Marine AI
Tuesday, August 18, 2020
Agencies across government can learn from the US Marine Corps’ advances in adapting AI and other emerging technologies to their mission and mission support activities.

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or its Components, nor does it serve as an endorsement of IBM or the Partnership for Public Service, its products, or services.

Pressure to do more with less, improve efficiency and reduce costs while meeting citizen needs is challenging government agencies. Intelligent Automation (IA) meets this challenge by transforming work while enabling the workforce to perform more effectively and efficiently.   Powered by artificial intelligence (AI) as part of an integrated platform -- which also includes Robotics Process Automation (RPA), analytics, process management, and digital strategy – IA can improve how federal agencies operate internally and serve customers externally. Agencies are beginning to make IA a fundamental part of transforming workflows and achieving the mission.

The IBM Center for The Business of Government and the Partnership for Public Service have commenced a series of webinars with government leaders to discuss how they are using these technologies to improve both how they work internally and how they provide services externally.  These sessions highlight real cases and lessons learned that can help all agencies understand how best to apply emerging technologies.

In the first webinar, Jennifer Edgin -- U.S. Marine Corps Assistant Deputy Commandant for Information, Deputy Commandant for Information Headquarters -- spoke broadly about the Marine Corps’ use of AI to drive greater productivity in operations, and faster and more reliable performance in theater.

Jen spoke about the approach the Marine Corps has undertaken to better understand and learn to adopt AI and IA capabilities. She described how the Marine Corps is still early in the journey and why progress is important to an organization that highly values innovation.  Jen also shared some key aspects of how to measure, encourage and manage teams along the journey, following a long-term vision for an ongoing process to bring strategic change. These approaches have provided results at the Marine Corps and can be equally relevant to other agencies.

Below is a summary of highlights from the webinar, which can also be seen at this link.

Background:  What is Intelligent Automation?

Intelligent automation refers to a new capability that leverages processes and technologies in ways that allow people to optimize their work -- moving burden from humans to technology – and has the potential to redesign the way work gets done within an enterprise.  Components of IA include:

  • Robotics Process Automation – An emerging form of clerical process automation technology based on notion of software bots
  • Artificial intelligence – The application of systems equipped with software that simulates human intelligence processes
  • Natural language processing – The ability to understand human speech
  • Predictive analytics – The practice of predicting outcomes using statistical algorithms and machine learning

IA addresses multiple challenges facing agencies across mission support areas ranging from document processing to financial operations, including

  • Lowering costs
  • Managing large and repetitive transaction volumes
  • Shifting to higher value work
  • Providing quality control
  • Operating within constrained budgets
  • Improving user experience and process

Highlights from the Webinar with Jennifer Edgin

Intelligent automation helps the Marine Corps to solve problems, but can overcomplicate an answer when not adapted to the right kind of business situation. Having a clear view of the business problem, and then applying the right automation strategy to improve performance, are key to reach the desired outcome.  Other factors that help the agency to drive successful implementation include:

  • Understand the positives and negatives of the data used by the AI application, and inspect for bias and discrimination through testing and a cross-functional review by a diverse team.
  • Design and develop the technologies with user groups.
  • Train on technology in a way that is tailored to a person’s position and work, and keep skills up to date through continuous learning through technical publications and academic courses.
  • Develop a tiered governance structure that engages the workforce and strengthens the ability to share, learn and exchange best practices.

More insights from the discussion, and how these insights can help other agencies, are discussed below.

Solving a business problem through AI

The Marine Corps has a strong culture of innovation.   As Jen noted, “Marines have been on the forefront of adopting new technologies. This is just the new way that we adapt. We want to make Marines more effective in all the roles that they have. So, whether it’s in a business function or in a warfighting situation, Marines are highly effective. Marines paired with machines are even more effective.”

The organization’s technology concepts and designs start at identifying the problem at the ‘individual user’ level.  Rather than starting with a solution, the Marine Corps reverses the model to start with a problem and then develops a strategy to respond.  The Corps then leverages a use case and business case framework to decide whether AI or intelligent automation would be appropriate to reach the desired outcome, which goes through a series of prompts to promote consideration of how a solution approach addressed the problem.

Moreover, the organization incorporates testing in the entire value chain of delivery. As Jen highlighted, “we embed testing in every aspect of that (problem identification, design optimization, development, deployment and disposal cycle); in the earliest design stages, having users walk through wireframes before you even start to code.”

Treating AI as an enabling tool

Having started with a clear view of the problem, AI and IA strategies should point to a business outcome in driving adoption.  This calls for a review of business processes; Jen remarked that “if you put AI on top of a bad business process, it's just going to help you get worse faster.” By focusing on the outcome, process measures of success can point to discreet and deliberate milestones to continue, shift, or stop activities.

Modernizing the workforce

Adapting AI and IA requires a skilled workforce that is ready for change.  Jen explains that willpower, desire, luck and meeting a need helped build the Marne Corps team, noting that the Marine culture prizes innovation to shape the future.

The agency has focused on workforce modernization through a tailored training model based on position, MOS (military occupation specialty), civilian background, and future potential -- business executive training will differ from that for a system administrator or a developer, with the latter more steeped in data science and algorithm development.  Moreover, training should focus on different sectors, including private sector partners:  “We want to be a group that pairs Marines with requirements with the best qualified individuals to help meet those demands.”

Understanding the data

Understanding the positives and negatives of agencies’ data sets is essential.  Agencies must understand their data, including any gaps or problems with their data.  IA software applications can change what used to be a labor-intensive process of cleaning up data.

Jen noted that IA can also help agencies to assess algorithms for bias through rigorous testing that can strengthen data quality:

“I go back to our testing, testing at all phases through our design, development, deployment and disposal cycle as one method. Another method that we use is a cross functional approach with a diverse team. I'm not just talking about ethnicity or gender. I'm talking about backgrounds: some of our teams, our community of interest have attorneys, artists, designers, developers, and other technical people, because that's where you get the diversity of thought in terms of usage, and then as you're looking at the test results that diversity of thoughts helps you interpret those better.”

Capitalizing on intuitiveness in application design

Familiarity with users is essential in designing and developing emerging technology.  Identifying that target user group affects how the Marine Corps develops the technology, and is critical in a time where technology allows -- and given COVID-19 impacts, requires -- alternatives to same-location application development. Younger workers have more of a real time expectation for training and development, and bring their intuitive familiarity to their work.  As Jen said, “I use the example that you don't typically go to a class for how to use your smartphone. There's an intuitiveness that's brought into the design. We want to capitalize on that and have a hybrid approach: a critical skill refreshed over time, and then building an ease of use into our design upfront.”

Having an engaging governance structure

The Marine Corps’ governance structure engages the community of interest.  A tiered structure engages the community, including first line employees across the Navy and the Marine Corps as well as officials from some of the other DoD entities. They use this nexus to drive decision-making processes, funding requirements, and business outcomes as well. Jen notes that “we've really done a lot to ensure that our governance activities are value added.”

Conclusion and More Resources

Jen brings curiosity and enthusiasm to the challenge of adapting AI, IA, and other emerging technologies to the Marine Corps: “I’m constantly reading technical publications; I'm reading different things through social media and networking platforms. I also think there are a lot of educational institutions that are starting to tailor executive ed, or some of the business schools that talk about AI driving business outcomes; a couple day short course on some of these continuous learning, updating your skill set is time well spent.”

To that end, there are communities of interest in government, industry associations that people can join. The American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council has an artificial intelligence community. The General Services Administration on the civilian side has an AI community of interest as well and other communities that are focused on RPA, in blockchain and other elements of Intelligent Automation suite.  And of course, the IBM Center and the Partnership have issued multiple reports and issue briefs for government, which can be found at