Air University’s SOS revamps Think Tank model, AI-aided PCS proposal draws attention

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  • Squadron Officer School Staff

Faculty at Air University’s Squadron Officer School have streamlined and updated a popular elective designed to challenge students to come up with creative solutions to some of the Air Force’s nagging problems.

The recently redesigned SOS Think Tank elective has already produced results that have caught the attention of senior Air Force leaders.

The SOS Think Tank elective has been in place since 2013. Over the years and through numerous iterations, however, the elective became too cumbersome to efficiently manage, and its internal workings were not reflective of contemporary design models, according to SOS officials. SOS leaders knew they had to change the model if it were to remain effective and relevant.

One of the steps taken recently in re-designing the elective was to enroll select SOS faculty members in various courses that excel in teaching innovative techniques to solve complex issues. Some of the courses were Stanford University’s Design School, or Stanford, and the Joint Special Operations University’s Special Operations Forces Design and Innovation Basic Course at Hulbert Field, Florida.

Other steps included being more discerning in deciding which students would be accepted to take the elective; being more selective with the faculty who facilitate the elective; and having the facilitators take a more hands-on approach in leading the elective, guiding the students through periods of individual research, small group sessions and larger group “vector checks.”

“We wanted to provide students a higher quality experience with more in-depth workshops along the way,” said Lt. Col. Jason Trew, a Stanford school graduate who spearheaded many of the changes to the Think Tank program. “We’re now much more selective for both the faculty and the students. Facilitators must have experience with design thinking and students must be eager to play with wild ideas and do so as a team.”

After students apply for the elective, faculty use several strategies to select a deeply diverse group of students. For example, internal teams are formed based on the results of self-reporting personality inventory instruments. The intent is to get students who think differently from one another to exchange ideas and build upon each other’s thought processes, leveraging strengths and mitigating weaknesses in a team dynamic.

“SOS students are incredibly intelligent and talented. They consistently impress when placed in the right environment with gentle guidance,” said Maj. Juan Ramirez, one of the senior Think Tank coaches and design facilitators.

Within a few short months, all the work that has gone into the redesign has produced positive results.

For SOS Class 19F, which graduated in late June, Think Tank students were charged with finding ways to take advantage of the newly formed Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Air Force Artificial Intelligence Accelerator by coming up with problems for the new partnership to solve. This partnership was effective May 20, 2019, and is focused on accelerating AI technologies through basic research in computational intelligence, reasoning, autonomy and relevant societal implications.

Using the design thinking principles taught in the elective, students redefined their task. Instead of coming up with problems for the MIT-AF AI Accelerator team to solve, students got to the root of the problem, which was that the AI team did not have a mechanism in place with which to collect ideas from the larger Air Force.  

As a result, students proposed the creation of a sustainable framework to generate and analyze future ideas for the MIT-AF AI Accelerator. This provided the AI team a comprehensive approach to getting ideas for future research and near-term development and implementation.

Recommended proposals from the students on another task was for the design of a virtual training assistant for trainees in the maintenance career fields. The virtual assistant would help trainees navigate the complexities of weapon systems and sub-systems and their interdependencies. The intent is to start small with the maintenance career field and then branch out to other career fields after initial testing and development.

A third and final proposal, which received the attention of top Air Force leadership, is the use of AI to parse, learn from and ultimately improve the documents and checklists involved in a permanent-change-of-station, or PCS, move. The proposed solution shortened the timeframe between when a service member is notified of a PCS move and when the documentation for the move is generated.

Furthermore, the addition of an attended virtual assistant would decrease the workload on military personnel flights and the Air Force Personnel Center. The assignments-focused virtual assistant would track and provide immediate responses to issues, accomplish progress checks and create a tailored process for Airmen across the Air Force. The Think Tank members briefed this proposal to the vice chief of staff of the Air Force, other senior leaders and the service’s liaison officer on the AI team in mid-July 2019, and it looks like the students’ ideas might become reality in the near future.