A few months ago, research firm Cognilytica wrote about the current state of the global AI race. (Disclosure: I am a principal analyst at Cognilytica) Many countries such as China, South Korea, France, Japan and Germany have lofty ambitions to gain a stronghold on AI technologies. About a year ago, China released a three-step program outlining its goal to become a world leader in AI by 2030. Almost half of all worldwide patents on autonomous driving come from German car companies or their suppliers. France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced that over the next five years it will invest more than €1.5 billion for AI-related research and support for emerging startups. With all this interest and investment into AI, it’s no surprise that the AI race is heating up.
The US Makes AI a Priority — The Race is On
Until recently, the US has been dominant in AI mostly because of corporations such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix and others leading the way. However, private company development of AI projects, while influential, is not enough to challenge the push that countries are making with their AI efforts. In mid-February 2019, President Trump signed an executive order aimed at spurring the development and regulation of artificial intelligence. This is good news as many AI experts have been asking for the federal government to make the development of artificial intelligence a priority and develop a national strategy on AI similar to how many other nations have already done.
This executive order is aimed at better educating and training workers in the field of AI and cognitive technologies, improving access to cloud computing services, improving access to datasets needed to build and train AI systems and promote cooperation with foreign powers. Many agencies already understand the importance of AI and cognitive technologies and see their wide-ranging impact on things such as weapons technology, modern warfare and a country’s cybersecurity. In fact, the US Defense Department has accelerated its efforts to embrace AI, budgeting $75 million for the development of AI technologies. Other government agencies, such as the IRS, HHS, GSA and others also have major AI projects they are planning.
Government contractors, such as Booz Allen Hamilton, IBM’s Government Services group and other large contractors have long been building up their AI and ML expertise. But these government contractors have been keeping their AI talent and resources primarily to themselves. What is more important is that with this AI initiative, all government agencies now need to have AI on their radar and push their technology endeavors forward with an AI-specific mindset. This means that every single government contract that’s already been awarded and will be awarded for any technology endeavor will be awarded first to those contractors that have AI expertise and capabilities.
Government Contractors playing AI Skills Catch Up
AI industry observers and participants know that there is a shortage of skilled AI and data science talent. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in demand for these roles as AI, various applications of machine learning and other cognitive technologies continue to gain traction. In fact, the significant demand of these roles has led to the talent crunch that we’re seeing across many enterprises, organizations and government agencies alike.
Government contractors are fighting for scarce AI talent against large technology companies, technology startups, end-user enterprises and many others. This makes finding AI resources that much harder. Making it even worse, some of the early entrants into the space, such as IBM, Booz Allen Hamilton and Accenture are vacuuming up talent and using their own resources to upskill their talent pools. These firms have hired talent skilled in data science and cognitive technologies. They have created internal continuing education courses to make sure their employees are up to date on the latest AI technologies and trends and are best positioned to execute on the initiatives of this new executive order.
Where does that leave the “unintelligent” government contractors that have no AI skills, knowledge or experience? Out in the cold. As agencies start to prioritize government contractors that have AI experience, the lack of these skills and talent will put these firms at a big disadvantage. The era where you can simply throw piles of talent onto IT engagements to do the heavy lifting of coding, data and server maintenance will go away as agencies adopt more use of AI and cognitive technologies to do those things.
The Push for Vendor Neutral, Project-level Skills
To offset the shortage of talent, government agencies and contractors alike are rushing to upskill their own internal workers, turning them from IT worker bees to AI-knowledgeable staff. However, most of these contractors and professional services firms lack the internal ability to provide that knowledge and education. Software vendors have filled the gap by providing implementation-level, vendor-specific training that teaches you the basics of AI -- at least enough so that you can be a good customer of that company’s products. No one in their right mind would take a course on how to build web sites from a networking equipment manufacturer, so why are people taking courses on how to build complex AI systems from big data vendors or cloud service providers?
Likewise, you can’t get AI knowledge and experience by sitting and listening to a session at one of the almost limitless supply of AI conferences and events. The sessions usually don’t dig deep enough to provide step-by-step knowledge for implementing AI projects successfully, and they don’t provide the hands-on experience required to be credible to make this work. Increasingly, these agencies are looking at work produced by research firms, such as Cognilytica, which has produced its own vendor-neutral, project management-level training and certification to provide those results.
The real issue is that in much the same way the Internet, mobile and even cybersecurity waves have pushed all technology-oriented government contractors to rethink the way they deliver their services, so too is AI. AI is already forcing a reshuffling of the required skills that all technology government contractors will need to have. By the end of 2020, there will be very few successful government contractors or agencies who haven’t already implemented AI projects. Those that refuse or are unable to provide the intelligent capabilities and skills the government is demanding will soon find their business suffering as a result.
Kathleen Walch, columnist, is Co-Founder, Senior Analyst at Cognilytica. Kathleen is a serial entrepreneur, savvy marketer, AI and Machine Learning expert, and tech industry connector. She is a senior analyst and founder of Cognilytica, an AI research and advisory firm, and co-host of the popular AI Today podcast.