WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s new chief digital and artificial intelligence officer said the gravity of the situation and the need to get things right motivated him to leave ride-hailing company Lyft Inc. for government work.

“It’s not for the joys of the job, because it’s going to be arduous,” CDAO Craig Martell said June 7 at a virtual conference hosted by the Department of Defense. “I’m doing it because of the mission.”

Martell was named the chief in late April, about two months after the digital and AI office reached initial operations. He succeeds John Sherman, who took on the role in an acting capacity.

The CDAO is considered an expeditor of all things AI and data analytics at the Pentagon, subsuming offices including the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center to better coordinate and collaborate. The stakes are high as rival nations including Russia and China invest in military AI. The Defense Department itself is tackling hundreds of AI projects and considers the technology revolutionary for both security and business.

“There are not a lot of folks who have the intersection of AI and a government background,” Martell said Tuesday. “So when the deputy secretary of defense calls you up and says, ‘We would like you to take this job,’ you have to think really hard about why you wouldn’t take the job, and not the other way around. And I think getting this mission right is extremely important.”

At Lyft, Martell was a head of LyftML, the company’s machine-learning division, for just over two years. He also worked at Dropbox and LinkedIn and was a tenured computer science professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. Unlike other CDAO leaders, he has no previous Pentagon experience.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks this year praised Martell for his “cutting-edge industry experience,” which she said would help solve the Pentagon’s unique problems.

The CDAO achieved full operations on schedule June 1. The office reports directly to Hicks.

“We are increasing our competitive advantage by bringing these different groups together,” Margaret Palmieri, the deputy CDAO, said at the conference. “All the right levers of change and influence are coming into play in the CDAO.”

Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its NNSA — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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