“Young Innovators” Call on Air Force to Encourage Innovation

SMSgt. Valerie Rivera (left), Capt. Joseph Arora, TSgt. Tom Burden, and Capt. Michael Kanaan answer questions at AWS18 Feb. 22, 2018. Air Force Magazine photo by Mike Tsukamoto.

The Air Force must take steps to encourage innovation if it is to take advantage of new ideas, members of a “young innovators” panel at AWS18 said Thursday.

The presentation was one of several focusing on innovation, including Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s opening speech.

One of the panelists, TSgt. Tom Burden, inventor and founder of Grypmat, which manufactures tool trays that stick to aircraft and other types of surfaces without magnets, expressed frustration over debates regarding the defense budget instead of how to make the military more efficient.

One area in which the US is falling behind, according to Capt. Michael Kanaan, a director’s action group officer with Air Force Intelligence, is artificial intelligence.

While the US is just getting off the ground in that field, he said, competitors already have complete strategies prepared.

“At what point do we have a cultural moment of insight and an epiphany of sorts in artificial intelligence?” he asked. When IBM’s “cold, calculating” Deep Blue computer beat chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, he said, “the Russians realized the implications.”

The path to more innovation is not to create a career path for it, the panelists said.

“It’s not about prescribing a way to come up, but it’s about us at every level leading someone else to provide platforms in which they can be discovered and find their own answers” to problems, Kanaan said.

SMSgt. Valerie Rivera, the founder of Take Back Work, which works with companies on their corporate cultures, offered similar advice, pointing to her own ability to switch out of her original specialty as a linguist in the Air Force.

“Look at those people within your midst,” she said.

If someone is doing “something they love” and have “that spark in their eyes,” they can be given more opportunities to have that spark, she said.