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Executive Interview: Steve Bennett, Director Global Government Practice, SAS 




Steve Bennett of SAS seeks to use AI and analytics to help drive government decision-making, resulting in better outcomes for citizens.   

Using AI and analytics to optimize delivery of government service to citizens  

Steve Bennett is Director of the Global Government Practice at SAS, and is the former director of the US National Biosurveillance Integration Center (NBIC) in the Department of Homeland Security, where he worked for 12 years. The mission of the NBIC was to provide early warning and situational awareness of health threats to the nation. He led a team of over 30 scientists, epidemiologists, public health, and analytics experts. With a PhD in computational biochemistry from Stanford University, and an undergraduate degree in chemistry and biology from Caltech, Bennet has a strong passion for using analytics in government to help make better public better decisions. He recently spent a few minutes with AI Trends Editor John P. Desmond to provide an update of his work.  

AI Trends: How does AI help you facilitate the role of analytics in the government?  

Steve Bennett, Director of Global Government Practice, SAS

Steve Bennett: Well, artificial intelligence is something we’ve been hearing a lot about everywhere, even in government, which can often be a bit slower to adopt or implement new technologies. Yet even in government, AI is a pretty big deal. We talk about analytics and government use of data to drive better government decision-making, better outcomes for citizens. That’s been true for a long time.   

A lot of government data exists in forms that are not easily analyzed using traditional statistical methods or traditional analytics. So AI presents the opportunity to get the sorts of insights from government data that may not be possible using other methods. Many folks in the community are excited about the promise of AI being able to help government unlock the value of government data for its missions.  

Are there any examples you would say that exemplify the work? 

AI is well-suited to certain sorts of problems, like finding anomalies or things that stick out in data, needles in a haystack, if you will. AI can be very good at that. AI can be good at finding patterns in very complex datasets. It can be hard for a human to sift through that data on their own, to spot the things that might require action. AI can help detect those automatically.  

For example, we’ve been partnering with the US Food and Drug Administration to support efforts to keep the food supply safe in the United States. One of the challenges for the FDA as the supply chain has gotten increasingly global, is detecting contamination of food. The FDA often has to be reactive. They have to wait for something to happen or wait for something to get pretty far down the line before they can identify it and take action. We worked with FDA to help them implement AI and apply it to that process, so they can more effectively predict where they might see an increased likelihood of contamination in the supply chain and act proactively instead of reactively. So that’s an example of how AI can be used to help support safer food for Americans. 

In another example, AI is helping with predictive maintenance for government fleets and vehicles. We work quite closely with Lockheed Martin to support predictive maintenance with AI for some of the most advanced airframes in the world, like the C-130 [transport] and the F-35 [combat aircraft]. AI helps to identify problems in very complex machines before those problems cause catastrophic failure. The ability for a machine to tell you before it breaks is something AI can do.   

Another example was around unemployment. We have worked with several cities globally to help them figure out how to best put unemployed people back to work. That is something top of mind now as we see increase unemployment because of Covid. For one city in Europe, we have a goal of getting people back to work in 13 weeks or less. They compiled racial and demographic data on the unemployed such as education, previous work experience, whether they have children, where they live—lots of data.  

They matched that to data about government programs, such as job training requested by specific employers, reskilling, and other programs. We built an AI system using machine learning to optimally match people based on what we knew to the best mix of government programs that would get them back to work the fastest. We are using the technology to optimize the government benefits, The results were good at the outset. They did a pilot prior to the Covid outbreak and saw promising results.    

Another example is around juvenile justice. We worked with a particular US state to help them figure out the best way to combat recidivism among juvenile offenders. They had data on 19,000 cases over many years, all about young people who came into juvenile corrections, served their time there, got out and then came back. They wanted to know how they could lower the recidivism rate. We found we could use machine learning to look at aspects of each of these kids, and figure out which of them might benefit from certain special programs after they leave juvenile corrections, to get skills that reduce the likelihood we would see them back in the system again.  

To be clear, this was not profiling, putting a stigma or mark on these kids. It was trying to figure out how to match limited government programs to the kids who would best benefit from those.   

What are key AI technologies that are being employed in your work today? 

Much of what we talk about having a near-term impact falls into the family of what we call machine learning. Machine learning has this great property of being able to take a lot of training data and being able to learn which parts of that data are important for making predictions or identifying patterns. Based on what we learn from that training data, we can apply that to new data coming in.  

A specialized form of machine learning is deep learning, which is good at automatically detecting things in video streams, such as a car or a person. That relies on deep learning.  We have worked in healthcare to help radiologists do a better job detecting cancer from health scans. Police and defense applications in many cases rely on real time video. The ability to make sense of that video very quickly is greatly enhanced by machine learning and deep learning.  

Another area to mention are real time interaction systems, AI chatbots. We’re seeing governments increasingly seeking to turn to chatbots to help them connect with citizens. If a benefits agency or a tax agency is able to build a system that can automatically interact with citizens, it makes government more responsive to citizens. It’s better than waiting on the phone on hold.   

How far along would you say the government sector is in its use of AI and how does it compare to two years ago? 

The government is certainly further along than it was two years ago. In the data we have looked at, 70% of government managers have expressed interest in using AI to enhance their mission. That signal is stronger than what we saw two years ago. But I would say that we don’t see a lot of enterprise-wide applications of AI in the government. Often AI is used for particular projects or specific applications within an agency to help fulfill its mission. So as AI continues to mature, we would expect it to have more of an enterprise-wide use for large scale agency missions.  

What would you say are the challenges using AI to deliver on analytics in government?  

We see a range of challenges in several categories. One is around data quality and execution. One of the first things an agency needs to figure out is whether they have a problem that is well-suited for AI. Would it show patterns or signals in the data? If so, would the project deliver value for the government?  

A big challenge is data quality. For machine learning to work well requires a lot of examples of a lot of data. It’s a very data-hungry sort of technology. If you don’t have that data or you don’t have access to it, even if you’ve got a great problem that could normally be very well-suited for government, you’re not going to be able to use AI.  

Another problem that we see quite often in governments is that the data exists, but it’s not very well organized. It might exist on spreadsheets on a bunch of individual computers all over the agency. It’s not in a place where it can be all brought together and analyzed in an AI way. So the ability for the data to be brought to bear is really important.   

Another one that’s important. Even if you have all of your data in the right place, and you have a problem very well-suited for AI, it could be that culturally, the agency just isn’t ready to make use of the recommendations coming from an AI system in its day-to-day mission. This might be called a cultural challenge. The people in the agency might not have a lot of trust in the AI systems and what they can do. Or it might be an operational mission where there always needs to be a human in the loop. Either way, sometimes culturally there might be limitations in what an agency is ready to use. And we would advise not to bother with AI if you haven’t thought about whether you can actually use it for something when you’re done. That’s how you get a lot of science projects in government.  

We always advise people to think about what they will get at the end of the AI project, and make sure they are ready to drive the results into the decision-making process. Otherwise, we don’t want to waste time and government resources. You might do something different that you are comfortable using in your decision processes. That’s really important to us.  As an example of what not to do, when I worked in government, I made the mistake of spending two years building an outstanding analytics project, using high-performance modeling and simulation, working in Homeland Security. But we didn’t do a good job working on the cultural side, getting those key stakeholders and senior leaders ready to use it. And so we delivered a great technical solution, but we had a bunch of senior leaders that weren’t ready to use it. We learned the hard way that the cultural piece really does matter. 

We also have challenges around data privacy. Government, more than many industries, touches very sensitive data. And as I mentioned, these methods are very data-hungry, so we often need a lot of data. Government has to make doubly sure that it’s following its own privacy protection laws and regulations, and making sure that we are very careful with citizen data and following all the privacy laws in place in the US. And most countries have privacy regulations in place to protect personal data.  

The second component is a challenge around what government is trying to get the systems to do. AI in retail is used to make recommendations, based on what you have been looking at and what you have bought. An AI algorithm is running in the background. The shopper might not like the recommendation, but the negative consequences of that are pretty mild.   

But in government, you might be using AI or analytics to make decisions with bigger impacts—determining whether somebody gets a tax refund, or whether a benefits claim is approved or denied. The outcomes of these decisions have potentially serious impacts. The stakes are much higher when the algorithms get things wrong. Our advice to government is that for key decisions, there always should be that human-in-the-loop. We would never recommend that a system automatically drives some of these key decisions, particularly if they have potential adverse actions for citizens.   

Finally, the last challenge that comes to mind is the challenge of where the research is going. This idea of “could you” versus “should you.” Artificial intelligence unlocks a whole set of areas that you can use such as facial recognition. Maybe in a Western society with liberal, democratic values, we might decide we shouldn’t use it, even though we could. Places like China in many cities are tracking people in real time using advanced facial recognition. In the US, that’s not in keeping with our values, so we choose not to do that.   

That means any government agency thinking about doing an AI project needs to think about values up front. You want to make sure that those values are explicitly encoded in how the AI project is set up. That way we don’t get results on the other end that are not in keeping with our values or where we want to go.  

You mentioned data bias. Are you doing anything in particular to try to protect against bias in the data? 

Good question. Bias is the real area of concern in any kind of AI machine learning work. The AI machine learning system is going to perform in concert with the way it was trained on the training data. So developers need to be careful in the selection of training data, and the team needs systems in place to review the training data so that it’s not biased. We’ve all heard and read the stories in the news about the facial recognition company in China—they make this great facial recognition system, but they only train it on Asian faces. And so guess what? It’s good at detecting Asian faces, but it’s terrible at detecting faces that are darker in color or that are lighter in color, or that have different facial features.  

We have heard many stories like that. You want to make sure you don’t have racial bias, gender bias, or any other kind of bias we want to avoid in the data training set. Encode those explicitly up front when you’re planning your project; that can go a long way towards helping to limit bias. But even if you’ve done that, you want to make sure you’re checking for bias in a system’s performance. We have many great technologies built into our machine learning tools to help you automatically look for those biases and detect if they are present. You also want to be checking for bias after the system has been deployed, to make sure if something pops up, you see it and can take care of it.  

From your background in bioscience, how well would you say the federal government has done in responding to the COVID-19 virus? 

There really are two industries that bore the brunt, at least initially from the COVID-19 spread: government and health care. In most places in the world, health care is part of government. So it has been a big public sector effort to try to deal with COVID. It’s been hit and miss, with many challenges. No other entity can marshal financial resources like the government, so getting economic support out to those that need is really important. Analytics plays a role in that.  

So one of the things that we did in supporting government using what we’re good at—data and analytics in AI—was to look at how we could help use the data to do a better job responding to COVID. We did a lot of work on the simple side of taking what government data they had and putting it into a simple dashboard that displayed where resources were. That way they could quickly identify if they had to move a supply such as masks to a different location. We worked on a more complex AI system to optimize the use of intensive care beds for a government in Europe that wanted to plan use of its medical resources. 

Contact tracing, the ability to very quickly identify people that are exposed and then identify who they’ve been around so that we can isolate those people, is something that can be greatly supported and enhanced by analytics. And we’ve done a lot of work around how to take contact tracing that’s been used for centuries and make it fit for supporting COVID-19 work. The government can do a lot with its data, with analytics and with AI in the fight against COVID-19. 

Do you have any advice for young people, either in school now or early in their careers, for what they should study if they are interested in pursuing work in AI, and especially if they’re interested in working in the government? 

If you are interested in getting into AI, I would suggest two things to focus on. One would be the technical side. If you have a solid understanding of how to implement and use AI, and you’ve built experience doing it as part of your coursework or part of your research work in school, you are highly valuable to government. Many people know a little about AI; they may have taken some business courses on it. But if you have the technical chops to be able to implement it, and you have a passion for doing that inside of government, you will be highly valuable. There would not be a lot of people like you. 

Just as important as the AI side and the data science technical piece, I would highly advise students to work on storytelling. AI can be highly technical when you get into the details. If you’re going to talk to a government or agency leader or an elected official, you will lose them if you can’t quickly tie the value of artificial intelligence to their mission. We call them ‘unicorns’ in SAS, people that have high technical ability and a detailed understanding of how these models can help government, and they have the ability to tell good stories and draw that line to the “so what?” How can a senior agency official in government, how can they use it? How is it helpful to them? 

To work on good presentation skills and practice them is just as important as the technical side. You will find yourself very influential and able to make a difference if you’ve got a good balance of those skills. That’s my view.  

I would also say, in terms of where you specialize technically, being able to converse in SAS has been recently ranked as one of the most highly valued jobs skills. The specific aspects of those technical pieces that can be very, very marketable to you inside and outside of government. 

Learn more about Steve Bennett on the SAS Blog. 



How 5G Will Impact Customer Experience?




5G is the breakthrough technology promised to bring new innovations, change the way people are traversing through the Internet with its faster connection speeds, lower latency, high bandwidth, and ability to connect one million devices per square kilometre. Telcos are deploying 5G to enhance our day-to-day lives.

“When clubbed with other technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things (IoT), it could mean a lot to a proliferation of other technologies like AR/VR, data analytics.” 

5G can be a boon for businesses with the delivery of increased reliability, efficiency and performance if it can be used to drive more value to the customers as well as the business stakeholders and meet their expectations with the help of digital technologies as mentioned below:

Consumer Expectations are on the Rise

In modern days, customer service teams provide and manage customer support via call centres and digital platforms. The rollout of 5G is expected to unleash more benefits with a positive impact on customer service as they improve their present personalized service offerings to customers and allow it to further create new solutions that could develop their customer engagement to win great deals.

For instance, salespeople in a retail store are being imbibed with layers of information about customers’ behaviour and choices that will help them build a rich and tailored experience for the customers walking down the store.

Video Conferencing/streaming is Just a Few Clicks Away

Video support is considered to be a critical part of Consumer Experience (CX) and will open new avenues for consumer-led enterprises.

“As per a survey conducted by Oracle with 5k people, 75% of people understand the efficiency and value of video chat and voice calls.” 

CX representatives used the video support feature to troubleshoot highly technical situations through video chat and screen sharing options with few clicks, potentially reducing the number of in-house technician visits during critical situations like coronavirus pandemic.

Also, nowadays video conferencing is facilitated with an option to record a quick instant video describing the process/solution and discarding the long process of sending step-by-step emails. Enterprises can develop advanced user guide for troubleshooting issues featuring video teasers for resolving common problems.

However, high-definition video quality is preferable for video conferencing, chat and demands for an uninterrupted network with smooth video streaming. This means operators need to carry out network maintenance activities on regular intervals to check whether there is any kind of 5G PIM formation on these network cell towers that could reduce receive sensitivity and performance, thereby deteriorating network speed, video resolution etc.

Thus, PIM testing becomes critical for delivering enhanced network services without interference, necessary for high-resolution online video conferencing, chats, and many more.

Increased Smart Devices and the Ability to Troubleshoot via Self-Service

The inception of 5G will give a boost to the IoT and smart device market which is already growing.

These smart devices IoT connections are expected to become twice in number between 2019 and 2025 i.e. more than 25Bn as per the GSM association which is an industry organization representing telecom operators across the globe.

With lower latency and improvisation in reliability, 5G has a lot more to offer as it connects a large number of devices. This will ultimately curb the manpower needed for customer support thereby reducing labour costs for the enterprise. Moreover, these IoT connected devices and high-speed network of 5G permit consumers to self-troubleshoot these devices at their own homes.

In order to facilitate these high-resolution networks, telecom operators need to perform 5G network testing and identify issues, take corrective actions that could improve their network and integrate with advanced capabilities, making it more efficient than previous connections with the wider network coverage.

Enhanced Augmented Reality (AR) / Virtual Reality (VR) Capabilities

As these tools are being widely used, customers are provided with virtual stores or immersive experiences using AR to view a sneak peek of the products in their house in real-time.

“‘Augmented Retail: The New Consumer Reality’ study by Nielsen in 2019 suggested that AR/VR has created a lot of interest in people and they are willing to use these technologies to check out products.” 

Analysis of Bulk Data With Big Data Analytics

Enterprises have to deal with a huge volume of data daily. 5G has the ability to collect these data and with its advanced network connectivity across a large number of devices, it delivers faster data analytics too.

Companies will be able to process this vast amount of unstructured data sets combined with Artificial Intelligence (AI) to extract meaningful insights and use them for drafting business strategies like using customer behaviour data sets to study their buying behaviour and targeting such segment with customized service offerings as per their requirement.

As per Ericsson’s AI in networks report, 68% of Communications Service Providers (CSPs) believe improving CX is a business objective while more than half of them already believe AI will be a key technology that will assist in improving the overall CX. Thus, big data analytics will be crucial for harnessing all new data and enhance the customer experience.


Looking from a CX point of view, 5G benefits will far extend beyond the experience of a citizen. Real-time decisions will accelerate with the prevalence of 5G and application of other new-age technologies like AI, ML, IoT, etc. As 5G deployment will continue to grow, so is the transition of each trending processes mentioned above that will ultimately improve your business in terms of productivity, gain a large customer base and bring more revenues.


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Resiliency And Security: Future-Proofing Our AI Future




Deploying AI in the enterprise means thinking forward for resiliency and security (GETTY IMAGES)

By Allison Proffitt, AI Trends

On the first day of the Second Annual AI World Government conference and expo held virtually October 28-30, a panel moderated by Robert Gourley, cofounder & CTO of OODA, raised the issue of AI resiliency. Future-proofing AI solutions requires keeping your eyes open to upcoming likely legal and regulatory roadblocks, said Antigone Peyton, General Counsel & Innovation Strategist at Cloudigy Law. She takes a “use as little as possible” approach to data, raising questions such as: How long do you really need to keep training data? Can you abstract training data to the population level, removing some risk while still keeping enough data to find dangerous biases?

Stephen Dennis, Director of Advanced Computing Technology Centers at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, also recommended a forward-looking posture, but in terms of the AI workforce. In particular, Dennis challenged the audience to consider the maturity level of the users of new AI technology. Full automation is not likely a first AI step, he said. Instead, he recommends automating slowly, bringing the team along. Take them a technology that works in the context they are used to, he said. They shouldn’t need a lot of training. Mature your team with the technology. Remove the human from the loop slowly.

Of course, some things will never be fully automated. Brian Drake, U.S. Department of Defense, pointed out that some tasks are inherently human-to-human interactions—such as gathering human intelligence. But AI can help humans do even those tasks better, he said.

He also cautioned enterprises to consider their contingency plan as they automate certain tasks. For example, we rarely remember phone numbers anymore. We’ve outsourced that data to our phones while accepting a certain level of risk. If you deploy a tool that replaces a human analytic activity, that’s fine, Drake said. But be prepared with a contingency plan, a solution for failure.   

Organizing for Resiliency

All of these changes will certainly require some organizational rethinking, the panel agreed. While government is organized in a top down fashion, Dennis said, the most AI-forward companies—Uber, Netflix—organize around the data. That makes more sense, he proposed, if we are carefully using the data.

Data models—like the new car trope—begin degrading the first day they are used. Perhaps the source data becomes outdated. Maybe an edge use case was not fully considered. The deployment of the model itself may prompt a completely unanticipated behavior. We must capture and institutionalize those assessments, Dennis said. He proposed an AI quality control team—different from the team building and deploying algorithms—to understand degradation and evaluate the health of models in an ongoing way. His group is working on this with sister organizations in cyber security, and he hopes the best practices they develop can be shared to the rest of the department and across the government.

Peyton called for education—and reeducation—across organizations. She called the AI systems we use today a “living and breathing animal”. This is not, she emphasized, an enterprise-level system that you buy once and drop into the organization. AI systems require maintenance, and someone must be assigned to that caretaking.

But at least at the Department of Defense, Drake pointed out, all employees are not expected to become data scientists. We’re a knowledge organization, he said, but even if reskilling and retraining are offered, a federal workforce does not have to universally accept those opportunities. However, surveys across DoD have revealed an “appetite to learn and change”, Drake said. The Department is hoping to feed that curiosity with a three-tiered training program offering executive-level overviews, practitioner-level training on the tools currently in place, and formal data science training. He encouraged a similar structure to AI and data science training across other organizations.

Bad AI Actors

Gourley turned the conversation to bad actors. The very first telegraph message between Washington DC and Baltimore in 1844 was an historic achievement. The second and third messages—Gourley said—were spam and fraud. Cybercrime is not new and it is absolutely guaranteed in AI. What is the way forward, Gourley asked the panel.

“Our adversaries have been quite clear about their ambitions in this space,” Drake said. “The Chinese have published a national artificial intelligence strategy; the Russians have done the same thing. They are resourcing those plans and executing them.”

In response, Drake argued for the vital importance of ethics frameworks and for the United States to embrace and use these technologies in an “ethically up front and moral way.” He predicted a formal codification around AI ethics standards in the next couple of years similar to international nuclear weapons agreements now.


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AI Projects Progressing Across Federal Government Agencies




The AI World Government Conference kicked off virtually on Oct. 28 and continues on Oct. 29 and 30. Tune in to learn about AI strategies and plans of federal agencies. (Credit: Getty Images)

By AI Trends Staff

Government agencies are gaining experience with AI on projects, with practitioners focusing on defining the project benefit and the data quality is good enough to ensure success. That was a takeaway from talks on the opening day of the Second Annual AI World Government conference and expo held virtually on October 28.

Wendy Martinez, PhD, director of the Mathematical Statistics Research Center, US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Wendy Martinez, PhD, director of the Mathematical Statistics Research Center, with the Office of Survey Methods Research in the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, described a project to use natural language understanding AI to parse text fields of databases, and automatically correlate them to job occupations in the federal system. One lesson learned was despite interest in sharing experience with other agencies, “You can’t build a model based on a certain dataset and use the model somewhere else,”  she stated. Instead, each project needs its own source of data and model tuned to it.

Renata Miskell, Chief Data Officer in the Office of the Inspector General for the US Department of Health and Human Services, fights fraud and abuse for an agency that oversees over $1 trillion in annual spending, including on Medicare and Medicaid. She emphasized the importance of ensuring that data is not biased and that models generate ethical recommendations. For example, to track fraud in its grant programs awarding over $700 billion annually, “It’s important to understand the data source and context,” she stated. The unit studied five years of data from “single audits” of individual grant recipients, which included a lot of unstructured text data. The goal was to pass relevant info to the audit team. “It took a lot of training, she stated. “Initially we had many false positives.” The team tuned for data quality and ethical use, steering away from blind assumptions. “If we took for granted that the grant recipients were high risk, we would be unfairly targeting certain populations,” Miskell stated.

Dave Cook, senior director of AI/ML Engineering Services, Figure Eight Federal

In the big picture, many government agencies are engaged in AI projects and a lot of collaboration is going on. Dave Cook is senior director of AI/ML Engineering Services for Figure Eight Federal, which works on AI projects for federal clients. He has years of experience working in private industry and government agencies, mostly now the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies. “In AI in the government right now, groups are talking to one another and trying to identify best practices around whether to pilot, prototype, or scale up,” he said. “The government has made some leaps over the past few years, and a lot of sorting out is still going on.”

Ritu Jyoti, Program VP, AI Research and Global AI Research lead for IDC consultants, program contributor to the event, has over 20 years of experience working with companies including EMC, IBM Global Services, and PwC Consulting. “AI has progressed rapidly,” she said. From a global survey IDC conducted in March, business drivers for AI adoption were found to be better customer experience, improved employee productivity, accelerated innovation and improved risk management. A fair number of AI projects failed. The main reasons were unrealistic expectations, the AI did not perform as expected, the project did not have access to the needed data, and the team lacked the necessary skills. “The results indicate a lack of strategy,” Joti stated.

David Bray, PhD, Inaugural Director of the nonprofit Atlantic Council GeoTech Center, and a contributor to the event program, posted questions on how data governance challenges the future of AI. He asked what questions practitioners and policymakers around AI should be asking, and how the public can participate more in deciding what can be done with data. “You choose not to be a data nerd at your own peril,” he said.

Anthony Scriffignano, PhD, senior VP & Chief Data Scientist with Dun & Bradstreet, said in the pandemic era with many segments of the economy shut down, companies are thinking through and practicing different ways of doing things. “We sit at the point of inflection. We have enough data and computer power to use the AI techniques invented generations ago in some cases,” he said. This opportunity poses challenges related to what to try and what not to try, and “sometimes our actions in one area cause a disruption in another area.”

AI World Government continues tomorrow and Friday.

(Ed. Note: Dr. Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google is now chair of the National Security Commission on AI, today was involved in a discussion, Transatlantic Cooperation Around the Future of AI, with Ambassador Mircea Geoana, Deputy Secretary General, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Secretary Robert O. Work, vice chair of the National Security Commission. Convened by the Atlantic Council, the event can be viewed here.)


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