The vast majority of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) stakeholders agree that artificial intelligence (AI) technologies have the potential to greatly improve GEOINT effectiveness, according to a recent report from MeriTalk and the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). However, GEOINT stakeholders must address the AI skills gap before those benefits can be realized

In partnership with USGIF, MeriTalk brought together GEOINT stakeholders for a webinar to the future of AI in GEOINT, what skills are needed, and how stakeholders are addressing the skills gap to see the potential of AI come to fruition.

The State of AI in GEOINT

In the recent survey, 91 percent of GEOINT stakeholders said AI could have a significant impact on GEOINT’s effectiveness, and said it will have the largest impact on national security, emergency response, and urban planning. Respondents don’t think it will take long for AI to impact the field – 71 percent said they believe the average GEOINT role will involve human-machine teaming within the next five years.

Turning towards the state of AI today, 40 percent of organizations are currently benefitting from or implementing at least one AI program. Right now, organizations are targeting data mining, analysis, fusion, and processing; GIS and analysis; and data visualization.

As organizations begin deploying AI, said Stephen Gillotte, CEO of Reinventing Geospatial, the goal needs to be taking tasks away from the human and placing them onto machines, in order to free up human time.

When it comes to which tasks AI should take over first, stakeholders said organizations need to start small.

“I want AI to be really proficient at basic tasks first,” said Andrew Hayden, Deputy Director of National Geospatial-Intelligence College at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). He said he gets nervous when he sees organizations attempting to use AI for more complex tasks right off the bat.

What Skills are Needed

Survey respondents from the Federal government, state and local governments, and higher education institutions largely agreed on what skills will be important to acquire over the next 5-10 years. Skills identified were advanced statistics, critical thinking, data visualization, data mining or interpretation, and collaboration.

Hayden said he found it interesting that “two of the skills – collaboration and critical thinking – are not inherently STEM-related.” He stressed the importance of fostering collaboration between skill sets, referencing that his degrees are actually in political science, not a traditional STEM field. “I tell people, we hire you for your brain, I can teach you the mission,” he explained.

Addressing the Skills gap

Achieving the benefits of new technologies requires a workforce that is trained and capable of capitalizing on new solutions and capabilities. Unfortunately, there is currently an AI skills gap in the field.

But, organizations are paying attention to the gap and are working to close it. MeriTalk found that organizations have increased training for the current GEOINT workforce, and have increased discussions of AI apps and expected impacts. They have also increased focus on diversity of backgrounds and experiences, hired external support to aid in AI assessment and implementation, and increased hiring of AI-specific subject matter experts.

Gillotte shared how his organization is approaching the AI skills gap. He said he is looking for workers who have “a thirst for knowledge and a desire to change the status quo,” adding he wants job candidates that “are not held back by what others say is possible.” However, he stressed that “it’s not just about hiring, it is about growing the entire team.” His company does this by providing training and information on how employees can advance within the company.

However, for some organizations, it might make sense to hire consultants to implement AI. Those organizations, he explained, should “stay laser-focused on [their] task” and “augment existing staff” rather than “trying to develop homegrown talent.”

Outside of the current workforce, there needs to be a strong focus on developing educational opportunities for future workers.

Dr. Camelia Kantor, VP of Academic Affairs at USGIF, stressed the importance of working with educational institutions to help train students. She said USGIF is working to develop curricula for students in high school and even younger. Kantor said that if the industry only looks to work with college students, then its “way too late.”

To view MeriTalk and USGIF’s full report, click here.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.