Techie soldiers program chatbots for the military in IDF hackathon

Techie soldiers program chatbots for the military in IDF hackathon

Apps developed include an Instagram for operational purposes, but army keeps contest winner under wraps

IDF soldiers in plain clothes take part in army's chatbot hackathon, 14 Feb. 2017 (Courtesy IDF)
IDF soldiers in plain clothes take part in army's chatbot hackathon, 14 Feb. 2017 (Courtesy IDF)

Teams of young soldiers out of uniform streamed down the corridors of a college in the city of Rishon Lezion, south of Tel Aviv. They were there to take part in a hackathon organized by the Israeli army that would see them brainstorm for 24 hours – programming, eating and napping on site — in an effort to come up with new ideas for technologies to meet the ever-changing needs of the IDF.

They were taking 24 hours off from their daily operational duties, coming from units including the Air Force, C4I, ground forces and the technology division, to take part in the hackathon organized by the IDF’s elite Lotem unit, in charge of developing IT solutions for the army.

Some brought thermoses with them, others were equipped with programming books. “Do you work with Java?” one soldier asked another. “Did you plug in the USB cable yet?” Some crammed around tables set up in large, bright rooms, equipped with laptops. Others huddled around screens placed on rows of desks in the computer labs. Some soldiers wore headphones to shut out noise, others gathered around a whiteboard, laying out calculations and numbers. They were all readying themselves for the long and challenging task ahead, in which the best of their abilities would be tried against those of others.

The 90 soldiers were divided into 18 teams, each team with a different project: the aim was to find military applications for chatbots — computer programs that enable users to converse with machines using text or conversation. At the end of the 24 hours, a winning project was to be selected.

IDF soldiers in plain clothes take part in army's chatbot hackathon, 14 Feb. 2017 (Courtesy IDF)
IDF soldiers in plain clothes take part in army’s chatbot hackathon, February 14, 2017 (Courtesy IDF)

“The world is developing and new technologies are being created, every day,” said Lt. Col. Nurit Cohen Inger, head of the IDF’s Sigma Department — in charge of adapting civilian technologies to military operational needs at the IDF — who was overseeing the hackathon. “Our role is to make sure these developments make their way into the Israeli army, by adapting them to our special operational needs.”

The teams in the hackathon would deal with the question of how “chatbots can be incorporated into the messaging systems of the army,” she said.

The symbiosis between the Israeli army, the nation’s academia and its high-tech sector is intense, with each body feeding off and growing from the ideas, the knowledge and skills developed by the others. This melting pot of initiatives and ideas and people is what has been behind the rise of the so-called Startup Nation.

IDF's Lt. Col. Nurit Cohen Inger (Courtesy IDF)
IDF’s Lt. Col. Nurit Cohen Inger (Courtesy IDF)

Following the lead of the high-tech industry and the academia, the IDF started holding hackathons some three years ago, Cohen Inger said. “The idea here is to create a ‘fair’ of ideas, create a vibe, energy, a culture of innovation within the institution,” she said. “We want to give our soldiers the feeling that any idea is valid — any initiative can, and should, be heard. They are disconnecting, taking a day off from their daily pressures and operations and coming here to think, develop and work on anything they imagine.”

At the end of the hackathon the army will decide which ideas will continue and be turned into projects it will develop, she said.

It’s okay to fail

The competition process teaches the soldiers that “to fail is okay,” said Cohen Inger. “Not everything works out and that is fine and legitimate. This is a competition, a flow and energy of ideas, and not everything has to, or can, succeed. The hackathon enables a lot of cooperation and networking and this networking will also serve the soldiers in their daily jobs and then, likely, in the future, too.”

Mentors from academia, in this case artificial intelligence experts, came to talk to the soldiers and guide them. “They will enable the level of development to be higher,” said Cohen Inger, who added that artificial intelligence and the ability to make sense of the huge amount of data available will play a “significant role in any future wars.”

Israel’s tech ecosystem is heavily reliant on the skills learned by soldiers and officers during their army service: they serve their country in highly secret intelligence units, developing products, tools, codes and algorithms, and then, upon completing their duty — and generally after a trip abroad — they study at university and set up a startup company or join a multinational tech corporation that snaps them up for their talents. Israel has more startup companies per capita than any other nation, according to data compiled by Tel Aviv-based IVC Research Center, which tracks the industry. Many of its entrepreneurs have stemmed from the army and its intelligence units, including the elite IDF 8200 unit.

The soldiers had 24 hours – from 9 a.m. to 9 a.m. — to come up with solutions for 18 ideas that came from the soldiers themselves.

One of the ideas was to create a bot designed to support flight control: it would provide instant notifications when aircraft are on a collision path and then recommend an altitude change. The bot can also optimize flight routes, making them as fuel efficient as possible, and can notify flight control when aircraft are low on fuel. This idea won second place in the competition.

“This is extreme programming — it promotes the creation of ideas,” said Cohen Inger. “We very much encourage this form of thinking and working together, to develop something good, suitable and quickly. The different teams are made up of different people from different fields and they are working on things that are not part of their routine. There is a very positive energy and they are all very motivated, ready for the sleepless night ahead and happy to work hard.”

Another project was the development of a bot that knows automatically which government body — police, MDA, fire department or Home Front — to notify when an incident occurs, based on the size and type of the incident. For example, in a situation in which the bot gets a notification that a man was run over at 18 Ben Gurion St. in Nes Ziona, the bot would notify the police.

“The idea is to take all the ideas and initiatives these soldiers have thought about and bring them to fruition, as much as possible, within 24 hours, working efficiently and in teams,” said Maj. Yirga Semay, head of IT Innovation Desk in the Lotem Unit. “The teams bring together soldiers with different capabilities, and they work together, each one learning something new from the other.”

Pizza and drinks at midnight

Lunch was offered at the cafeteria at noon, a professor delivered a lecture at 4 p.m., dinner came at 7 and pizza and drinks were offered to bleary-eyed developers at midnight. A room was set up for participants to take a nap, when needed. Breakfast was at 8 the next day, with the participation of unit commanders. By 9 the various teams presented the project and at 10:30 the winning team was announced.

Twenty-three-year-old Amit and 24-year-old Itai were part of a team of four that was creating a photo-sharing application similar to the civilian application Instagram. Using their app, people in the IDF can share and tag operational, nonclassified pictures. This makes the pictures more easily searchable and conveniently organized – a useful trait for planning operations. Both Amit and Itai have two more years left in their army service. After that, they want to travel, they said. And then join the high-tech industry.

The Israeli army declined to disclose details of additional projects, nor did it reveal the winning project. It also declined to say whether any of the projects mentioned would be developed further and implemented into the IDF operations.

The hackathon is for the soldiers to “be creative and to have an impact,” said Cohen Inger. “It gives them a huge feeling of empowerment, that they are making a difference. They feel they are not just another little bolt in a machine, but play a more significant role, having an impact and making things better.”

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