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MIT and US Air Force team up to launch AI accelerator

The Pentagon is one of the largest technology customers in the world, purchasing everything from F-35 planes (roughly $90 million each) to cloud services (the JEDI contract was $10 billion). Despite outlaying hundreds of billions of dollars for acquisitions though, the Defense Department has struggled to push nascent technologies from startups through its punishing procurement process.

The department launched the Defense Innovation Unit a few years back as a way to connect startups into the defense world. Now, the military has decided to work even earlier to ensure that the next generation of startups can equip the military with the latest technology.

Cambridge, Mass.-based MIT and the U.S. Air Force announced today they are teaming up to launch a new accelerator focused on artificial intelligence applications, with the Air Force committed to investing $15 million into roughly 10 MIT research projects per year. The accelerator will be called the MIT-Air Force AI Accelerator (clearly, the Pentagon hasn’t gotten better at naming things).

The accelerator will be housed on campus at MIT’s new computing college, which received a $1 billion commitment last year, including $350 million from Stephen A. Schwarzman. The college is expected to officially launch later this fall.

This will not be the Air Force’s first foray into accelerators. The service also built out an accelerator with Techstars that is directly targeted at solving the Air Force’s problems. It’s not yet clear whether the Techstars accelerator, which is also based in Boston, is being merged into the MIT accelerator or will remain a separate entity.

While MIT has had close relationships with the military going back decades, concerns have increased among some technologists about working on frontier tech like artificial intelligence and drones within a military context, especially an offensive military context. Last year, employees at Google blocked the tech giant from signing a cloud agreement with the Pentagon related to Project Maven, which would have applied AI and “algorithms” to battlefield applications.

In the announcement for this accelerator, MIT said that, “In addition to disaster relief and medical readiness, other possible research areas may include data management, maintenance and logistics, vehicle safety, and cyber resiliency.” It also highlighted that it hoped the projects entering the accelerator would be “addressing challenges that are important to both the Air Force and society more broadly.” Whether there are any limits on the types of projects that will be allowed on campus is not clear.

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