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Mattis: Silicon Valley cyber unit, focused on AI and autonomous machines, will grow under Trump

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A Silicon Valley-based cybersecurity defense force is due to grow under the Trump administration, Defense Secretary James Mattis said this week.

The Pentagon-led Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) has been criticised by Republicans, who have wondered if it's creating anything of value or if its purpose overlaps with DARPA and other defense research organizations.

"There is no doubt in my mind that DIUx will not only continue to exist, it will actually grow in its influence and its impact on the Department of Defense," Reuters reported Mattis saying. If accurate, his statement could signal a growing priority of the US government toward strengthening its military cyber defense—and warfare—posture.

Organized in 2015 under President Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter, DIUx is dedicated to funding commercial cybersecurity and defense experiments. It provides non-dilutive capital to tech firms who want to develop commercial products that address a defense need.

DIUx has awarded $100 million for 45 projects in the past year. An agency spokesperson said they expect DIUx to grow from 48 members to 75 by the end of 2017.

The experimental group focuses on defense applications of artificial intelligence, autonomy, human systems, information technology, and space technology.

Mattis' visit comes on the heels of news that DIUx is facing a funding shortage that threatens to derail a radar imaging satellite program. Defense News reported that a request for additional funds was being reviewed, and Mattis' visit suggests that the Pentagon is, at the very least, committed to keeping the unit alive.

Projects that DIUx has funded include drones that can map the internals of buildings and assess potential threats, solar-powered autonomous sailboats, neurostimulators that speed learning time, and near real-time satellite radar.

SEE: The Four Volume Cyber Security Bundle (TechRepublic Academy)

DIUx has also funded a variety of cybersecurity projects designed to improve authentication methods, increase endpoint security, and improve the Department of Defense's overall security posture—something that is sorely needed if a recent darknet exposure report is accurate.

Increasing the size and scope of DIUx is in line with President Trump's other cybersecurity initiatives. While Trump's executive order on cybersecurity has been criticized, the current administration has at least made government cybersecurity a spoken priority, and adding funds to research initiatives supports that rhetoric.

Republican critics of DIUx are right to argue that the agency may overlap with DARPA, but they miss a critical part of DIUx's importance: It's engaging Silicon Valley in helping to solve problems that DARPA either hasn't, or can't, take on.

Top three takeaways for TechRepublic readers:

  1. Defense Secretary James Mattis recently said a special Silicon Valley defense cyber research group will grow under the Trump administration.
  2. The Pentagon-led DIUx provides funds to Silicon Valley companies to develop new software and hardware to meet a variety of defense needs.
  3. Republican legislators have expressed concern over the scope of DIUx's mission, but their criticisms miss the fact that DIUx is engaging the civilian tech world, something that will be necessary for the future of US cybersecurity.

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