The Pentagon's new AI chief is a former Lyft executive

Craig Martell will guide the Defense Department through uncharted territory.

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Pentagon is still new to wielding artificial intelligence, and it's looking to an outsider for help. Breaking Defense has learned Lyft machine learning head Craig Martell is joining the Defense Department as its Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer (CDAO). He'll lead the American military's strategies for AI, analytics and data, and should play a key part in a Joint All-Domain Command and Control initiative to improve multi-force combat awareness through technology.

Martell is a partial outsider. While he directed the Naval Postgraduate School's AI-driven Natural Language Processing Lab for 11 years, he hasn't served in military leadership. Outside of Lyft, he's best-known for heading up AI work at Dropbox and LinkedIn. As CDAO, Martell said he expected to spend to spend the first three to six months identifying "marquee customers" and the systems his office will need to improve. He'll have a $600 million budget for fiscal 2023.

The office itself was only created months earlier, though. Martell also told Breaking Defense he believed someone with his private background could be "very agile" in a way an established military leader might not. The Defense Department "really needs" someone who can quickly shift strategies in AI and analytics, the new CDAO said.

The US military is relatively new to AI use as it is. The Defense Department only published its draft AI ethics guidelines in late 2019, and its use of the technology initially focused more on experiments rather than autonomy on the frontlines. Martell may play a significant role in defining the Pentagon's approach to AI for years to come, if just because many areas remain relatively unexplored.