultant, said virtual assistants will enable massive scale at all levels of the Army.
“Imagine if company-level leadership was able to align schedules across a series of virtual assistants, plan training events, and conduct inventories based on AI-enabled supply rooms. At senior levels, the value of near instantaneous schedule optimization, task prioritization and research would provide immense value to resource intensive areas typically reserved for CAG/CCG types.”
All of this functionality implies vibrant potential for AI helpers within the military structure. To be sure, using "virtual assistants" like Sergeant Star is not the only kind of virtualization revolutionizing the U.S. military: this resource from Defense Industry Daily goes into detail about how agencies virtualize workstations for less hardware exposure.
This helps out in a big way: it saves space on submarines and elsewhere, presents a thinner attack surface to hackers, and brings ROI to agency administration. Likewise, this story from the AFCEA magazine Signal shows how virtual technologies allow military personnel and vehicles to "travel light" for agility and performance in the field.
The Heart of the Matter: Trust and Implementation
“The challenge will be adoption and trust,” Sweatt said. “We’ve seen AI compromised via hacks and poor data, and more events like these will certainly impact trust and overall adoption within the ranks. Device and data security requirements aside, if a new piece of equipment doesn’t work as intended or expected, good luck trying to force the tactical ranks to continue to use it.”
Much like with any private sector business, the AI technology is going to either empower or hinder the military, according to how well its use cases are targeted to actual needs.
"Education and training, will be key."
The bottom line is that the AI tidal wave is almost here. By integrating human-like responses into bots and repeatedly succeeding at the Turing test (fooling people into thinking they are talking to a human), the military is likely to soon use these virtual entities for all sorts of outreach and internal management, prodding us to ask:
"Do we have a handle on our robot brethren?"