DAF-MIT AI Accelerator Phantom Fellowship Program Integrates Enlisted Expertise

By Samantha Mathison, DAF-MIT AIA Stringer

The Department of the Air Force-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Accelerator (DAF-MIT AIA) integrated the first group of enlisted experts into the Phantom Fellowship Program in October 2021. The next round of DAF-MIT AI Accelerator Phantoms will start May 2022.

The Phantom Fellowship is a four-month program open to active duty air and space force professionals, specifically program managers, contracting officers, public affairs (officers and enlisted), and enlisted personnel. The Phantom Fellowship Program seeks to provide the AI Accelerator with acquisition, public affairs, and enlisted operator expertise while simultaneously offering the service members the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of AI—and a one-of-a-kind career-broadening experience.

Col. Tucker Hamilton, DAF Director of the DAF-MIT AI Accelerator, said that the key to unlocking the benefits of machine learning is through empowering the entire force to engage with the technology and, in particular, tap into the technical acumen, energy, and passion enlisted members bring to the emerging technological ecosystem.

“It’s so rewarding to see our enlisted Phantoms, especially the A1C, immerse themselves with the team and provide valuable contributions,” Hamilton said. “They’ve taught me we should never confuse rank with expertise. The Phantom Fellowship is a catalyst for the entire force to accelerate the implementation of machine learning into the Department of the Air Force, regardless of rank.”

Until now, Phantoms only included acquisition experts from the officer ranks, but this iteration introduced two enlisted AF professionals; Master Sgt. Jesse High, 34th Intelligence Squadron VISTA operations military lead, and Airman First Class Dhruv Gupta, 35th Intelligence Squadron analytic developer.

Both Airmen were chosen from 80 applicants.

High serves as a subject matter expert in foreign language processing and education and brings experience in human language technology. He said he has a background in linguistics, computers, and foreign languages, with some knowledge of software development and acquisition.

“I decided to apply for this fellowship because of the opportunity to obtain deeper technical understanding and hands-on experience with AI development and operationalization, and to apply my somewhat unusual combination of skills to a critical need in the Department of the Air Force,” High said. “This is cutting-edge research, and despite already working on an amazing team, the opportunity to work with leaders in this field within the Accelerator, Lincoln Labs and MIT itself was an opportunity I couldn’t let pass without throwing my name in the hat.”

Prior to becoming a Phantom, High began work on leading a Small Business Innovation Research software development project that created a video game for foreign language acquisition and sustainment, which employs several forms of artificial intelligence.

According to High, the Mage Duel Serious Game SBIR is currently in phase two development with plans to implement it at the Defense Language Institute as part of the 517th Training Group’s Linguist Next program in February 2022.

High said that after years working nights and weekends as an innovator, he is now able to focus on learning exactly what he needs to succeed in operationalizing AI research, while working alongside brilliant Airmen, researchers, stakeholders, and partners across the Air Force.

“From adapting AI to bolster existing tools and injecting world-class education resources into training pipelines to helping leaders understand what makes an optimal problem set for an AI solution, I feel empowered to use my talents and experience to make enterprise-wide impacts in a rare way that gets to the heart of what talent management can look like,” he said. “To be able to do so as an enlisted member is the icing on the cake and speaks to evolutionary steps underway to capitalize on the potential of our enlisted corps in this field.”

Gupta, the other enlisted Phantom, is offering his enlisted expertise as a subject matter expert in data manipulation and software development. He said that this is a chance to help make fundamental advances across the disparate fields of AI.

“We are helping to reduce the barriers of the everyday use of artificial intelligence technologies across the DOD, in line with the American AI initiative,” Gupta said. “The next generation of AI users need to be capable of protecting the United States’ economic and national security interests against strategic competitors and foreign adversaries.”

In addition to opening to enlisted members, the program is also welcoming applications from Space Force professionals. For instance, U.S. Space Force Guardian Lt. Col. Dan Kimmich, who normally works in Cross Mission Ground and Communications Enterprise, Space Systems Command, as a material leader in cross mission data, applied and was accepted into the Phantom Program in September of this year.

According to Kimmich, there are currently 13 active projects within the AIA, encompassing a wide variety of AI fields, that aim to address broader societal and ethical issues related to the use of AI technologies.

“Members of the program work closely with AIA project leads to offer operational perspectives, but each member has their niche of expertise,” Kimmich said. “The officer Phantoms focus mostly on acquisition, management and technology transition of the AIA projects, while the enlisted are the technical experts.”

“Officer Phantoms are consultants who are versed in project management, contract strategies, and funding opportunities,” he said.

“Furthermore, we have contacts in the operational Air Force based on our background and expertise who could serve as transition partners for the AIA projects,” he said. “Therefore, we offer connections and possible strategies for how to transition the projects in development to the broader Department of Defense enterprise.”

USAF 1st Lt. Ryan Holte, who normally works in the Space Systems Command Chief Information Office and S6 as a program manager, is a Phantom currently serving as a project manager for multiple AIA projects.

“At the same time,” Holte said,” he is working with other Phantoms to make AI easier and more efficient to acquire for Airmen by developing DAF and DOD processes and policies.”

“Because of this, the Phantom Fellowship is highly competitive to get into,” he said. “The baseline requirements to become a Phantom requires a history of strong performance, while experience in AI, coding and data is highly desirable.”

“As a Phantom, we have been able to work with the foremost minds in academia on cutting-edge AI and machine learning research and development for common good and national security use cases,” Holte said. “The Phantom Program and broader AI Accelerator [experience] enable Airmen and Guardians to learn, take charge and make substantive technological, procedural, and regulatory change on an unprecedented timeline.”

“Air Force Specialty Code doesn’t matter and applications from program managers and contracting officers are accepted,” he said. “Any rank between E-3 to E-7 and O-1 to O-5 is considered.”

Please use the following links for more information on the DAF-MIT AI Accelerator and the Phantom Fellowship Program: