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MIT partnership helps acquisition officer expand toolkit

1st Lt. Ben Paulk, (right) a member of the Digital Phantom program and a program manager for AFNWC’s Nuclear Command, Control and Communications Integration Directorate at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., speaks to Col. Tucker Hamilton, director of the Department of the Air Force-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Accelerator, at its headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., March 26.

1st Lt. Ben Paulk, right, a member of the Digital Phantom program and a program manager for AFNWC’s Nuclear Command, Control and Communications Integration Directorate at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., speaks to Col. Tucker Hamilton, director of the Department of the Air Force-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Accelerator, at its headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., March 26. The AIA is a unique partnership between the Department of the Air Force and MIT’s main campus that helps tackle Air Force and Space Force challenges. (U.S. Force photo by Todd Maki)

HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – The Department of the Air Force-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Accelerator is helping acquisition professionals better understand AI and how to incorporate it into Air Force programs.

Col. Tucker Hamilton, DAF-MIT AIA director, said this unique partnership between the DAF and MIT’s main campus was established in 2019 to help tackle Air Force and Space Force challenges. Integrated teams of DAF and MIT personnel are currently working on 14 projects in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, the Defense Innovation Unit, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Detachment 12’s Kessel Run, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center and others.

“We recognized very early on that the department needs individuals who understand artificial intelligence, and not just on the technical side, but how we acquire this type of technology, how we develop it appropriately and how we contract for it,” he said.

Without a permanent program manager to assist with acquisition efforts, Hamilton and his team came up with a creative solution.

“We realized we may have an opportunity to bring people here for shorter periods of time to allow them to learn about artificial intelligence and how to best integrate this type of technology,” he said. “Then they can take that knowledge and experience back to their parent organization.”

1st Lt. Ben Paulk, a program manager for AFNWC’s Nuclear Command, Control and Communications Integration Directorate at Hanscom, is the first acquisition officer to take part in the AIA’s four-month Digital Phantom program.

“It’s a great career broadening opportunity, because most acquisition officers don’t do anything with AI,” he said.

Paulk first learned about the AIA and the chance to temporarily work with the accelerator through a connection he made at a JAIC-hosted training session.

“It seemed like a good opportunity for Lt. Paulk to branch out a little bit, get more breadth of experience and maybe bring something unique back to us,” said Capt. Brian Davidson, the AFNWC NC3 Test Integrated Product Team lead for the Global Aircrew Strategic Network Terminal program, and Paulk’s supervisor. “Hopefully experiences like this will help change the way we think about our programs.”

Paulk agreed that his time at the AIA has helped him think outside the traditional acquisition model.

“It’s definitely been an adventure,” Paulk said. “The folks at MIT are unbelievable, unparalleled in their research. A lot of what I’ve been doing is trying to prototype a system for how we can get technology from the research lab into actual programs.”

Hamilton said he intends to make the Digital Phantom program permanent.

“I envision individuals being competitively selected for this type of experience and then coming out to the MIT campus for a few weeks and working virtually the rest of the time,” he said.

While the details of the program and selection process are still being worked, Hamilton said having Paulk at the AIA for the past few months has given him a clear vision for the type of acquisition professionals who will enhance his team.

“What we’re really looking for out of [applicants] is the right mentality and the desire to learn about emerging technology,” he said. “We’re looking for people who understand the acquisition career field and are passionate about trying to figure out how to integrate this type of technology into the traditional roadmap.”

Paulk encourages other acquisition professionals to take advantage of opportunities to work with organizations like the AIA and add new skills to their “toolkit.”

“Absolutely do it,” he said. “It’s career broadening and you’re going to learn things that you’re not going to learn literally anywhere else. It’s a unique acquisition experience.”

Hamilton said the AIA team’s work is valuable to mission sets across the Air Force.

“It’s extremely important for our national defense for individuals to be aware of this technology,” he said. “If we really want to accelerate change, we have to have a mindset of taking down barriers. We need to educate our members on the actual technical aspects of AI, as well as the acquisition side of AI.”

To learn more about the DAF-MIT AIA or to contact Hamilton about the Digital Phantom program, visit https://aia.mit.edu/.