Could a new academy solve the AI talent problem?

The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence is recommending a new academy to train feds to take on federal agency jobs involving emerging technologies including AI.

Eric Schmidt, technical advisor to the board of Alphabet Inc., which is the parent company of Google, speaks at a public meeting of the Defense Innovation Board in Austin, Texas March 5, 2020. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)

Eric Schmidt speaks at a March 2020 meeting of the Defense Innovation Board in Austin, Texas. (DOD photo by EJ Hersom).

Defense technology experts think adding a military academy could be the solution to the U.S. government's tech talent gap.

"The canonical view is that the government cannot hire these people because they will get paid more in private industry," said Eric Schmidt, former Google chief and current chair of the Defense Department's Innovation Advisory Board, during a July 29 Brookings Institution virtual event.

"My experience is that people are patriotic and that you have a large number of people -- and this I think is missed in the dialogue -- a very large number of people who want to serve the country that they love. And the reason that they're not doing it is there's no program that makes sense to them."

Schmidt's comments come as the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, of which he chairs, issued its second quarterly report with recommendations to Congress on how the U.S. government can invest in and implement AI technology.

One key recommendation: A national digital service academy, to act like the civilian equivalent of a military service academy to train technical talent. That institution would be paired with an effort to establish a national reserve digital corps to serve on a rotational basis.

Robert Work, former deputy secretary of defense who is now NSCAI's vice chair, said the academy would bring in people who want to serve in government and would graduate students to serve as full time federal employees at GS-7 to GS-11 pay grade. Members of the digital corps would five years at 38 days a year helping government agencies figure out how to best implement AI.

For the military, the commission wants to focus on creating a clear way to test existing service members' skills and better gauge the abilities of incoming recruits and personnel.

"We think we have a lot of talent inside the military that we just aren't aware of," Work said.

To remedy that, Work said the commission recommends a grading, via a programming proficiency test, to identify government and military workers that have software development experience. The recommendations also include a computational thinking component to the armed services' vocational aptitude battery to better identify incoming talent.

"I suspect that if we can convince the Congress to make this real and the president signs off hopefully then not only will we be successful but we'll discover that we need 10 times more. The people are there and the talent is available," Schmidt said.