On this episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Christopher Kirchhoff, a former partner at DIUx, the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley office, talks about how the Defense Department is trying to be smarter about technology.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kara Swisher: I’m Kara Swisher, executive editor of Recode. You may know me as the general in charge of the Militia Etherege, but in my spare time, I talk tech, and you’re listening to Recode Decode, a podcast about tech and media’s key players, big ideas and how they’re changing the world we live in.
Today in the red chair is Chris Kirchhoff, a former partner at the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley office DIUx, which stands for Defense Innovation Unit Experimental. What a name. It funds private companies in exchange for commercial products that can solve national defense problems. He’s also a visiting technologist at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. Chris, welcome to Recode Decode.
Chris Kirchhoff: Thank you.
When I met you, you were working for Ash Carter. Is that correct?
Explain this DIUx because I think it’s really interesting. The CIA has an innovation unit here, all kinds of government agencies do, but Ash was a real technophile.
You have to give him credit for his vision. Back in ...
He’s defense secretary under President Obama.
He was, but in 2001, he was merely Professor Ash Carter at the Kennedy School of Government, and he wrote an article that said the rate at which commercial R&D is growing is quickly going to surpass what the federal government, the Defense Department, spends on R&D. And so, less than a generation from now, the Defense Department is going to have a real problem. It’s going to be out of touch unless it pivots to private R&D.
He wrote that article in 2001. Of course, fast-forward, and 2015 he becomes secretary of defense and one of his first initiatives is essentially making that pivot happen. So that’s where myself and three other partners get launched out here to Silicon Valley.
So explain how you got here, because we had Ash on the show when he was defense secretary. It was a great show. And he had some really interesting stances on a lot of things. Encryption, he parted ways with President Obama on that issue, all kinds of issues.
But what ... how did you get to do that? And talk a little bit more about the background of getting it out ... hadn’t been out here, which has been that defense has been very involved with tech but in a different way.
This is peculiar history where Silicon Valley and the Pentagon have been tied together in lots of ways for a very long time.
Yeah. The internet, for example.
Right. Going back to Stanford in the ’60s, actually, there is this incredible deep history out here of federal funded innovation that has really helped commercial firms flourish. But that, interestingly enough, has died out a bit. There’s definitely been a gap, particularly in the last 15 years, a gap that we were in part designed to fill.
What was your background?
Yes, I was minding my own business working as a national security aide in Washington. I was going to Security Council at the time and I had known Ash.
That’s not a small thing.
What were you doing there?
I was the director of strategic planning. So I was in charge of the office at the NSC that is supposed to look into the future and worry about what you can afford next.
Okay. How did you get the skills to acquire to do that job?
Crystal balls. No, I studied technology policy in college and then I got my PhD and then started off in Washington and national security. It turns out there’s a whole lot of technology challenges in national security. I ended up working quite extensively for all the years of the Obama administration on different tech issues.
Through that I had a chance to work for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and worked very closely with Ash Carter before he became secretary, and as a result, when Ash thought about forming this office, he realized that he would need a combination of people to help run it, that the office has to of course know Silicon Valley, you would need to know Washington and the military. That’s an awful lot to ask of one person. So he decided to create a partnership through me and together with three other people with very different skills. I was sort of the Washington guy sent out.
This is actually a problem, because at the time I had five suits and one pair of jeans, so I had to go buy a bunch of jeans. But I moved out here a couple of years ago.
So, what was your charge? You had studied just tech policy. What were the challenges you were looking at at the National Security Council? Give examples for us.
This is intelligence on our challenges we face for the government.
The National Security Council is a fascinating place to work, first of all, but 90 percent of the folks there are worried about what’s on fire today or what’s gonna be on fire tomorrow. That of course is appropriate and necessary. So knowing that they decided to create a small office that was trying to figure out what would be on fire five years from now, that office has kept on going. In fact, the person who took my desk, believe it or not, was the one who wrote the deep state banker memo and then got fired.
Yeah, thanks for that.
So now I know my ...
Was there a deep state?
Did you find one in the drawer?
I actually I got a deep state sweatshirt made.
And I was wearing it out here in Silicon Valley.
Who thinks of these things? Anyway, so you were there at the NSC ... and what were you doing? What were you looking at? Like, what’s going on, whatever crisis had happened at that time?
Yes, I was looking actually at a technology ... Tech is throwing national security a huge curveball right now because you have all the scary things that we all know about — missiles and nuclear technology from other nations — but then you have other kinds of commercial technology coming online.
So you have really cheap microelectronics, those microelectronic power drones. People can put grenades on drones. There’s all kinds of examples of emerging technology primarily coming out of the startup world, coming from Silicon Valley, in essence. Now, there’s a huge opportunity to a lot of this technology from a national homeland security standpoint, but there’s also a huge risk.
So we looked quite a bit at that topic.
Okay, what about the Russian involvement in the elections? Was that something you all weren’t paying attention to?
You know, one of the people who was supposed to speak at my White House farewell in August of 2016, couldn’t make it because she had to go to a very important meeting, which I later find out it was on that topic.
On that topic. Right.
So there were definitely a small number of people that were working on that.
So, you were there at the NSC and then you were dragged out here, essentially.
No, it was fantastic. I threw my golden retriever in the back of the car, drove over the Potomac, threw my BlackBerry out the window and came out to the land of, you know ...
You do have BlackBerrys still there? Only place that still has Blackberrys, Washington, D.C.
What was your idea to come out here? Because again, a lot of agencies have representation here in Silicon Valley and opened up offices.
They do. I mean, it’s pretty small, though, to be honest with you. So In-Q-Tel is a strategic investment firm that you referenced earlier that works for the intelligence community. Then you have a couple of other representatives running around, but the playing field is really pretty open. There’s not too many people here that ingest a lot of technology and get it working in the federal government. We wanted to come out here, actually spend money, actually buy technology, pilot it, and then if it worked, use it at scale in the department.
Right, and back in the department, DARPA is doing that too, correct?
Yes. DARPA is one of the neatest parts of the federal government. It was a privilege to ...
The D ... Defense, what is it?
Advanced Research Projects Agency, we have to have acronyms. We’re DIUx and they’re DARPA.
DARPA has a very unique mission, which is to do really risky moonshot-style R&D. So if they’re trying it ...
Like Mach 10 planes and things like that.
Right. It probably won’t work, but if it works it’ll be amazing. So they invented little things like the internet and the Stealth and all the sensors that made precision warfare work. That’s DARPA.
DIUx had a very different mission, which is to say there are some awesome off-the-shelf technologies being produced today, whether it’s a cybersecurity software suite, whether it’s a robotic ship, whether it’s a drone, whether it’s a new kind of data from commercial satellite, and you can use that today. You don’t have to do anything further to develop it. So our office had a very distinct mission from DARPA, which is to buy technology that’s available right away.
And when you talk about buy, what was that? How much money did you have to do this?
Well, I’m proud to announce that the office has just crossed the billion dollar mark in just under two years of making investments in tech.
This is already making investments, a billion dollars in investments.
Right. This is not making investments in the Silicon Valley venture capital way of buying equity, this is actually buying technology from companies, piloting it. And then there’s a really neat superpower the office has that Congress gave the department, which said if you do a technology pilot and you buy it a certain way you can immediately — and it works — you can immediately allow anyone in the department to buy that technology and scale them.
Without having to go through ...
Without having to re-compete. Which is like ... this is like the Holy Grail of federal acquisition and we’re privileged to be able to use them.
Give me examples of what ... you get out here and what are you ... how do you introduce yourself? Again, Silicon Valley doesn’t do a lot of business. It does defense business but not as much as you might imagine.
Yeah, no. I mean, it doesn’t do business with the government really at all.
There’s always people around, the Beltway Bandits.
And for good reason. So, if you’re a startup, your business plan says there’s a thing called ...
Your drone startups.
Right. There’s a $25 trillion dollar consumer technology market and my tech is going to sell great there. If you go to an investor and you say there’s this teeny federal market, they have to file a lot of paperwork to get into and they don’t tell you for 18 months if you’re in or not. We want to focus on that, you know you don’t get funded.
So we knew that if we came out here with the regular tools the government uses to buy technology, we’d fail. We knew we had to find a different set of tools and we did. And because of those new tools, we can get a contract in about 30 days from start to finish, rather than 18 months.
Right. So, give me an example of once ... you get out here and how do you introduce yourself? And then I wanna know what you invested.
Yeah, no. “I’m from the government, I’m here to help.”
“I’m here to buy your technology.” It feels like an episode that David Duchovny should be in. But what was ... you kind of look like David Duchovny ... anyway, how do you approach this world? Because it’s done in a very different way here.
Yeah, we were lucky to partner with a number of folks that are of the Valley and have a network of relationships here and have run startups and then CEOs at tech companies and have been executives and know their way around far better than I do. So we were able to use them to help us navigate the rollout here. We did that by first coming up with a particular challenge that we wanted to work on, somebody in the military would bring us a hard problem and they were doing it with an actual real-life mission that they figured commercial tech might be able to help with.
Give me an example.
Okay, so maritime surveillance. Right now, it’s really expensive to take airplanes and fly them with sensors looking, for instance, for boats carrying drugs. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, instead of flying 737s with military gear on them, we could take low-cost drones put the same surveillance packages on them, either on the surface of the ocean or in the air, and perform the same mission for much lower costs?
The group that brought that particular problem to us then caused us to go and do some market research to ask the question among the folks in the venture capital community and technologists we know. “Does anybody have tech that might be relevant to this problem? If so, put us in touch.” And then we ran a competition and we had an open bidding competition that anybody could enter. We found some firms had great tech. We were able to move forward in that particular case with the tech pilot.
So they can then sell that directly to the government.
Right, and there’s some additional benefits. I mean obviously the Department of Defense market is not a small one. So, particularly for a startup, there’s real opportunity there, but we provide some additional benefits too, that has been important for startups. We have things like test ranges that are really easy to get on. So if you’re a flying car company — and we work with a couple of those — we can get you on ...
Get the flying cars, but go ahead.
You’re welcome in our test ranges in a hurry. That’s a great asset the department has.
Similarly, we can get your user feedback really quick. So it was a great example of one of the technologies that we deployed to Afghanistan with some troops, they were able to get the engineers some real criticism about what wasn’t working, which caused three iterations and the tech that made it much better that allowed the company ...
What was the tech?
The tech actually was an amazing communications device. It was a mouthpiece, made by a company called Sonitus, and it allowed hands-free two-way communication using a bone conduction technology.
Near your ear.
Pretty wild. It vibrates your jawbone in such a way that causes the eardrum to vibrate. So imagine you’re on a patrol in Afghanistan or jumping off an airplane or a helicopter. There’s lots of noise. You’re having to grab a walkie-talkie or grab a microphone, which is not great because — or put headphones on to hear — because you’re wanting to keep track of your area, what’s going on around you. So this technology is just a little retainer-like thing that you clip onto your teeth, it proved to be really useful to troops on patrol.
Did they buy them then?
They did, actually.
So let’s get into the procurement issue because ... and then we can get to more of the things the defense department needs going forward. The procurement is they design things very specifically. We always get story after story about that, that they design a toilet in a way ... when there’s a commercial toilet industry that’s fantastic. They’ve designed in a certain way, they need to have it. It creates enormous costs. It’s out-of-control costs and all these Beltway Bandits take advantage of the situation and know how to work the system. And then there’s all the people that are revolving doors and military people into military contractors, blah, blah, blah. Because they buy everything, the military buy’s everything.
I know that’s certainly true.
But that comes from a particular history, right, which is if you’re going to, if you’re going to buy a nuclear submarine you can’t exactly go on Amazon.com and find 45 vendors.
No, not today. Maybe tomorrow.
But they get it there faster.
They sure would. The result of that is the government system — particularly the defense acquisition rules — are set up to deal with companies where there’s often only one vendor. So that raises the question of how do you get a fair price for the taxpayer.
And the way that you get a fair price is your list out 45 pages of specifications for the toilet seat, and you say you must meet them in a certain cost, and that’s how we know we’re getting a fair deal for the taxpayer.
That works okay for a nuclear submarine. It doesn’t work as well for gear that’s much more commercially available. That’s where the problem exists, because we don’t need a drone company selling drones on Amazon.com today that could be used in military mission to fill out 65 pages of technical specifications where their drones should be.
How did you push back within the administration ... the way that defense firms set up for that? Because you’ve got all these people. How do you create that situation? What’s the impetus for doing it?
Well, we got really lucky because in our corner we had Ash Carter, Secretary Ash Carter, who really believed in this mission and said, “I want you to find a way to do this, and if anybody tells you you can’t do it, you bring it to me.”
So we did the first thing you always do in these situations. We took a lot of lawyers to lunch and we discovered a very obscure provision of law, called other transaction authorities, that actually had to do this for advanced technology.
You get to work outside the federal acquisition rules quickly, you could just sit down with companies, you get to share information. It had everything we were looking for. Shockingly, very few people in the department were using it. Why? Well, it was obscure, not too many of the contracting officers or lawyers were trained in it. But after taking enough lawyers to lunch, we found a couple that were willing to work with us and agree that this would be a perfect fit.
What you were doing.
And we, as a result, became one of the first groups to use it widely and to use that special provision I referred to earlier, which allows you to go from pilot to production contract without re-competing.
When we get back we’re talking to Chris Kirchhoff. He was a former partner at the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley office DIUx, which stands for Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, it’s been funding private companies to the tune of a billion dollars in exchange for commercial products that can solve the national defense problems. When we get back we’re going to talk more with Chris about what those problems are and what are some of the things that he got done when he was there.
We’re here with Chris Kirchhoff, a former partner at the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley office DIUx, which stands for Defense Innovation Unit Experimental. It has funded private companies in exchange for commercial products that solve national defense problems. He’s now a visiting technologist at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.
Chris, talk a little bit about what ... some of the things you were looking for when you got here. You mentioned a few, that problem in Afghanistan with an earpiece, essentially. Name some other things that you guys invested in, and how did you ... how did you find ... you did searches for them, all kinds of research to find them. Who did you focus on? The big companies? The Googles? Or did you go to the smaller startups in what you were looking for?
Yes, we actually started first by talking to different units in the military and asking them, “Hey, what’s your hardest problem these days? Is there something you think we could do to potentially help?”
And we went from there to doing market research and asking the question, “Is there tech somewhere out in the tech world that might be relevant?”
The big surprise, I think, is showing up in Silicon Valley you’d expect cybersecurity software, software in general, to be a huge part of your portfolio. But actually it turns out most of our deals, many more than software, has gone towards hardware, which I think reflects a huge shift in the Valley here towards hardware itself that was a real surprise.
So a couple examples of projects we’re really proud of. One actually, funny story. Eric Schmidt is the chairman of the Defense Innovation Board.
Yes, he is.
Took his band of innovators around the world.
Is he still that?
He is, yup.
Explain the Defense Innovation Board. We don’t need to explain Eric Schmidt.
Right, so the Defense Innovation Board is a group of folks from outside the department, each of whom have really deep expertise in an area of tech, and they travel together essentially as a bunch of consultants who visit different commands around the world and look at what they’re doing and then make suggestions for maybe how they could be doing things better.
And so the story here is I think representative of the kind of insights they’re able to have. They toured the air operation center in Qatar. So this is the war room, if you will, that’s prosecuting in the air war.
We have most of our forward bases are — correct? — in Qatar.
It’s in the news lately, recently.
Yes. So if you’re trying to prosecute an airstrike in Iraq, in Syria, this is the operation center that does that.
Eric noticed there are these three or four captains doodling on a giant white board and they were ... they had all these numbers and symbols and he said, “Well, what on earth are you doing?” They said, “Oh, we’re planning tanker routes. It’s one of the hardest things to do is to get enough refueling tankers in the right orbit so that they can link up right with aircraft to refuel them as we’re getting ready to do airstrikes.”
Eric said, “Well, there’s a thing called software. Why are you still doing this manually?” And they said, “Oh, well we actually have software that does it but it’s awful, it doesn’t really work. So the three of us just take 60 man hours every day to do this. And it’s a real pain because if one thing changes that we’ve got to go do it all over again.”
The math. It’s like they’re in “Hidden Figures.”
Right. So Eric shook his head and said ...
Recalculate those Moon trajectories.
And then he turned to DIUx and said, “All right, you guys fix this.” So we did. We sent some of our Air Force guys forward with iMacs. They set up shop. They actually knew how to code. In less than really three months they built a prototype app that allowed the same programming to occur automatically in seconds.
Who had built their first one?
A defense contractor had built their first one and there was a refresh scheduled and we met them, they said, “Don’t worry. The refresh is being worked on now. The initial version should come in 2020, 2021.” We were of course astonished at the length it time ...
Timing, and of course we are.
Well ... we were proud anyway to send a very small number of folks forward, and in just under $2 million.
The fact that they messed up Obamacare just makes ... I had an argument about Obamacare with someone and they were like, I said, “Well, you know Tinder makes all these matches, it’s all matching, it was all you had to do was matching, Tinder makes all these matches every day, millions and millions of matches.” And they said, “Are you comparing Obamacare to Tinder?” And I said, “No, Tinder works.”
At the time it was funny, but it was ... the expenses were enormously different between what government was charged in terms of software and what you could get almost off the shelf. There’s no shelf to get it off anymore, in fact. You know what I mean? It was a shocking inability to just use software on the fly.
But this is a great way that Eric and the innovation wars were able to contribute, but they know other ways of doing things.
And the process can not only make the U.S. military more effective, but save millions even billions of taxpayer money.
What I find shocking is that they haven’t updated this. That’s the part I don’t get, when businesses have ... when consumers have ... But, anyway that’s another rant I can make later.
So can you ... you had the defense, the board, that Eric was on. Right?
And then what you did was you would go around and do this all around the world?
Right. We work closely with the Innovation Board. Ash Carter also founded, there’s something called the Defense Digital Service, which is a bunch of programmers that work on IT issues.
Special ones, and every agency had those. They were moving those into every agency.
Well, that was the ambition at the end of the Obama administration, but as we know, science and technology in the current administration is a bit more challenged.
They aren’t there. It’s okay, you can say it, there’s nobody working there. But that was the goal is to put people in each agency to redo their IT.
And that actually brings up one of the bigger lessons that I’ve always taken away from my time both in government and out here, which is there is such extraordinary talent out here and there is no way we are going to get them to apply for a civil service job.
Right, and so we need to find some kind of way to get folks out here that are ready to take a year or two of public service and kind of like the Peace Corps, send them in.
Yeah, that’s what they’re trying to do. I was just with Chris Madell in Washington.
But let’s get back to the things you guys did. What else did ... A billion dollars is a lot of money. That’s a pretty fair-sized VC fund, for example. What other things did you do?
Yeah, so we did a couple projects with flying cars, which I think really will be ...
Explain that please.
The future of, yeah, military transportation. So right now we use helicopters to get around the world. An aircraft investigator once described to me, a helicopter is a million parts flying closely in formation.
That sounds great.
Wouldn’t it be great to move to an electric-powered vehicle with the same range that has one moving part, is silent. So we’re experimenting with different ways to deliver those troops ...
Explain flying car. How do you conceive of it? Because I know Larry Page is working, a lot of people are working on flying cars. What does that mean?
Yes, I think there’s ... personal air vehicles are of course, as people around here say, an industry of the future, that’s certainly true. So our question ...
VL ... vertical lift and take off.
Our question is how can we use this prototype technology to do military missions better? And it turns out there’s enormous opportunity both for delivering troops and special forces into denied areas. There’s also great possibilities for resupply, all of which right now are being carried out through much ...
Right. Explain how it flies, if you’re talking about a flying car, how it’s different than a helicopter.
Yeah. Well, it’s a large drone, essentially, and because it’s electrically operated you have far fewer number of parts than you do in internal combustion engines, so your rate of engine failure is much lower. It’s fully autonomous. The range, actually, is pretty impressive on certain companies’ prototypes.
So what you have is actually something that’s very close to being operational, something that we can almost ...
Just like a Tesla of the sky.
And does it look like a helicopter? Does it look like a ...
It looks like something out of a “Batman” movie.
Right. Which one? I mean, it has four copter ... they have a propeller, correct?
Yeah, there’s a few different designs. But yeah, they all look like a cross between something out of a “Batman” movie and “The Jetsons.”
Okay, and so you would fly those ... fly these cars — and they’re not hovercrafts because that’s a whole different area of ... people aren’t looking at that?
They can hover, right, which is useful for resupply. But yeah, they can do all kinds of things. So, it was our mission to ask the question if, gosh, you could potentially use these. And how ought we be planning to use this future technology?
Well, everyone put up their hand for that one, right? Like regular people want a flying car. Or everybody wants a flying car, presumably.
That’s true, but it’s much more likely that the military will start experimenting with them first.
Right. First. So, they would do them in missions, in resupply, in night missions, anywhere a helicopter goes, correct? Right now.
Right. Then it would not have to do a lot of maintenance and difficulty.
And you can do things, too, like to segregate a squad. Right now, we’ve put a lot of people typically in one or two helicopters. That’s not great for all kinds of obvious reasons, so wouldn’t it be nice to have 10 or 12 aerial vehicles carrying the same number of people that will not be nearly as vulnerable.
And easier to move, less dangerous to crash and things like that. All right. So how much money do you put into it that, and who’s making those?
Well, the same companies that you probably know about are making them, and this is again an example where the Department of Defense can actually play a role helping these companies on their commercial path.
It’s where they want them, right.
First of all, we have a small amount of money to spend and many of these companies are so capitalized ... our money is peanuts, but we also have test ranges that they can go tomorrow and fly on.
Explain these test ranges. They have places where? In secret installations? Or where?
There are secret test ranges. Most of them are not, and a couple of them are actually very close to the Bay Area. So DIUx has set up a couple test ranges, one for flying cars, another actually for drones and anti-drone technology. Which is another real issue on the battlefield.
How can we stop a missle or other foreign adversaries from using drones to disrupt ...
Right. Grenades, or look at us. They can do almost anything, correct? Poison or dispersing ... and we could use the same, presumably. I’m sure we have.
Yeah. So drones is another one. What other things did you find?
A lot of ...
By the way, it was in a “Homeland” episode, they had a drone and then, all right, shot it down.
If only it all worked like “Homeland” or the movies.
Where Carrie saves everything.
I made some great investments in cybersecurity and cloud software, and some undersea and sea-surface technology.
Okay, explain the undersea.
Well, it turns out one of our great advantages militarily is our undersea technology. But at the same time there’s been a lot of progress made on the commercial front. Different kinds of submersibles and robots that can operate in new ways. So that’s another great example of startups out here that have developed a technology that is for a different purpose altogether, but actually it’s quite relevant for military missions.
So this is submersibles to spy ... that’s what submersibles are for? Presumably.
You can do that. You can conduct ocean surveillance. You can monitor temperature conditions, which are really important for other Navy missions. There’s a whole bunch of things you can do. Again, these are ... DIUx is after broad classes of technology that can be transformational in many ways.
Beyond the submarine.
Then give me one other. Outfits. Clothes. Exoskeletons.
Outfits. Yeah, sure. So we’re ... right. Wearables, it turns out, is another great place that there’s a heck of a lot of innovation going on right now on the commercial market.
Imagine you’re on an infantry squad and you have a mission that involves getting miles away in tough conditions. Dehydration is actually one of your biggest enemies. Imagine having a wearable sensor that would allow the squad leader to know when one of his or her soldiers was in danger of dehydration. Little things like that can make an enormous difference.
That’s a great idea, yeah. And what about exoskeletons and things like that? Were you involved in those?
We have not done any exoskeletons, but that again is another great example ...
Carrying and lifting.
They’re using them in factory lines now.
They certainly are. Which is a whole nother area of potential innovation, of what technology are we using in modern factories that could also be used in defense factories.
Right. Right. That are being used. Do you find the defense people very open to all this, what you are bringing to them? Or did they think there’s this weird group of guys out in Silicon Valley ...
Yeah, it was, to be honest, pretty mixed. The Defense Department is ...
Big. Really big, actually, and also very tradition bound for good reason, because it turns out that mistakes in war are costly and you remember them.
So we really did have, I think, a challenge to prove to people that commercial tech could actually be durable enough and good enough to perform — and in cases even outperform existing military technology.
Right. Then when you ... what would you say your most successful thing is? When we get back we’re going to talk about what the big challenges are going forward. But what would you think your most successful investment in your tenure was?
To be honest, I think it’s just showing that it can be done.
Right. You can have an innovative, nimble group.
Right, so taking six Air Force programmers and a couple iMacs and for under $2 million in literally eight weeks coming up with an app that revolutionized how the air war is fought. That caused a lot of folks across the Air Force to notice and ask the question, “Well gosh, I have this problem too. Could you send some of your guys my way?” Strangely enough, cultural change, I think, is going to be our biggest lever, if you will.
Right. And now what happened in the Trump ... do they even know you’re there? Did they know you were there? What was the ... what happened after Mattis, I guess?
Yes. Secretary Mattis was very kind with his time. He comes from a background of playing an incredibly transformational role in the Marine Corps so he gets transformation, and he came out last summer and spent a day and a half here in Silicon Valley. I think he’s very enthusiastic about our mission. Sees the logic, sees fit and wants to grow.
And continues to support it.
Continues to ... how many partners are here now?
So, we are a couple ... Those that started have just moved on and we’re in the process of putting a new leadership team in place.
And that will be the same amount of people doing these investments?
Roughly, and in the office we started with 12 and we’re now almost up to 70 or 75.
You’re located where? In your usual ...
Yeah, headquarters is down in Mountain View on Moffett Field. We have a office in Boston, teeny office in Austin, Texas, then a small office also in the Pentagon.
Great. We’re here with Chris Kirchhoff, who just left the Defense Department or I guess Innovation Lab almost, in Silicon Valley, DIUx, which stands for Defense Innovation Unit Experimental. Who came up with that, Chris? Anyway, when we get back, we’re going to talk about where things are going in defense and what will be happening in the near and far future.
We’re here with Christopher Kirchhoff. He’s a former partner at the Pentagon Silicon Valley Defense Office, DIUx, which stands for Defense Innovation Unit Experimental. How did you come up with that awful name? I like DIUx but the rest ...
I know. Well, first of all, we had to have an acronym because if we didn’t have an acronym they would not start the office.
We figured X was kind of cool, but I definitely wouldn’t turn to the Pentagon for some really ...
Yeah, how about Wakanda? So now you’re a visiting — I’m gonna get to Wakanda — visiting technologist at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. So let’s talk about where the challenges are that we face from a defense point of view going forward. I assume you look at, obviously — I’m joking about Wakanda, but I’m not — this idea of how we think about innovation, how we incorporate it into our defenses.
This doesn’t seem to be an administration that’s super interested in science and technology. That science and technology office is not staffed. It hasn’t been staffed. It was a new thing with President Obama, but the Office of Science and Technology has always been there for half a dozen administrations, I think. And it doesn’t ... I don’t think it has a head yet, does it? It doesn’t. No, it does not. Which is like frightening in a lot of ways. So can you talk about what our challenges are now in the near term without science advisers at the White House?
Yes. I was really impressed ...
I’m assuming the different agencies still are interested in science, some of them.
Yes. No, that’s certainly true. So the United States is in this peculiar predicament right. We’re 4 to 4.4 percent of the world’s population. We still command a quarter of global GDP. It’s why we have nice houses, nice big screen televisions, all that.
Our challenge going forward is our economic competitiveness. How on earth can we keep generating so much of the global economy with so few people? And if we’re going to be successful at this we’re going to have to make sure the leading part of our economy, the part of our economy that’s most dynamic, that tech sector really succeeds. The tech sector at the moment, if you haven’t noticed, is producing crazy, wild, disruptive technology and that technology will not be successful without the government clearing the road for it.
So what I worry about most now is whether that road can get cleared. Whether there are enough people out here in the tech sector talking to people in Washington about what needs to be done.
Which they’re not. Right. So talk about the areas. I mean, I’m assuming AI, robotics, automation, infrastructure, self-driving, all kinds of things like that.
Or is there more? I mean, cybersecurity.
No, it’s all these things and ...
Wouldn’t that be nice? These things are all important, and one of the greatest challenges is just with people, because the people that tend to know the most about these technologies are not employed in Washington. They’re employed far away. That creates a challenge to begin with. How on earth do we get the people that know the most about the technology talking to the people that are in charge of writing regulations?
So let’s start with that. There was a big push by the Obama administration to get techies to come for short amounts of time and they fixed Obamacare, they fixed a lot of things, they moved in and fixed things. Now they’re really having a hard time recruiting anybody, correct?
They are, and that’s something I worry about a lot. We did this big review in the White House that looked across radical merchant technology.
This is Obama’s ...
Right, and where would ... It just completely turned upside down the mission of certain federal agencies and departments. The Department of Treasury, for instance, it regulates money.
Something kind of important, and it also turns out is the biggest bank for the government. It clears a lot of payments for federal agencies. So blockchain is going to be something that completely changes the Department of Treasury’s mission. So we asked the question, “Well, how many people are there today in the Department of Treasury that have enough expertise to participate in a peer conversation about blockchain?”
I would say zero, probably.
That was the answer, actually, and it’s not a surprise because the Department of Treasury doesn’t have a DARPA. They haven’t been recruiting for PhD cryptographers. But, it turns out they need to.
Well, they’ve got a Goldman Sachs banker running it who has a kind of unusual manner — I think we can be kind, that’s a kind way of putting it — who doesn’t seem interested in that. Correct? I mean that’s ... is that where it comes from, the top in the Department of Treasury?
I think on the tech issues it has to come from the top because if you’re going to get people in the department you’re not through the usual means, right? Get them involved in the top of the policy conversations. You’re going to have to be the one that opens that door.
Right. And these are the departments, presumably, involved with regulating the blockchain. Which they won’t be able to regulate at some point because it’s unregulatable on some level of its being created by not them, or being monitored by not the government.
And you can just imagine if you were to walk across to each building in Washington and ask people there, “What do you do and how is it likely to change in the next five years based on what’s being invented in a garage somewhere?” Boy, there are some real challenges that we’re going to face going forward.
So Treasury, blockchain and what else? Let’s go through them. Blockchain ...
I think blockchain and other technologies are ...
And then cryptocurrency.
Right. That, of course, impacts the intelligence community’s mission. It also impacts, believe it or not, the development mission. Blockchain is going to revolutionize how a lot of development takes place, whether it’s land titles or new financial technologies to the developing world.
Similarly, the Department of State, there’s this thing called digital now that turns out it changes how we communicate. Almost every department or agency across the government is facing some real curveballs, and the curveballs are coming fast and most of them are not equipped with the kind of people or the kind offices ...
Explain what challenge the Department of State faces.
Well, the Department of Defense is lucky because it does have places like DARPA that are part of it. That attracts top commercial talent, that are the best of what they do, and they can ...
These are big challenges.
Right, they can look around the corner and say, “Hey boss, there’s this thing that you ought to know about called stealth technology.” Unfortunately, the Defense Department is one of a few parts of the government that has an advanced technology shop like that. And that’s because 30 years ago nobody thought advanced technology was relevant to, say, diplomacy, but it certainly is today. So I think we face a real transformational challenge of how do we re-engineer the State Department to have in it some technologists that can think about how diplomacy might be different going forward?
So how would you ... what would they need? What are the issues they need to focus on?
Right. So a lot of the State Department’s mission is reporting and communicating. That, of course, has completely changed. But a lot of the State Department’s mission also is American values. It turns out, our values are actually bound up quite a bit in our technology, and our technology is the kind of mobile phone operating systems that we create and the kind of internet we advocate for.
These are all deeply technological areas, and again ask the question, how many of your scientists are there today working at State?
The answer is small.
Small. And that’s everything ... I mean, they operate around the world, has to have some technological element.
There’s this funny story. I think there’s something like 140 foreign governments that have a presence here in Silicon Valley. Until last year, the State Department didn’t have anybody here.
Who do they have here?
They had one person who I think got fired.
Or sent along, when the administration changed.
Right. Okay. That’s not good. Another department, name another one. Education. Oh, good God.
Yes, so education is not something I personally looked at, but I mean, there again ... Look, ed tech, the revolution going on at ed tech. Does the Department of Education have a DARPA-like appendage that is imagining what the future of ed tech is?
And how that will affect American education policy?
Right. So through every single department, and our government, they have to be thinking about ... what about this idea that they were gonna ... I mean, I know that Chris Liddell and Jared Kushner were pushing the Office of American Innovation. Pretty much everybody quit it. I think a lot of people that were on these different business councils have left over, I think it was Charlottesville.
How do you get Silicon Valley reengaged then with the government, or this government at least? You have a president who seems entirely uninterested in science and technology and in fact is hostile to it.
These are ... the past months have not been kind to those who care deeply about this topic. But I think it’s just crucial to step back and notice that, as a nation, this is our future. This is the one thing we cannot afford to get wrong.
So why are we affording and getting it wrong?
I think a lot of people in Silicon Valley are still sort of pretending that what happens in Washington doesn’t really matter to them. And I think a lot of people in Washington just don’t have easy ways to get the knowledge they know they need.
How do they get ... because it really is, you gotta convince people, tech people, to come there. These people have jobs everywhere and are easily available to them here and across the world, really. How do you entice them to come to government?
I’ll give you one great example we found. In the U.S. they have something called the Global Development Lab that’s all about technology innovation and global development.
This is where?
It was run, actually, by a former Apple employee named Ann-mae Chun, and she, within that lab, had the operational innovation team that was the team design to get to “yes.” So it had people from the legal department, from the HR department, from the contracting department, and whatever problem was brought to that team, “Hey, how do we get this Silicon Valley executive in for a year? How can we do this contract faster?” They were given the charge of coming up with a way to do it.
So they actually hired a tech recruiter. Imagine that, the government hiring somebody who is an expert in recruiting technologists with skills.
I can’t believe we’re saying, “Imagine that.” It’s like 2018 at this point.
Right. I mean, you would think, right? But it turns out that the bulk of the government, of course, is governed by the Civil Service Act, whose history goes back to the age of the telegraph, it was designed originally to staff the Post Office. Great at providing general administration, not so great at bringing in tech skills for term tours.
Yet, despite that, every department agency generally has a couple hiring authorities in the books, that if leadership says, “Hey, go do this,” you can get people in.
So what do you imagine ... because I see other governments moving very heavily into technology within the government sector. And I’m sure they’re not ever as perfect as any of them. They’re all large bureaucracies so you’re going to fall prey to that. What are the biggest issues that our country faces, do you think?
I think one of the ... again, going back to the importance of people, you can sit around a table in Washington and not even know that technology is in the middle of the issue you’re trying to solve if you don’t have somebody around the table that can see it.
So if you don’t have a tech team ... I mean, if you have a lawyer in the room and an economist in the room, everybody in Washington has got their lawyer and their economist. But if you don’t have your technologist, you don’t even know what you’re missing. So I think that’s the first and probably the most fundamental part of the solution.
And then of the issues, what do you think the most critical thing is that we have to focus in on?
I think we’re at a moment where technology is probably a part of almost every major issue in one way or another.
I think you can’t any longer say, “Oh well, here are the four issues that technology is a part of and the 12 that aren’t,” and then divide your staff that way. And that’s part of the challenge. This is different than it was even 10 years ago.
So you have to have a technologist at every juncture of governing.
It’s totally ordinary to have a lawyer and an economist on your staff, in fact they have career paths that are set up to support that.
Right, but not for technologists. All right, so what are you doing at Harvard? I want to finish up. What are you studying?
I’m having a ton of fun 20 years after I was a freshman. I got involved in public policy. There’s a little corner of Harvard called the Institute of Politics, it’s a living memorial to JFK. I’m teaching a seminar on the topic of “Public Leadership in a Technological Age.” So whether you’re a computer science undergraduate or somebody studying government — or classics, for that matter — what ought you know about technology, about how it’s produced, about how it’s governed. You can be a future leader on this issue and get ready to join the conversation after you graduate.
And what is your one main thing you tell them? That you have to ...
Yeah. Right. Ask not what you ... no. So, we get together and we host a bunch of speakers from tech, also from tech policy in Washington. We’re looking for ways to get internships through so they can actually go experience what tech is. And what we tell them is that there definitely is a role, whatever educational track you’re on, to be able to learn more. Whether you’re a computer scientist that ... Harvard just debuted an ethics and computer science course this semester. Something that turns out was kind of relevant.
But if you look at the curriculum on the whole, it’s certainly not built with the idea in mind that we’re in the business of producing leaders that have to be able to grapple with technology policy.
Absolutely. All right, Chris, this has been really interesting. If you ... if I had to worry about one thing — I really do like the idea of a flying car — but if I had to worry about one thing and I know you’re not, you don’t want to pick one. What is the thing that you think that government needs to focus most strongly on in the tech area?
Sure. Well, I had a chance to work on Ebola, on the White House Ebola task force.
That’s not coming back, is it?
Well, the thing is we’re kind of changing the world in the wrong way, right? So we’re deforesting, we’re ... roads and air travel everywhere and when we deforest, we create these things that scientists call ecosystems where species clump together that normally don’t and it turns out that’s basically creating the world into a giant petri dish for emerging infectious disease.
So I actually worry the most, to be honest, about pandemics, I’m kind of in the Bill Gates camp on that one, when it comes to security.
I’m with you on pandemics, you know I’m obsessed with pandemics.
Do you have any Purell in the office? We should probably ...
I have a lot.
I’m a pandemic obsesser.
Thank you so much, this has been very depressing. But we do need technologists in government and this administration really needs to focus on it, but I’m not ... I have to say, I’m not very hopeful about that at this point. But we can always hope things can change.
Anyway, this had been Chris Kirchhoff. He’s a former partner at the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley office DIUx, which stands for Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, which is still operating here. It funds private companies in exchange for commercial products that can solve national defense problems. Thank you, Chris, for coming.
Thanks for having me.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.