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DARPA developing AI tools to enhance adult learning in security technologies

The way people work is shifting; acquiring new skill sets can help ensure the national security workforce keeps up with the evolving demands of modern-day society. The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2025, 50% of all workers worldwide will need reskilling in order to compete in the market.

The Department of State and Department of Defense (DOD) both state that artificial intelligence is at the center of the world’s global technological revolution. According to the 2020 DOD Education Strategy, “the future of AI in the DOD relies on the Department’s ability to build and develop a workforce for the digital era.”

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has created additional challenges for workers, accelerating the adoption of new technologies and automation in many sectors and disproportionately impacting the unemployment rates of historically marginalized demographics, including people who identify as Black or Hispanic. DARPA is seeking ideas for innovative AI approaches that can help adults learn complex topics necessary for the current and future national security workforce (e.g., AI engineering and cyber defense).

Adult learning is simply a situation where adults are pursuing education. This can be done in a formal setting in higher education, trade school, or apprenticeship. This can also be done for adults who simply want to learn a skill and pursue education in order to learn that skill. There are many techniques and theories about how to effectively educate adults specifically, making adult learning an important point of study for many experts. Children and adults are very different when it comes to how they learn, so different techniques must be used in order to make learning effective for adults.

Adult learning can be difficult for many reasons including:

Lack of time. Learners who are adults often have full-time jobs, and sometimes children or other dependents that are relying on them. This can make finding the time to continue learning very difficult.

Self-doubt. It’s common for learners to feel that they are too old to continue their education. They may feel it is too late, and they have missed their chance.

Neuroplasticity. Our brains have an element of plasticity to them that help us learn and grow. With every repetition of a thought, we reinforce a neural pathway. When we learn something new, we create a new pathway. The connections in our brain are constantly getting stronger or weaker, creating new pathways or strengthening older ones. Younger people have brains that are more plastic, so changes are easier for them. As we age, our brains become less plastic and we are more fixed in what we believe and know. That is a direct struggle for learners who are trying to take on new concepts, forge new pathways, and more. Adult learners may have a harder time understanding new things simply because their brains are less plastic. While this is a difficulty, it isn’t something that is insurmountable when it comes to adult learning.

Contradiction. Some of the things adult learners will learn in their education may be different than what they thought they knew or learned before. This can be difficult for adult learners to wrap their heads around. Their previous knowledge base may have to shift to make room for new things, and that takes some mental power.

“As technology advances and economic conditions shift, so will the skills necessary for America’s workforce and our military,” said Joshua Elliott, AI Tools for Adult Learning program manager in DARPA’s Information Innovation Office. “In addition to a post-pandemic economy, the need to improve access to education and upskilling for historically marginalized learners is more important than ever. AI tutoring could dramatically improve learning success, particularly in increasingly common remote and self-directed learning environments.”



DARPA invites technologists, researchers, students, teachers, and creators of digital learning platforms or cutting-edge AI techniques to propose AI tools or technologies that can address the critical challenges facing adult learners. Successful tools will seek to create customized learning experiences that improve training of new skills in adults who have completed postsecondary education.

There are many techniques that adult learners may use to help them learn more effectively, including:

  • Setting goals. For example, learners who have a specific career goal in mind will have a better experience as they pursue their degree program. Or adults who want to learn Spanish might have a specific goal to be conversational before a trip to Mexico. Adult learners need these goals because their learning is more in their own hands than younger learners.
  • Decide their why. Knowing why they want to pursue education will help adult learners feel confident about their learning process. Understanding why different courses will help them reach their goal can make sure they stay motivated.
  • Review information regularly. Because adult brains are less plastic, they have a harder time creating new neural pathways. So adult learners need to be ready to review their material more regularly in order to help create those pathways.
  • Find experiences to help facilitate learning. Adult learners can greatly benefit from finding ways to get hands-on learning. Finding internships, job shadow opportunities, projects, and other experiential opportunities can help them get a firmer grasp of their learning and be more excited about how it will translate to real-life.

AI Tools for Adult Learning program

DARPA leaders and industry experts in the adult learning field will review abstracts over the course of nine months. Submissions will advance as follows:

  • Phase One: Reviewers will evaluate high-level proposal abstracts and select a subset to proceed to phase two. The deadline to submit abstracts is December 18, 2022.
  • Phase Two: Reviewers will evaluate detailed proposals for technical merit in order to move to the last phase.
  • Phase Three: Finalists will pitch their concept before the panel of reviewers, who will select the winners.

Following the pitch event, DARPA will award a total of $750,000 to winning submissions to develop those concepts. Those who are selected will have the opportunity to present their progress and technologies to industry, technical experts, and philanthropic organizations in the year following the awards.

AI-Powered Education Tools Chosen for Further Development

DARPA has allocated $750,000 for the further development of AI tools aimed at adult learning, particularly in fields critical for national security, such as cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. The initiative acknowledges the need to upskill and reskill the workforce, especially in highly technical domains, and recognizes the potential of AI to make education more accessible and cost-effective than traditional human tutor-based programs. The program solicited proposals from various stakeholders, and following a rigorous review process, selected solutions that offer customized learning experiences to enhance the skills of postsecondary-educated adults. The awardees include established platforms like Skills Empowerment Passport and QuickTA, early-stage teams like HyperSkill, and groups with limited user bases, demonstrating a diverse array of solutions poised to reshape adult education.


In the realm of adult education, the challenges of access, personalization, and skills adaptability are persistent hurdles. However, AI tutoring, as explored by DARPA, promises to revolutionize adult learning by providing personalized and cost-effective education accessible from anywhere. These AI-driven tools can cater to individual learning styles, supplement the expertise of human educators, enhance engagement, and keep learners motivated through real-time feedback and adaptability. Furthermore, they can help learners identify and acquire the skills demanded by the evolving job market. As AI continues to evolve, the future of adult education is increasingly promising, ensuring inclusivity, efficiency, and adaptability for learners across the spectrum.

“There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the power of tutoring as a means to teach all learners quickly and effectively, and yet, programs that rely on human tutors are costly,” explained Elliott. “Recent advances in AI have made way for computer-based tutoring systems that use AI to personalize instruction in real time based on learner responses. These systems have the potential to drastically reduce the cost of high-quality tutoring, and therefore increase access for all learners.”

“As the national security landscape evolves, so too must the skills of the people running the systems that keep U.S. citizens safe and free,” said Dr. Wil Corvey, DARPA’s program manager for AI Tools for Adult Learning. “We’re very grateful for the vibrant participation from proposers and judges on this challenge. And we anticipate that the development efforts undertaken by the selected awardees will create exciting new technologies to aid adult learning and illuminate additional areas of potential research.”


About Rajesh Uppal

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