A shake-up at a key Pentagon agency is making employees fear they’re being replaced by artificial intelligence

NASA International Space Station
this image made from video provided by NASA, Orbital ATK’s
Cygnus cargo ship, top, approaches the International Space
Station on Saturday, March 26, 2016. The cargo carrier was
launched from Cape Canaveral on Tuesday.


  • There’s a “reorganization” underway at the Pentagon’s
    National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
  • Some veteran imagery analysts fear their jobs might
    drastically change — and that their work will be outsourced
    to artificial intelligence.
  • Agency staffers are also concerned that AI
    is not yet advanced enough to truly replace most aspects of
    human analysis.

When Kim Jong Un gears up to launch a ballistic missile,
analysts at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency


through satellite
imagery, looking for distinct signs on the the ground in North
Korea indicating test preparations are underway.

Now, the US agency is in the midst of a concentrated push
— what some have called a reorganization — emphasizing the use
of advanced technology to do analysis typically done by humans,
five sources with knowledge of the matter told Foreign

That shift in priorities is worrying some veteran imagery
analysts who fear that their jobs might drastically change, and
the technology being pushed isn’t mature enough to replace
human skill and analytic capability.

Those working
inside and with the agency say it’s unclear exactly what the
changes entail, but it’s scaring some employees, who worry the
reorganization is part of a push to move work done by human
analysts to artificial intelligence, and to outsource some of
NGA’s work.

The agency’s director, Robert Cardillo, appears to

“doing away with imagery analysis, NGA’s bread
and butter,” at least the way such analysis has historically
been done, one former intelligence official with knowledge of
the reorganization told FP.

NGA is an important, albeit low-profile, part of the
intelligence community. While the National Reconnaissance
Office is responsible for the satellites that collect earth
imagery and data, NGA plots the information on maps for use by
the military and the intelligence community. In places where it
is near-impossible to send in human sources, the military and
intelligence community can get a bird’s-eye view of the

In 2011, for example, analysts at the agency


the Abbottabad
compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was living in his
final years. The agency even helped build the replica of the
compound used to train special operations forces for the 2011
raid that led to the killing of al Qaeda’s founder.

In an interview with FP, Cardillo confirmed that there
were changes underway that involved advanced technology, but he
denied it was pushing people out of jobs or moving too fast
with technology.

“It might feel like a really big reorganization to some
folks,” Cardillo told FP. “The fact of the matter is, from this
office, I’ve done very little reorganization. We’ve closed down
a shop or two to realign some efforts. Most recently, I did
change my top tier of leadership.… I now call it an executive

About a year and a half ago, Cardillo named a new head of
the directorate of analysis within NGA, what he calls the
“heart” of the agency. The director, Sue Kalweit, is “trying to
create an entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. “But we start and
finish our day with tradecraft.”

But technology, particularly machine learning that can allow
computers to scan the massive stockpile of imagery in NGA’s
possession, is attractive to the agency.

FILE PHOTO: An aerial view of the Pentagon building in Washington, June 15, 2005. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo
PHOTO: An aerial view of the Pentagon building in


Human analysis is ‘vital’

While some inside the intelligence agency feel these
changes are inevitable and will help move NGA into the 21st
century, the restructuring is troubling some of its employees,
particularly its veteran imagery analysts, who are worried
their jobs are at risk and are seeking positions in other
government agencies or considering early retirement.

Those inside the agency are also concerned that
artificial intelligence is not yet advanced enough to truly
replace most aspects of human analysis.

Even with
advanced technology, “

imagery analysis is so vital
for all these hard targets we follow,” the former intelligence
official said.

Some of those hard targets might include North Korea and
Iran, where imagery analysts are critical to identifying
nuclear sites, for example. NGA is one of the biggest
contributors of intelligence on North Korea and places a
premium on providing detailed insight into the country.

NGA’s plan is already sending shock waves throughout the
intelligence community, with concerns that traditional imagery
analysis is at risk of disappearing


ccording to the former intelligence official. The
CIA’s Directorate of Analysis is working to replace some of the
imagery analysis capabilities it fears might be lost under the
reorganization, and it is assembling teams to focus on Russia
and Iran, the former official said.

The CIA declined to comment.

Cardillo has in the past publicly
 for moving toward artificial
intelligence, i
ncluding plans to replace three quarters
of analysts’ tasks with computers. Cardillo is “all in on
[artificial intelligence],” a second source, who does business
with NGA, told FP, while expressing doubt that the
technology is really at the level it needs to be to stand in
for trained human professionals.

Cardillo doesn’t deny the emphasis on advanced technology
but tells FP he “doesn’t like the term ‘artificial
intelligence'” and instead prefers “computer learning and
computer vision.”

“The fundamentals of our job are to take images of the
planet from all sources, some government and some commercial,
and create an understanding of man-made activity around the
globe,” he said. “I’m optimistic about the advances in machine
learning on that part” to track, for example, “a ship in a
port, a plane on a runway.”

‘AI is not able to replace analysts’

artificial intelligence
humanoid robot AILA (artificial intelligence lightweight
android) operates a switchboard during a demonstration by the
German research centre for artificial intelligence at the CeBit
computer fair in Hanover March, 5, 2013.

REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Artificial intelligence is booming, attracting talented
scientists and researchers around the globe. China has invested
billions in developing infrastructure to take advantage of
breakthroughs in the field.

However, the technology remains rudimentary in many
respects, particularly in imagery analysis. “Imagery analysis
is a skill set — you have to be taught,” another former
intelligence analyst told FP. “AI is not able to replace
analysts in this sense, or any other. The capability is not

In the commercial sector, for example, Google

was infamously called out

for labeling African-Americans as gorillas via its image
recognition software, and the stakes are much higher in the
intelligence world for such errors.

“We’re well aware of the impact of us making a mistake:
It’s putting troops in danger,” Cardillo said. “We invest
heavily … on testing and evaluation.” If the United States
needs to “employ kinetic force somewhere … no target is struck
until a human analyst affirms that what was automated was
correct. We are not turning over that kind of decision to

Artificial intelligence is improving over time in pattern
recognition and statistical analysis, said Todd Hughes, the
chief technology officer at Next Century Corporation. “This
occurs by giving a system a set of examples or class of objects
that makes intuitive sense to an end user … like
faces, vehicles, weapons, trees, or what have you,” he told FP
in an interview. “It’s actually not that sophisticated.”

Hughes, who previously worked as a program manager at the
Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where he
focused on research into automating imagery analysis, said
machines could be well suited to rote tasks such as scanning
endless numbers of pictures for specific objects. “Humans are
actually not that great at it. Humans have limitations of
attention and fatigue much more quickly than you would think,”
he said. “Machines can go on forever.”

Machines might provide “tools that will help [analysts]
do their jobs more efficiently,” Hughes said, but they wouldn’t
be taking the place of humans working in the intelligence
agencies anytime soon. “To think that there’s going to be some
wholesale replacement … is roughly overstating it,” he

Regardless, for employees at the agency who believe their
jobs are being taken by machines, the concerns about the
reorganization are real. “Morale is very low,” said the source
who does business with NGA.

Cardillo, however, said attrition rates from NGA are
within historical rates. But he acknowledges he could lose
analysts, particularly to private industry, where salaries are

Looking into the future, Cardillo acknowledged the limits
of using computing to replace humans, but he said it’s a matter
of knowing where machine learning can be applied.

“Computers are very good at identifying what is in an
image, but not good at identifying what’s not in an image,” he
said. “To those who say this isn’t working, or we aren’t making
progress, I think we are.”

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