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Michael Kanaan

Artificial intelligence is more than just the current buzzword – it represents a technology that enhances military missions, can safeguard lives worldwide, and deliver clearer information, thus giving everyday individuals more time to think and act. That is how Major Michael Kanaan, former co-chair of artificial intelligence for the U.S. Air Force, and currently the Deputy Chief Information Officer at the Pentagon’s Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office, describes the profound scientific technology.

Kanaan, a 2007 Birmingham Seaholm High School graduate, is also the author of T-Minus AI: Humanity's Countdown to Artificial Intelligence and the New Pursuit of Global Power. In March, he was invited back to his alma mater to speak at a conference on AI in Education.

“It's a topic that has so much ubiquity and I want to make it relatable,” he said.

Kanaan, a former all-state football player at Seaholm, continued his athletic career at the U.S. Air Force Academy. After graduating from the academy, he was commissioned as a military intelligence officer, first managing a drone program in Afghanistan, where he developed intelligence analysis, “to make sure our personnel movements were safe,” he explained.

In 2011, with the advent of IBM’s Watson, AI was just burgeoning, and ImageNet was the first time a machine could identify an image better than a human could.

“In the military, I looked at this technology, and the way we could leverage it to better missions and keep people safer.

AI is essentially pattern recognition,” Kanaan said. “I took that advancement and thought it would save lives and later resulted in heading up target development in the mission against ISIS for Operation Inherent Resolve in 2015-2016. It was a difficult time.”

He was then reassigned to the Pentagon to work for the Air Force Director of Intelligence, where he was named the service’s first chairperson of AI and established its partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

After 13 years in the Air Force and currently back at the Pentagon, Major Kanaan works in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He has traveled the world in his military service.

“While my primary role involves looking at AI across all military branches and the national ecosystem, the impact extends far beyond, influencing areas like monopolies, trusts, and the foundational elements of truth and trust. We all feel its effects. Ultimately, my greatest passion lies in ensuring that this technology not only flourishes but also upholds and aligns with democratic values and ideals,” he explained.

Those ideals and goals are what inspired Kanaan to write T-Minus AI, which is a popular science book with the goal for everyone to be able to understand and appreciate AI.

“Whatever you enjoy, AI has an impact,” he said, explaining AI can be as simple as the predictive words on text. “We live in a world dictated by algorithms, so we have to deal with it.”

Coming from Birmingham has provided the foundation for his whole future. “The further you get from Birmingham, the more you appreciate it,” Kanaan noted. “You don’t readily recognize the quality of education, the quality of people, the sheer number of opportunities until you look back and then realize that our community provided a foundation for the rest of your life. It would be a travesty not to take advantage of it.”

Kanaan’s fears of AI are that as a nation, “particularly within this year, everyone will grapple with discerning what is real, from deepfakes to generative AI. Without significant investment in education and bridging the digital divide, problems will arise. Because humans are storytellers – but what happens when we can’t believe the stories? We need to make the appropriate investments and humbly embrace the role as learners once again.”

Story: Lisa Brody


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