ANG Phantom sharpens AI skills

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Jordyn Fetter

Coming from a family of musicians and computer programmers, Master Sgt. John Hurrell isn’t surprised he followed in their footsteps.

The Department of the Air Force-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Accelerator (DAF-MIT AIA) Phantom began his career with a music degree in French Horn and continued to play as a professional musician for 9 years before joining the Massachusetts Air National Guard. He first served in a military band and then transitioned to the intelligence field before expanding upon his initial programming experience.

“I started programming in high school, mostly goofing around with games on the graphing calculator,” Hurrell said. “Then, as an Active Guard Reserve member, I started automating a lot of work that was previously being manually tracked.”

One project in particular involved using the tools available on his government computer—Microsoft Access Macros—to automate updates to several trackers used for managing readiness items and mission crew schedules, significantly cutting down the time and manpower needed to update them.

“Our Air Force networks don't easily allow programming interpreters or compilers, but sometimes the automation within Microsoft Office is good enough,” Hurrell said. “If the Air Force wants to empower Airmen to develop more grass-roots solutions, the first step should be wide-spread access to programming tools.”

This form of experimentation, along with taking programming courses in college, led Hurrell to progress along a rapid learning curve and foray into the AI field when his commander prompted the use of natural language processing—using computer programs to interpret human language—for their mission.

“Originally, I was a skeptic,” he said. “I saw adopting AI as giving up control to a computer program, in a way. But I wanted to learn more because of the prompts from leaders in my command.”

When the opportunity arose to apply to the four-month Phantom Fellowship Program, the name inspired by U.S. Special Operations Command’s Ghost Program where acquisition professionals spend a rotation directly supporting special operations missions, it was a no-brainer for Hurrell. He applied and was selected as one of 12 Fellows in the Spring 2022 cohort, making him the first Guardsman accepted to the program.

“I saw this opportunity as a way to augment my programming skills by better understanding AI,” Hurrell said. “I aimed to contribute to AIA projects if I could, and ultimately deliver capabilities for my unit and our mission”

This career-broadening experience lends acquisition, contracting, developmental engineering, public affairs, and enlisted operator expertise to the AI Accelerator while simultaneously offering servicemembers the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the technology.

Upon starting the program, Hurrell quickly learned about the AIA’s mission, making AI real for Airmen and Guardians, which involves developing AI for the public good, educating senior military leaders on AI, and advocating for the widespread adoption of the technology throughout the force.

From Hurrell’s perspective, the Air National Guard has a unique role to play in furthering this mission. Combining the organization’s primary focus on training with the diverse backgrounds and skill sets of its members, the ANG is well suited to disseminate new practices and technologies within military missions.

“ANG units seem to have flexibility to experiment and innovate with less risk of failure because it's executed for the purpose of training,” he said. “Often our drill weekends include think-tank sessions where we discuss unorthodox solutions.”

During the fellowship, Hurrell has focused heavily on AIA’s Conversational AI Project and assisted with documents aimed at furthering the DAF adoption of AI.

Conversational AI focuses on using AI to improve the scheduling of aircraft movements through quick message tracking and interpretation to maximize awareness of real-time changes to critical missions.

Hurrell also contributed to papers, such as Mid-Level Management AI Primer and Position Paper on Recruitment and Retention of AI-Talented Airmen and Guardians. These efforts aim to demystify AI and smooth DAF’s transition to the technology.

“I've enjoyed the multifaceted experience: sometimes I write Python code, and sometimes I discuss or write papers influencing future adoption,” he said.

Though the program is coming to an end for Hurrell in April 2022, he expressed excitement for leveraging the skills acquired and network built to train other Guardsmen on AI.

“To get people over that first step of knowing what it is, knowing when it’s useful, and then how you might start implementing a solution—I could teach that in an afternoon,” he said.

And the circle is already growing with fellow Massachusetts Air Guardsman and AI researcher at University of Massachusetts Boston Staff Sgt. Patrick Flynn, set to pick up the torch from Hurrell in the next Phantom cohort kicking off in May.

“I’ve been wanting to combine my outside experience with my Air Force experience for awhile,” Flynn said. “As someone with a heavy academic background as well as private sector and startup experience, I’m excited to learn directly from the leading experts and like-minded people who are helping the Air Force adopt AI and machine learning.”

For Hurrell, as a self-proclaimed AI-skeptic turned AI-advocate, this experience is the first of many set to bolster Air and Space Force talent capabilities for the demands of the 21st Century. 

“Being integrated into these projects with these experts has given me a huge knowledge boost,” Hurrell said. “AI will bring incredible value to my mission.”


Editor's Note: The author of this article, Tech. Sgt. Jordyn Fetter, 149th Fighter Wing public affairs specialist, is a member of the Texas Air National Guard and originally began work with the DAF-MIT AIA in 2021 following two years as an integral member of AFWERX in its early years. In her work with DAF-MIT AIA, she has shared her knowledge of AFWERX outreach and how it can be applied to AI initiatives within the Department of the Air Force.