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Private companies are helping the Pentagon automatically identify objects in drone photographs. Photo: Eren Bozkurt/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Google made headlines for walking away from a contract to provide intelligent software for the Pentagon — but its hesitation, a response to a staff uprising, may be an anomaly rather than an omen.

Increasingly, big tech companies and startups are flocking to show military and security officials their wares for everything from surveillance and detecting fake content to disaster relief.

Driving the news: Two events in the D.C. area this week — one hosted by the Pentagon and the other by the intelligence community — drew hundreds of private sector participants.

  • Top defense, law enforcement, and intelligence officials asked companies and academics for help developing AI-driven applications for security applications.
  • More than 300 companies attended the Defense Department’s unclassified event yesterday, and around 100 gave private presentations to officials, said Graham Gilmer, an AI expert at Booz Allen Hamilton, who participated.
  • Gilmer also attended the intelligence community’s classified event the day before, which featured speakers from the FBI, Homeland Security, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

In one example of the stakes, the Army announced yesterday that it had awarded a $480 million contract to Microsoft to develop an augmented reality system.

Turnout at the Defense Department event was "striking," said Gilmer. The organizers said attendance tripled since the first AI industry day last year, and Gilmer says the companies attending this year were considerably more diverse.

  • "You can tell the DoD has industry's attention," he said.
  • Booz Allen Hamilton works on Project Maven, the contract Google pulled away from. But yesterday, Gilmer presented a less controversial project: a smartphone app that can detect problems in a generator just by listening to it.
  • Predictive maintenance is one of several non-surveillance goals for which the Defense Department wants to use AI. Others include process automation and humanitarian assistance.

When it’s not inviting companies to its doorstep, the Pentagon is sending officials around the country to present a friendly face to the tech industry — and not just the defense stalwarts.

  • On the sidelines of a recent conference in Austin, Texas, the Air Force’s Jennifer Sovada told Axios that the government is responding to a shift in who develops technology.
  • "We are relying too heavily on old contractors," she said. Her focus is to reel in startups that might be jumpy about military contracting.

Go deeper: Microsoft defends work with U.S. military

Go deeper

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
1 hour ago - Economy & Business

Trump blocks banks from limiting loans to gun and oil companies

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Big banks are no longer allowed to reject business loan applicants because of the industry in which they operate, according to a new rule finalized on Thursday by the Trump administration.

Why it matters: Wall Street has curtailed its exposure to industries like guns, oil and private prisons, driven by both public and shareholder pressures. This new rule could reverse that trend.

Former FDA commissioner: "Reliable drug supply is absolutely critical"

Axios' Caitlin Owens and former FDA commissioner Mark McClellan. Photo courtesy of Axios Events

Having a reliable supply of pharmaceutical drugs throughout America will be "absolutely critical" to boosting affordability in health care during the Biden administration, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Mark McClellan said at a virtual Axios Event on Friday.

The big picture: McClellan, who served under President George W. Bush, says drugs having limited supply and limited competition leads to elevated pricing. He considers drug supply to be a national security and public health issue.

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
4 hours ago - Economy & Business

Americans are still spending money

Source: Census Bureau; Chart: Axios Visuals

Americans spent more money at stores and restaurants in 2020 than they did in 2019 — even in the face of a devastating global pandemic that shut down broad sectors of the economy.

Why it matters: The monthly retail sales report this morning came in well below expectations, and showed consumer spending falling on a seasonally-adjusted basis. Total expenditures were still higher in December 2020 than they were a year previously, however.

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