A 35-year career in the military is not the path Lt. Gen. Michael Groen ’86 was expecting to take when he joined the U.S. Marine Corps officer candidate school upon his graduation from Calvin.
“My intention was to join the service for a couple of years and then move on,” said the three-star general. “But every time I thought about getting out, some new exciting thing that I wanted to pursue came along. I have found the service very compelling.”
Groen has served multiple tours overseas and led battlefield intelligence centers. He has also served as the director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and director of Marine Corps Intelligence, and he earned master’s degrees in systems management, applied physics, and electrical engineering.
His current position as Director of the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC) is something he never would have imagined, he said, but in looking back, all of his experiences have contributed to his preparedness for this role.
Established in 2018, the JAIC was formed to direct and accelerate the efforts of incorporating artificial intelligence into the functions of the Department of Defense.
“We are all very experienced in the use of artificial intelligence in our personal lives whether we know it or not,” said Groen. “That technology has not been as integrated into our defense systems. We are looking to apply the same technology that drives internet companies into our business processes and into our warfighting.”
Sophisticated technology that uses data to provide citizens with everyday assistance—like driving directions, restaurant reviews, online shopping opportunities, and potentially self-driving cars—is the same technology the JAIC is working to integrate into America’s defense systems.
“There are thousands of potential applications for these capabilities,” said Groen. “For example, a commander could use it to make good data-driven decisions by determining what the enemy position looks like, where our own forces are, and what risks our threats pose.”
Artificial intelligence can also be used to protect network systems, to automate surveillance, and to simplify business practices.
“There is a vast opportunity to make the department more effective and more efficient,” said Groen. “There is opportunity to up the value of human capital and do the drudgery with machines.”
Character at the core
Seated at his desk in the Pentagon, Groen said he is challenged by the intertwining of technology and ethics every day; he is grateful for a strong moral foundation, which he said was bolstered by his education at Calvin.
“When you take a step back and look at how you approach your life, your job, you realize that character is built at places like Calvin,” he said. “I knew I had a good foundation, an ethical baseline, and that is so important in this work.
“In artificial intelligence, you can look at how the Chinese surveil their population and see that the U.S. rests on a completely different ethical baseline,” he said. “Government service requires a cadre of civil servants who have that same ethical baseline, the kind that is built at places like Calvin.
“I would recommend military service or civil service to any grad,” he added. “It is enormously rewarding, and it demands persons of character. It is absolutely critical that we don’t shy away from that. You would be joining a large cadre of people of good faith, who are committed for all of the right reasons.”