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Phantom fellowship makes AI real for Airmen and Guardians

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Christine Del Aguila
  • DAF-MIT AI Accelerator

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The Department of the Air Force-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Accelerator kicked off the next iteration of their Phantom Fellowship with a record 531 applicants for the May 1 through Aug. 31 cohort.

Leadership chose 15 total force service members to participate in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics funded program. The DAF-MIT AIA’s mission is to make AI real for Airmen and Guardians by focusing on building partnerships, advancing fundamental research, empowering Airmen and Guardians through AI education, and being a voice on AI policy.

“The sheer number of applicants indicates massive interest. However, what’s truly impressive is how many Airmen and Guardians are already knowledgeable in this field. The key is empowering them as the sole unit dedicated to AI in the DAF,” said Col. Tucker Hamilton, DAF-MIT AIA director.

Phantoms are chosen based on their specialized experience in AI, software programming, current area of AIA mission need, and technical acumen.

Phantoms work side-by-side with 17 operations-focused active duty and Reservist Airmen and Guardians, as well as one government civilian permanently assigned to the AIA, and select projects the AIA focuses on while gaining exposure to world-leading AI research.

The four-month remote program modeled after U.S. Special Operations Command’s Ghost program takes place three times a year and includes two scheduled trips to the campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Phantom Fellowship aims to “bridge the digital divide” by developing high-performing Air and Space Force professionals into future leaders and advocates of artificial intelligence.

“The Phantom fellowship not only develops AI ambassadors within the DAF, but educates Airmen and Guardians on AI and data to promulgate best practices learned from a premier educational institution,” said Capt. Matthew Ruden, the first PEO Digital acquisition officer to be temporarily assigned to the AIA to assist with acquisition expertise and phantom program management.

Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Program Executive Office Digital partnered with the AIA in August 2021 to provide temporary acquisitions and program manager support via six-and-a-half-month assignments.

A recent Phantom success story included Airman 1st Class Dhruv Gupta, from the Oct. 1, 2021 to Jan. 31, 2022 cohort, who went on to compete at the first department-wide BRAVO Hackathon at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Gupta, along with AIA permanent party members Capt. Lindsey McEvoy and Tech. Sgt. Armando Cabrera, won best project, best artificial intelligence/machine learning application, and best emergent capability, sweeping three out of the nine hackathon awards.

“The fact that we built a tool to automate and optimize something that has been a problem for the force for over 30 years, in just a week, astounds me every time I think about it,” said Gupta, an analytic developer from the 35th Intelligence Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. “Everyone at the hackathon wanted to break down processes to solve any problem they were handed, and what all of the teams were able to do was unprecedented.”

The ever-evolving Phantom Fellowship is currently open to active duty DAF acquisition personnel, to include developmental engineers, acquisition managers, contracting officers, AI-savvy enlisted personnel, and public affairs personnel.

In addition to receiving training via an AI foundations course, public affairs phantoms support the fellowship and DAF by assisting AIA leadership and its members with critical tactical and strategic communication efforts using PA core competencies.

A “91P” special experience identifier is attached to service members’ Air Force specialty codes upon completion of the program, allowing the DoD to harness the Phantom’s acquired AI knowledge and skill sets later in their careers.

“The Phantom Fellowship opens access to the AI education that service members urgently need in order to accelerate change and cut through bureaucracy,” Hamilton said. “Our focus is to advance, educate, and deliver AI here at the Accelerator, and this Phantom program is just the start.”