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Military Seeks Tech Talent In New Ways


The U.S. military needs more tech brainpower. But many techies, entrepreneurs and academics aren't interested in military life. So the Pentagon is going where they are, trying new ways to harness their skills. Jay Price reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Nine Duke University students are on a field trip to a Green Beret compound on Fort Bragg.

CHANDLER: One final thing - I debated whether or not I wanted you guys to do this because it's pretty brutal.



CHANDLER: A nose hose.

PRICE: For the day, their professor is a special operations medic named Chandler, his gear still dusty from a recent deployment in Africa. The class is getting a whirlwind immersion in the job of combat medic, including how to keep breathing passages open. Matt Hawkins, a 24-year-old graduate student in mechanical engineering, gamely volunteers to have a stiff-looking hose shoved into his nose - way into his nose.

CHANDLER: So bevel towards the septum - so you take the nostril.


MATT HAWKINS: Oh, that kind of hurts.

CHANDLER: Now, we'll go to the other side. It doesn't work on one side...


PRICE: It's the first semester of a course called Hacking For Defense and a tiny part of the potential solution to a daunting problem - how to keep the U.S. ahead in defense technology. The course tackles real-world problems like streamlining the gear that medics carry. Hawkins said that when he heard about the course, he was intrigued.

HAWKINS: I saw a lot of opportunity, largely because the problems weren't defined yet. All you knew was that you'd be getting put in a small team. You would be trying to, you know, get an idea started that you could eventually maybe even start a company out of. And that was really attractive.

PRICE: Members of his family, who he deeply respects, are veterans. And in another era, Hawkins, a three-sport athlete in high school, might have joined up. But while he's so keenly interested in helping the military that he cheerfully volunteered for that tube up the nose, he figures actually enlisting isn't a good fit.

HAWKINS: The problems that I want to tackle are a little bit broader than what I believe I could do as a serviceman. And I think not going through the military would give me a lot more flexibility in terms of my use of time.

PRICE: Making him exactly the kind the Pentagon needs to reach. The class is led by Tommy Sowers. He's a former Special Forces team leader turned tech startup guy turned kind of solutions ambassador between the military and civilian worlds.

TOMMY SOWERS: It's clear that, for our nation to continue to succeed, we can't just tap in to the 1 percent of folks that are serving. So our organization is trying to create new pathways for those in universities, those in the venture tech world to serve their country doing what they do best and helping us adopt the best technology that's out there.

PRICE: His program is called MD5. It's operating in seven tech-centric regions and several universities. And it's about to add dozens more. It's just one of several Pentagon initiatives aimed at harnessing civilian brainpower.

PETER SINGER: There is a whole host of these similar kind of programs out there. They're all over the place, whether it's the creation of Pentagon offices in Silicon Valley, Austin, Boston. Basically, the Pentagon pushed out a series of what you might think of as embassies almost into the tech community.

PRICE: Peter Singer at the think tank New America says there are two key reasons for the new programs. One is the nature of what the military needs.

SINGER: The technologies themselves, whether it's AI or robotics, are not inherently military. And the Pentagon is finding that the civilian market is the one that's doing the cutting-edge work. And, therefore, they need to reach across to it in better ways.

PRICE: And the second reason for all these military ambassadors to the civilian capitals of innovation...

SINGER: China, China, China, China.

PRICE: Singer says China is the kind of military and technological competitor that the U.S. hasn't faced in decades. The U.S. political system is different. And it isn't likely to force a national effort to make advances in, say, artificial intelligence. But the Pentagon can counter by reaching out to the private sector. Singer says it could take a couple of decades before we know whether that's enough. Hawkins, the young engineering student, thinks it could work.

HAWKINS: These problems - they require creative solutions. And I think trying to outsource them to the people who live in a society where creativity's encouraged and then giving a little bit of financial incentive to that - I think that's a really healthy model for progressing forward.

PRICE: And it's a model that reached him, which is a start. For NPR News, this is Jay Price in Durham, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.