PITTSBURGH, Pa. -- Ruben Cruz says he has been fascinated by science and engineering since he was a student in the engineering magnet program at Miami Coral Park Senior High.

"I love learning about new technology," he said, adding that's part of what drove him to the Army's Artificial Intelligence Task Force, located at the National Robotics Engineering Center in Pittsburgh.

Cruz is no data scientist or algorithm developer though; he's an attorney specializing in contracts and acquisitions. The Army civilian employee joined the task force in June as its procurement analyst.

"One of the things I do is sit down with the team and try to see where they're headed," Cruz said, explaining that he then tries to proactively provide the support they will need.

He aligns a variety of procurement mechanisms that the task force can use such as cooperative agreements with universities, financial grants for researchers, and contracts with small businesses.

TRAILBLAZING RESEARCH

Since much of the AI Task Force work is advanced technology in its early stages, he said financial assistance for researchers is more common than traditional contracts.

"We're still in the early phases to find these ideas, test them out, and see how they could apply," Cruz said.

"It's revolutionary," he said of the AI projects.

"It's a burgeoning field," he said of artificial intelligence in general. "It's getting increased emphasis throughout the federal government and industry as a whole.

"Getting in on the ground floor is very exciting and makes such a dynamic environment to come into every morning."

Less than a year old, the Army AI Task Force has already been working collaboratively with academia and industry experts on artificial intelligence applications ranging from automated recognition of images to aircraft maintenance protocols to talent management of personnel.

COLLABORATION NETWORK

The task force is working, through a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University, to put together an AI Hub to support the Army and collaborate with researchers.

"They already have a great reputation within the industry," Cruz said of CMU, which developed the first computer program with artificial intelligence and now boasts a Robotics Institute with over 1,000 researchers.

Cruz said CMU experts help keep the Army informed of the latest developments in artificial intelligence from both industry and academia, and the AI Hub facilitates that knowledge transfer.

"They help us bring on academic partners from other universities to help with the different challenges we have with Army modernization," he explained.

Cruz also reaches out to potential academic partners. In fact, much of his job is to coordinate with researchers from academia and industry to facilitate their collaboration with the task force.

"It's my job to figure out how to bring them into the fold," he said, adding that he considers himself an "enabler."

TECHNOLOGY INCUBATORS

Cruz also reaches out to small businesses. He often works with individuals and companies that have never done business with the government before.

It used to be that Army acquisition was focused primarily on large "prime" contractors, said his supervisor, Col. Doug Matty, the AI Task Force deputy director. Now the Army is looking to engage with startups, small businesses and mid-level companies, he said, through the Army Futures Command, the task force's parent organization.

Cruz uses the term "technology incubators" for the small organizations he deals with.

"If there are certain businesses or people whom we feel have innovative technology to support AI… we want to talk to them," Cruz said.

RETURN TO ROOTS

Cruz is a former Air Force officer. After leaving active duty, he served in the Air Force Reserves until 2011, while working for the Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. and then for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supporting the Office of the Chief Information Officer.

He and his wife both worked for the CDC's Pittsburgh office. Then he attended law school at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh before joining the Army AI Task Force.

"It feels good that I can be back here helping the Army," Cruz said. He described the officers on the task force as brilliant and said he feels fortunate to work with them.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to be a part of this task force," he said. "We're working on some innovative solutions to modernizing the Department of the Army.