WASHINGTON: As defense primes scramble to meet DoD’s insatiable demand for AI and machine learning (ML) tools, Lockheed Martin is investing in startups like Fiddler with next-generation tech to help operators understand how autonomous systems actually work (and don’t work) in the field.
“I think what everyone is seeing is that, as you go toward deploying an AI/ML system, people start questioning well, how does this thing work?,” Chris Moran, executive director and general manager of Lockheed Martin Ventures explained in an interview yesterday. “And how do you know, how are you sure, Is it making the right decisions? And how can you change those decisions if they’re the wrong ones?”
“You want to make sure that these things are behaving,” he added. “Fiddler provides some of that insight into how artificial intelligence is working. They’re in what’s called ‘explainable AI’ space, so they can reveal things about how the neural network was created, and how it’s made decisions, right, which gives people a level of comfort,” Moran said.
Lockheed Martin Ventures, the mega-prime’s venture capital arm, announced its investment yesterday in Fiddler, a two-year-old Palo Alto startup.
According to the joint press release, the two firms will work together “on the development, testing and scaling of Fiddler’s technology in applying explainable AI in the defense and aerospace industries. … At the heart of Fiddler’s Platform lies AI Explainability, which provides continuous insights understandable by humans to help build responsible, transparent, and fair AI systems.”
AI/ML and autonomy are two of the key focus areas for Lockheed Martin Ventures, which buys equity shares in infant companies interested in selling to both the defense commercial marketplace, Moran said.
Not only is DoD racing to deploy AI/ML capabilities for everything from killer drone swarms to spare parts management, such systems are being integrated into almost every civil market sector aerospace to agriculture — meaning an almost guaranteed return on investment, Moran explained. That return is then re-channeled into future investments.
“AI is such a hot topic right now that every company, not just the Lockheeds and the Boeings and the Northrops, but every single Fortune 500 company, maybe even every Fortune 1000 company, has realized ‘wow, I can simplify my tasks and move some of these mundane things into autonomous system, and thereby have people work on more complicated things that maybe are not suited for autonomy’. So, everybody is trying to do this. Everybody!” Moran enthused. “There’s a massive scramble for autonomy engineers, software, you name it.”
Another next-generation autonomous technology development that has caught Moran’s eye for possible future investment is the advent of what he called “autonomy factories;” that is, the ability to automate the process of building neural networks that can then build autonomous systems, autonomously.
“What’s happened is that companies are starting to figure out how to automate autonomy — how do you autonomously create neural networks and machine learning systems?,” he said with a chuckle of amazement. “You know, necessity is the mother of invention.”
Moran and his team of some six scouts have an annual budget of about $200 million to bet on newbie entrepreneurs and their technology. Currently, he said, Lockheed Martin Ventures has an investment in 40-odd companies, across 18 focus areas ranging from AI to rockets and propulsion systems to quantum science.
The focus areas are determined by a conclave, usually held in March, with Lockheed Martin’s business units, as well as via the Ventures team’s own knowledge of the startup ecosystem, he explained. In addition, Lockheed Martin Ventures haunts the increasing number of DoD, and especially Air Force, “pitch days” in hopes of finding matches for the aerospace prime contractor’s interests.
As Breaking D readers know, “pitch days” are one of the new methods being championed by acquisition czar Will Roper as a way for the service to harness commercial innovation. And the Air Force is one of Lockheed Martin’s biggest customers, if not the biggest if you count space acquisitions.
The Ventures team invested in 10 startups last yea,r including one discovered at an Air Force pitch day, and is on a path to adding another 10 to its portfolio this year, Moran said. Finding those winners is an intensive process that involves scouting 700 to 1,000 startups per year, he explained.
Once a startup is chosen, Lockheed Martin Ventures gives it an opportunity to pitch ideas/products/services across all interested Lockheed Martin business areas.
“We have an internal, if you will, we call it ‘demo day,’ that we’re holding this week, and right now I think there are well over 100 Lockheed Martin engineers and technologists set up to listen to 12 or 13 of the portfolio companies that we’ve invested in the last year,” he said. “That’s part of what we do as a service inside the company. And hopefully out of those discussions and presentations, there are further collaborations.”
Moran explained that those collaborations can include software licenses or contracts for services — and even, once a startup has established a larger market presence, traditional subcontractor ties.
And while investment allows Lockheed Martin Ventures to get in early on the startup’s expertise and tech concepts, the prime contractor is not seeking to tie the hands of the entrepreneurs regarding clientele. Instead, he said, the objective is to grow the startup into the overall defense and aerospace industrial base.
“We’re creating, eventually, a market for them,” Moran said. “And it’s kind of a weird dynamic, but we give them money, and then my group goes off and works for them inside the company — so we’re paying them for us to work. It’s weird, but … that money goes to supporting the small companies grow and scale so that they’ll be around for when a Lockheed Martin or any large company wants to use their tools and services. So we look at it as a win-win.”