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Coming Home: This West Point grad is using AI and Big Data for national security


Dr. Paulo Shakarian

As a computer science professor at Arizona State University, Paulo Shakarian applies artificial intelligence methods to pressing national security problems, using programs that try to map out what groups like ISIS will do next.

This work isn't abstract or theoretical for him.

As a West Point graduate and then an army intelligence officer during some of the most difficult years of the Iraq war, Shakarian got a ground-level view of the same kinds of groups whose behavior his work now helps predict.

"Growing up in the 80s and 90s in the US, war always seemed like a remote possibility," Shakarian told Business Insider.

But the September 11th attacks took place during Shakarian's senior year at West Point. The next generation of US military leaders realized that their futures had changed almost instantly. 

Within a year of graduating in 2002, Shakarian was deployed to Iraq as a Tactical Intelligence Officer in the Army's 1st Armored Division. He spent 14 months there between 2003 and 2004.

After that deployment, he served as the Platoon Leader of 501st Military Intelligence Battalion based in Wackernheim, Germany, where he continued to process, collect, and analyze intelligence for the Army through 2005.

In 2006, Shakarian returned to Iraq with the 1st Infantry Division , this time as a Military Advisor for Intelligence with the National Police Transition Team. 

In 2003, Iraq was still in a post-invasion daze. In 2006, it was in an incipient state of civil war. "There was a lot of combat, a lot of IEDs," recounts Shakarian. As it turned out, Shakarian would be deployed during the Iraq war's most violent year before the 2007 troop "surge."

During this time he earned a Bronze Star for combat service while continuing to work as an intelligence analyst.


Because of Shakarian's position as an Army Captain and an intelligence officer advising the Iraqi national police, he would would often touch base with local-level US and Iraqi intelligence officials throughout the country.

It occurred to him that there were numerous US intelligence techniques that never saw much application in the field. Intelligence workers are advised to analyze all the data they have available and hypothesize possible causes or courses of action when their data no longer makes sense, or when the usual analysis methods fail. But few in the field actually have time for tiresome guess-and-check work, especially in the midst of a war.

In Iraq, Shakarian began to see ways to merge his knowledge of computer science, which he had studied at West Point, with his work as an intelligence analyst. He began to envision ways to use artificial intelligence to model the behaviors of often-unpredictable insurgent groups. 

"In an operating environment, there is no time to work on a single project of this size," said Shakarian of his early ideas for transforming intelligence analysis. After his deployment, he was back in garrison with Task Force Iron Sentinel in Wiesbaden, Germany, analyzing intelligence and managing the brigade's anti-terrorism efforts.

Paulo Shakarian

As part of an Army student detachment, Shakarian then went to the University of Maryland where he obtained his Masters Degree in computer science and worked as a research assistant.

He developed a focused yet highly ambitious new goal: To revolutionize intelligence analysis with the help of machine learning, or the science behind getting machines to operate without the painstaking and explicit programming they usually require. Among other things, machine learning could help cars become self-driving. Shakarian wanted to harness this ability to make a similar leap in intelligence analysis. 

Shakarian's work started to earn him attention. After authoring a paper called "Shaping Operations to Attack Robust Terror Networks," the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence invited him to brief them on his findings.

Shakarian eventually finished a Ph. D at the University of Maryland and fulfilled a teaching commitment at West Point. When he exited the military in 2014, he continued his artificial intelligence work at ASU.

Shakarian's research has spawned several potentially game-changing programs, like the SCARE software, which Task Force Paladin used to detect IEDs in Afghanistan, or the GANG and SNAKE social media analysis packages that help the Chicago police fight gang activity.

Recently, his work at ASU made headlines when he presented a paper at the Knowledge Discover and Data Mining conference on a mathematical model of ISIS' behavior. Currently he is working for the Department of Defense on a Minerva grant award, developing more cutting edge technologies that use computer science to save lives. And this year, he won the Air Force's Young Investigator award.

Shakarian Lab asu

Immersed in engaging and cutting-edge work, Shakarian transitioned smoothly out of the military.

Shakarain says that his military experienced taught him leadership skills he wouldn't have gotten in the civilian world. When running his team of 15-20 researchers at ASU Shakarian is guided by leadership skills he learned during his decade of service.

Overall, Shakarian says the military gave him the flexibility and the temperament needed to thrive in diverse environments — whether it's on the battlefields in Iraq or in a civilian research lab. "My time in the army helped me to adapt to other cultures," says Shakarian. "I find myself falling back on that a lot."


SEE ALSO: The Obama administration is making a major shift in its Syria strategy

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