Pentagon names new chief of responsible artificial intelligence

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The Pentagon has tapped artificial intelligence ethics and research expert Diane Staheli to lead the Responsible AI (RAI) Division of its new Chief Digital and AI Office (CDAO), FedScoop confirmed on Tuesday.

In this role, Staheli will help steer the Defense Department’s development and application of policies, practices, standards and metrics for buying and building AI that is trustworthy and accountable. She enters the position nearly nine months after DOD’s first AI ethics lead exited the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), and in the midst of a broad restructuring of the Pentagon’s main AI-associated components under the CDAO.

“[Staheli] has significant experience in military-oriented research and development environments, and is a contributing member of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence AI Assurance working group,” Sarah Flaherty, CDAO’s public affairs officer, told FedScoop.

Advanced computer-driven systems use AI to perform tasks that generally require some human intelligence. The Pentagon has increasingly adopted AI-based technologies in recent years to enable functions spanning the back office to the battlefield. But with all these benefits AI offers, the technology also poses the potential for risky unintended consequences that could result from its uses. 

U.S. defense and military officials are being strategic about getting ahead of such possibly harmful implications.

Formed in 2018, DOD’s JAIC works to help DOD deploy and scale AI capabilities as warfare evolves to be increasingly digital. A National Defense Authorization Act provision the following year in part prompted the Pentagon to craft custom ethical guidance to inform its AI implementations, and the JAIC was tasked with leading that development.

The JAIC’s first responsible AI chief, Alka Patel, joined the department in early 2020 — not long after its ethical AI principles were formally adopted. She departed the role after 20 months in October. Several weeks after her exit, DOD announced a hefty organizational restructure that placed the JAIC, as well as the Defense Digital Service and the department’s chief data officer organization under the newly established CDAO

Pentagon officials noted at the time that this reorganization was a necessary point in the department’s technological evolution that marked a critical next step to help integrate AI across the massive enterprise.

“Staheli comes to the CDAO from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Laboratory and has vast expertise in AI ethics and research, data analytics, and technology development,” Flaherty also told FedScoop.

At MIT, Staheli headed pursuits focusing on human-centered AI. 

She has master’s degrees in software engineering and human factors, and her main professional interests include human-AI interaction, explainable AI, decision science, autonomy, socio-technical systems, and user-centered design.