Story by MSgt Heidi West on 04/18/2018NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. The 526th Intelligence Squadron at Nellis AFB recently hosted an Artificial Intelligence and Design Thinking seminar at AFWERX Vegas.
Event Guest Speaker Chief Master Sgt. Ian*, superintendent of the 9th Intelligence Squadron at Beale AFB, California, introduced more than 100 Airmen, contractors and Department of Defense employees to the fundamentals of design thinking, artificial intelligence and cutting-edge computer technology.
"I want to expose you to the way we do business in ISR and empower you to be part of the conversation," said Event Coordinator Senior Master Sgt. Amy, superintendent of the 526 IS, to the group of attendees. "Hopefully, as the concepts becomes less intimidating, they will stimulate a culture of curiosity within you that makes you want to learn more and dig deeper."
Throughout the seminar, students were taught how to take data from all the domains, analyze it, and turn it into decision quality information.
"We need to drive change," said Chief Master Sgt. Stefan Blazier, command chief of the 363 ISR Wing at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, in a video message to the students. "Our adversaries are constantly developing technology to catch up. We need to adapt and weaponize data to wield answers."
One way in which Ian taught the students to strategically evaluate this data was through design thinking, which is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer's toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.
To illustrate the five steps of design thinking empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test Ian used an exercise provided by the Institute of Design at Stanford University. First, each student sketched his or her idea of the perfect wallet. Next, they interviewed the student beside them to understand their wallet desires and needs (empathize). The students then reflected on the interview and what they learned (define) before brainstorming and sketching ideas to meet their "customer's" needs (ideate). After presenting the sketch to the customer, each student used provided materials to build a model of their wallet (prototype). The final step was testing the design to see if it met the customer's expectations.
"The idea is to move from personal bias as a designer to meeting customer needs," Ian explained.
Senior Airman Raymond, who traveled from the 20th IS at Offutt AFB, Nebraska, watched his design evolve with each customer interview. In the end, he designed a wallet with the comfort of a standard billfold as well as the convenience of modern banking.
"By the end of the exercise, I had almost completely scrapped my original idea because of my partner's feedback," Raymond chuckled. "He came up with stuff I had never even thought about."
Just as entrepreneurs design, scrap and redesign based on the needs of the customer, the Air Force aims to build a culture where leaders identify the needs of Airmen, champion their solutions, eliminate roadblocks, push back detractors, and celebrate innovative failures and successes.
"You have to ask yourself three questions before implementing an idea: Can I build it?' Will anyone use it?' and Is there anything better already out there?'" Ian explained. "The real heart is going through the process do we have a problem worth solving or a process that needs improving?"
To further explain the aforementioned questions of feasibility, desirability, and viability, Ian talked with students about how to identify stakeholders, develop a value proposition canvas and transform data in comprehensible chunks of information.
"Think of everything you do as a mini startup," Ian told the students. "But, instead of thinking about revenue, think about mission completion."
Several ways in which students can transform data is using artificial intelligence, which extracts high-dimensional data from the real world in order to produce numerical and symbolic information. For example, with the right tools, a dull spreadsheet of numbers can be transformed into a moving masterpiece of emotion.
"You have to make sense out of a ton of data so the warfighter can make a decision," Ian explained. "Design is not just for artsy people. Designing experiences is all around you."
Designing ideas and executing ideas require an abundance of resources. One resource available to all Airmen and DoD employees is the AFWERX facility. Amy invited Mark Rowland, AFWERX Vegas director, to explain the unique structure and neutrality of his networking hub.
"The hub is like Switzerland," Rowland began. "It's a safe place. We work with startups, and we work with the Air Force. We speak different languages, but we both want the same things. You want solutions to your Air Force problems, and we want to build solutions to your problems. There are one million new visitors to Las Vegas a week. Imagine how many new people and new technologies are here."
Wrapping up, Rowland left the students with food for thought.
"Spend 95 percent of your time thinking about the problem and only 5 percent on the solution," Rowland continued. "After all, it's not about finding a solution, but about finding the best solution."
For more information about AFWERX Vegas, call 702-790-2330 or visit http://afwerxdc.org/afwerx-vegas/.
*Editor's Note: The full identity of some individuals is censored in accordance with operational security guidelines.