Discussion, Analysis, and Key Themes
The manner in which the workshop was conducted was conducive to rich discussions in group-enabled forums, which often spilled over into conversations during the breaks. All observed discussions converged into four main thrusts, which can be summarized as follows:
The lack of shared understanding of new technologies on the part of S&TI producers and consumers often leads to surprise.
Understanding the effects of an adversary’s compulsions and constraints, or “currency”1 of development—that is, the factors that impede or accelerate progress—is crucial for effective planning.
In considering the potential of an adversary to produce surprise, it is essential to understand the cultural (geopolitical, demographic, moral/ethical value-system-related) context in which an adversary operates.
It is now easier to gain access to potentially disruptive technologies or to component technologies that can be combined to create disruptive technologies; more difficult to monitor the increasing number of technology developments that could lead to surprise; and nearly impossible to anticipate the growing number of new uses for older technologies and tools.
Each of these thematic areas emerged in workshop discussions as a potential contributor to surprise or disruption. The challenge of shared understanding
focused on the lack of common definitions and clarity regarding the potential of various technologies to produce surprise—not only among symposium participants but also, by extension, among military strategists and planners. The currency of development refers to the various elements of a country’s culture that could accelerate or decelerate the speed of technological progress. Cultural impacts also play a role in the acceptability of a technology and affect which areas are selected for development. Finally, commercially driven development, increasingly carried out by multinational corporations responding to global market demands, could be unpredictable, complex, and subject to repurposing. These areas are all discussed more fully in the following sections of this chapter.
LACK OF SHARED UNDERSTANDING OF NEW TECHNOLOGIES
Symposium participants’ differing perspectives on which technologies were on the cutting edge of development stimulated discussion regarding the significance and consequences of the featured technology topics and the relevance of their emergence in adversarial circumstances. The lack of a shared understanding of potential uses also proved to be a source of widely varying perspectives among participants, particularly in the case of exotic technologies such as quantum computing. It was a generally held belief that some applications of these not-widely-understood technologies could be debilitating to U.S. defense strategies.
For example, a debate emerged in the blogs about what to watch for in the development of chemical weapons. It became apparent as the debate moved forward that the symposium participants were basing their opinions on different definitions. This kind of confusion in communication could be problematic both for indications and warning and for operational intelligence. In another example, it became apparent during a discussion on the use of electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) as nonlethal weapons that many participants were unaware of recent research showing that EMPs, even when used with benign intent, could have lethal effects. Another discussion mentioned the need for senior officers and decision makers to be advised by one or more technologists who are well informed on the current state of the science and are adept at translating technological advances into operational impact when planning defensive strategies and capabilities.
Additionally, different perceptions emerged that reflected lack of a clear, shared understanding of how technologies, even well-understood technologies, might be used. One participant suggested that perhaps we think too much in terms of the legacy platforms we so abundantly have versus future options an adversary might pursue. Another participant opined that we perhaps have become complacent in some technological areas by virtue of having been so dominant in air superiority for 30 years. The discussion became fairly pointed with respect to quantum computing, with one participant stating flatly that it’s a red herring and others noting that there is an amazingly large investment globally for such a
“red herring’’—one sign of a gross disparity in understanding that could create vulnerability and open the way to future surprise.
One participant noted that popularized information channels were not a reliable enough source of information to inform high-regret decisions, specifically stating that we need to be very cautious about making policy and military decisions based on hype (science fiction, marketing, movies, news). Another symposium participant responded that it would be important to search actively for the unusual—not a wish for hype, but for understanding the nature of the technology in order to anticipate how the technology could be combined in unique ways to create true surprise. Yet another participant countered that a new field such as detection deception might appear to the uninformed as hype but to others as promising. The course of the discussion continued with the premise that even if these Star Trek-like devices (communicators, tablets, beam weapons, force fields) are considered hype today, they do challenge the S&T community to explore imaginative possibilities and are often the basis of long-term predictions, as discussed in the second National Research Council report on forecasting future disruptive technologies.2 This discussion became a rich source of information and inspiration for some participants, with the record showing how opinions evolved as the online conversations continued.
A generational gap was noted in the use and appreciation of technologies. One participant observed how amazing it was that junior officers’ ideas for using technologies were often resisted at first by their older commanders but then noted that when the junior officers demonstrated success, the general officers were willing to change their viewpoints.
During the discussions surrounding Human 2.0, virtual reality was presented as an enabler both for technology surprise and for behavioral development. In its application to training and visualization, virtual reality is well understood by many in the services and the relevant communities. In fact virtual reality has had a long-standing presence in large defense systems such as aircraft and naval systems, yet virtual worlds and simulation have been less common in the ground war (infantry/civil interaction) components of warfighter training. The U.S. government has made significant investments in this technology, but many in the audience questioned the effect of training soldiers solely via simulated encounters. One participant contended that there is no evidence that simulation can replicate the real stress that accompanies actual life. Without this critical piece, simulation will always be a poor substitute for reality, useful in particular niches like partial task training but not as a replacement for live training. Some members of the audience countered this argument, stating that although virtual reality might seem to be just an interesting experiment today, while it is still in its infancy, it might
NRC. 2010. Forecasting Future Disruptive Technologies—Report 2. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, p. 44. Available at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12834.html. Accessed August 30, 2010.
be useful in the future if it spills into the real world, combining virtual combat environments with unmanned soldier systems. Another comment reminded the audience of the utility of systematic desensitization, given that some soldiers suffer posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when they actually see, smell, and experience the blood and gore of real combat.
Virtual worlds—from those that model large-scale persistent communities to the immersive games that are played in smaller peer nodes—were demonstrated to help in improving understanding of human behavior in a variety of ways. A symposium participant wrote that perhaps virtual worlds allow us to understand the implications of certain situations that we would not like to experiment with in the real world. (This idea is expanded later in this chapter—see the section “Impact of the Cultural Context on Technology Development and Use.”) Symposium participants observed that studying human behavior in instrumented virtual worlds could potentially provide a very rich set of behavioral data. This kind of research not only is possible but also is actually being pursued at research institutions around the world. Perception can be shaped. While virtual reality (e.g., Second Life3) could be used to promote dangerous ideologies, as one participant stated, it was exactly these behaviors that could be silently observed in a virtual environment and studied. Unlike in the natural world, virtual worlds provide a global reach that can uncover new combinations of cultural mixing, ideological distribution, and cultural behavior.
The symposium participants converged on understanding how virtual worlds were being used now and how they might be used (or abused) in the future. However, there seemed to be a dichotomy in the audience between those who saw a military relevance for virtual or augmented reality and those who thought it was overrated. One participant noted that augmented reality using synthetic visual generation and networked sensors could allow a warfighter to see what is on the other side of a wall; another disputed the idea, claiming that no evidence has shown real impacts from the use of immersive virtual environments. The lack so far of concrete, real-world examples of such technology successfully applied in military or intelligence environments is one reason that the technology is being evaluated for its potential to surprise. Simply put, no one has proved or disproved the utility of virtual reality technology.
See footnote 2 in Chapter 2.
UNDERSTANDING THE EFFECTS OF AN ADVERSARY’S COMPULSIONS AND CONSTRAINTS ON INNOVATION DEVELOPMENT
Among the many influences affecting S&T R&D development efforts in any country or organization, the committee observed that the following affect the ability to innovate:
Levels of risk considered acceptable.
Together these factors constitute the currency of development (COD), which should be taken into account when considering the relevance of the pace, direction, and origination date of the technology development effort. The COD incorporates the drivers and enablers of innovation in terms of the people, the timescale, and the resources (both tangible and intangible) necessary to bring about new behaviors and/or new technology. The COD also includes constraints or obstacles that economists might refer to as “negative incentives.” The combination of these elements constitutes a COD similar to Michael Porter’s total factor productivity (TFP).4 COD differs from TFP—COD captures the likelihood that a technology will develop in a specific context, whereas TFP focuses on the components of the productivity potential of an enterprise. However, metrics for COD need to be normalized across different countries to account for different labor costs, which appear in the cost of executing R&D as well as the cost of creating and maintaining the infrastructure to support the R&D enterprise.
This part of the discussion intrigued some of the symposium participants, and it became clear that the elements comprised by COD were neither well understood by the individuals present nor consistently definable by them. There was a concern that the intelligence community needed to understand COD much better and that such understanding would be critical to comprehending the development potential in specific situations. This understanding was discussed from both an observational and a diplomatic perspective, because it was from the latter perspective that elements of the currency component could be used to influence the technological capabilities of adversaries in certain areas.
IMPACT OF THE CULTURAL CONTEXT ON TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPMENT AND USE
Cultural issues were of significant concern to many of the symposium participants because of the perceived substantial impact on technology development and use. Cultural distinctions based on geopolitical context, demographics, and value systems were singled out for discussion. Culture was considered to have the following kinds of impacts:
It makes some societies more susceptible than others to certain kinds of attacks,
It makes some societies more likely to develop certain types of technologies, and
It creates challenges in observing and interpreting other, different cultures.
Understanding the sources of cultural distinctions emerged as a multidimensional challenge that had not been fully considered by the participants.
Geopolitical context is perhaps the most familiar source of cultural distinction because it is the one with which we are most familiar—people or groups from a distant region are different from “us” by virtue of their culture. As such, it was the first source of cultural distinction to warrant attention by the symposium participants. But once raised as a topic, geopolitically based cultural distinctions turned out to be replete with nuance. In this connection, microcultures (cultures within other dominant cultures) were discussed along with fused cultures resulting from population migration. Fundamentally, however, lack of appreciation of other cultures was seen as a weakness in U.S. intelligence efforts. One participant noted that Americans speak few foreign languages, do not travel abroad widely, and do not have a good understanding of foreign cultures. The premise was that the more people are exposed to foreign ways of thinking, the better they are able to understand other points of view and the less myopic their outlook will be. One example given was the number of Chinese students studying the English language and American culture compared to the number of Americans studying Mandarin and the Chinese culture. Another participant, agreeing, said that cultural competence was expensive in terms of time and money, going on to note that the few people who have that competence are usually fully engaged in current operations. This thought was developed further in a cost-benefit discussion, which suggested that significantly broadening cultural competence DoD-wide would be challenging, time-consuming, expensive, and difficult to defend given the current climate of shrinking resources and increased competition for those resources—raising cultural awareness might even have to be supported from S&T funding.
Not knowing where cultural distinctions come from can be a weakness in defense planning, where actions are undertaken to achieve a desired outcome. The weakness may be exacerbated if there is a lack of training and familiarization with such issues and their interpretation, which is quite likely, given the subtlety and sophistication of cultural nuances and their interpretation. The importance of culturally sensitive analysis was described by one participant as critical to seeing correctly through an adversary’s eyes—for example, a Western thinker, asked to select two from among a banana, a monkey, and a panda, might choose the monkey and the panda since they are animals. Alternately, an Asian thinker might choose the banana and the monkey since a monkey eats bananas. Another participant noted that even among cultures that might seem to be very similar, important differences in perspective can exist. This participant spoke of conducting a research project years ago that examined differences between U.S. and UK training and technologies using Navy officers conducting combat operations. The results showed that there were critical differences in the heuristics used in their decision making. This difference in thinking exemplifies the impact of cultural differences and educational differences even among people who share the same language.
One symposium attendee warned that addressing the problem of cultural nuance is not easy from a personnel perspective and commented that to be effective requires personnel who can internalize the values of adversaries while faithfully bearing allegiance to the United States. Unfortunately, these people can and do have career disadvantages within U.S. culture; hence, they are kept out of the mainstream. Another attendee cautioned that understanding culture is important and noted the great temptation to apply a solely American perspective to U.S. international efforts, as well as the increased likelihood of failure in those efforts if we indulge in an exclusively American-centric strategy. Put another way, on the international stage, what the United States intends is often not what is inferred, many times for no other reason than a culturally uninformed choice of words or gestures to which we ascribe little meaning but which have great significance for the observer.
A more subtle cultural distinction comes from demography—younger generations are increasingly more immersed in network-enabled entertainment and productivity than older generations and, therefore, have a very different appreciation and interpretation of what is virtual in culture and games and what is real. This cultural distinction transcends geography and geopolitical boundaries and fosters the emergence of subcultures that span the globe. The denizens of these subcultures have different expectations of what is allowable, what is possible, and what is appropriate, particularly when it comes to behavior in cyberspace. This culture is more dynamic than mainstream culture—it has norms that evolve at a
much more rapid pace, is more driven by advances in technology and assimilation of those advances, and is less encumbered with the burdens of communicating to other cultural groups that don’t have the context to understand the reality embodied in their virtual world.
The impact of cultural nuances based on demographics is grasped only poorly, if at all, by older generations. One participant noted that the youth of today have different expectations, saying that for many under-25-year-olds, their virtual friends are more real than their “physical” friends. Look at Facebook for example. For many of that generation, virtual interaction is human interaction. If we think about virtual teams and a virtualized workforce, cyberinteraction and social skills in cyberspace may be more important socially, politically, and economically than “local” interactions.
Another participant noted that demographic cultural differences also exist within geographically defined cultures, including in the United States, where, according to one observer, young army officers who use these new technologies to increase their agility showed all of “us old guys” how technology should be integrated into the Army. As mentioned above, one observer expressed amazement that junior officers’ ideas to use technologies were initially so resisted by their older commanders, whereupon another attendee offered having witnessed one senior officer refer to those technologies as “destructive to the chain of command.”
The United States has learned, painfully, that certain values considered by our citizenry to be abhorrent and even prohibited in our own culture are nonetheless fully accepted as appropriate, or at least permissible, in the cultures of some of our adversaries. By their own standards, these adversaries consider themselves to be highly structured, altruistic, and moral. This leads to several potential cultural conflicts. The first arises from the development of culturally abhorrent technologies, where the abhorrence could stem from either the end use or the development process itself. Such circumstances could result in a perceived need for the United States to develop defensive technologies to counter the perceived threat, which in turn could imply a need to go against our cultural values. Another arises in the challenge of teaching right from wrong to the next generation of warfighters. Further, the value gradient may be gradual rather than discrete, possibly allowing for an extended and irresolvable debate. One participant pointed out that chemical and
biological weapons are banned as a method of warfare, which is why the United States doesn’t use riot control agents (RCAs) in offensive operations like building clearing. Conversely, RCAs are permitted in police actions. Police actions are defined by each nation-state—for instance, the United States uses RCAs for detainee operations, but the United Kingdom does not. During the 2002 Moscow theater crisis, fentanyl was deployed by the “police”—regulations governing the use of chemical and biological weapons provide little guidance on what a country may use or develop for use against its own people.5,6
These issues are not new—consider the impetus for the Geneva convention—but continue to be of concern, particularly in the area of advanced human-based technologies, which require careful consideration. Additionally, there are significant intelligence challenges, because “values” are culturally dependent, and we cannot, in principle, appreciate them fully from other perspectives. Many participants felt that disciplines such as cultural anthropology, sociology, and psychosocial pathology are extremely important to warfighters, particularly in today’s world and going forward.
It was noted at the symposium that understanding takes effort. To paraphrase one exchange from the blogs, we are surprised by female suicide bombers, not because we have no knowledge of our enemy and their thinking, but because we have only a superficial, cookie-cutter understanding of that culture and thinking. The blog contributor closed that particularly poignant dialog by stating that, with people at least, there may be nothing new in interpersonal interaction the world over, but there is a lot of “new to me.” As the symposium proceeded, a great many participants echoed this sentiment.
GROWING EASE OF ACCESS TO POTENTIALLY DISRUPTIVE TECHNOLOGIES AND INCREASING DIFFICULTY OF MONITORING
Commercially Driven Emergence of Disruptive Technologies
The potential for surprise arising from commercial development efforts was considered from several angles. One was the speed with which commercial development can occur, particularly as contrasted with the pace of U.S. defense procurement. Another was the potential for incursion into what has traditionally been state-sponsored research and development, such as for space-related R&D. One participant commented that space was already a “playground” for billion-
P.M. Wax, C.E. Becker, and S.C. Curry. 2003. Unexpected “gas” casualties in Moscow: A medical toxicology perspective. Annals of Emergency Medicine 41(5):700-705.
NRC. 2008. Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. Available at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12177.html. Accessed August 30, 2010.
aires, highlighting SpaceX as a demonstration of what smart, creative engineers can do with relatively little money.
The potential for impacts from commercial development is particularly apparent in the biotechnology and medical areas. As one participant noted, the commercial drive for some research, particularly medical and pharmaceutical research, might lead to alternative uses that are not readily observable but that could be surprising. For example, medical research for conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease will continue to advance and drive research on brain interfaces in the United States, but the notion of using it for other applications is wide open. The research on and commercial application of neurological treatments elicited a robust discussion when it was collectively realized that cognition-altering drugs can be used for many purposes beyond those originally intended, such as memory enhancement or suppression, the maintenance of alertness, or the simulation of pleasure. One participant felt that given the profit potential of treatments for neurological disorders in the aging populations of richer countries, it is likely that the rapid pace of development of these technologies by the commercial sector will continue to accelerate. Another participant pointed out that genetic engineering combined with brain interface development may enable advances in behavioral control, with the resulting potential for creating a new class of engineered humans of particular use as “cyberwarriors.”7
Concern was expressed about the potential for benign, highly profitable technologies developed by the commercial sector to be converted or “frankensteined” into offensive technologies. This concern arose most often when the discussion turned to biotechnology, virtual reality, social computing, or space exploration. While there was some discussion about the barriers to entry for new technologies (from the standpoint of both the required technology base and the necessary resources), the point was made repeatedly that such barriers applied only to initial entrants and became much lower over time as the technology pervaded the marketplace.
A specific area of concern was in the area of health research, where commercial enterprises working at the DNA level are beginning to market health protocols, including drug treatments, based on genetic engineering and chemical interventions into normal human processes. The fear was that the maturity of the research base required to achieve this level of sophistication in health treatments need not be replicated by adversaries desiring to create an offensive capability; for example, effort toward the genetically specific targeting of populations or the use of chemicals to influence mental processes might leverage open-source knowledge and widely available “best laboratory practices” in conjunction with commercially available equipment, as opposed to investment in an expensive,
For more information, see NRC, 2008, Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies, Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press. Available at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/12177.html. Accessed August 30, 2010.
general-purpose research-grade enterprise. This fear as expressed by some symposium participants was compounded by the realization that there is a much higher potential for maintaining secrecy regarding such development efforts in the case of a legitimate commercial enterprise (versus a state actor) whose primary-purpose technology or treatment was being turned into a product to fill an existing market niche, such as a genetic screening test for a condition common to a particular ethnic group, since investments, staff, and products for executing the advertised objective would match those required for the clandestine objective. This situation could potentially make the detection of such capabilities for nefarious purposes almost impossible.
Another area cited by participants as one in which commercial R&D predominates is that of small sources of power, especially batteries. Although Napoleon is quoted as having said that an army travels “on its stomach,” it is the case that a modern army travels on electric power, primarily batteries and small generators. This power is needed for the equipment soldiers carry as well as for robots; for these applications, combustion engines are inadequate, unavailable, or inappropriate. Indeed, it was stated at the symposium that a major challenge to the evolution of small robots—for land, sea, and air operations—was the lack of power sources with energy densities comparable to those available for large platforms. It was pointed out that while most of the R&D on advanced batteries takes place in the United States, most battery manufacturing is in Asia (mainly China), and that U.S.-based production facilities have been closed or sold to foreign owners. Other participants countered by saying that several new start-ups in the United States are planning to produce battery packs for electric cars, implying that this situation might improve.
Discussion of the commercialization of space and its impact on security elicited different views. Some thought that entrepreneurial approaches would lower the cost of access to space and could be duplicated by non-state actors of sufficient means. Others were very skeptical that the cost would change much. People commented that the U.S. government was relinquishing its leadership in access to space to the private sector and other countries.
It was also pointed out that technologies developed by the commercial sector had often been repurposed for military uses; one example is the transfer of the combustion engine from cars to tanks. This observation led to a discussion of how military-use-only technologies could be distinguished from potential dual-use technologies.
A recurring theme during these discussions was whether technology surprise would be more likely to emerge as a result of commercial market forces or of state-sponsored development. This concern arose more often in discussions about the technology areas profiled in the symposium that were considered to have great commercial potential. It did not, for example, arise in discussions about highly specialized defense applications, such as precision targeting, but did arise
for application areas perceived to have a high probability of dual use, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and virtual reality.
The emergence of new technologies was also discussed in the context of open-source development. Several participants had strong opinions on the potential for surprise arising from applications of open-source knowledge, technology, and even intelligence, with one observing, “Now there is a disruptive technology.” Other contributors commented on the magnitude and diversity of computer code that is freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. Still others lamented that this topic wasn’t more specifically highlighted during the presentations at the symposium. This level of concern was seen as most relevant to technology being developed in connection with computer-enabled applications such as simulation, modeling, and communications but could easily be applied to ad hoc weapons designs (biological and chemical weapons, and improvised explosive devices and subcomponents).
The monitoring of open-source research was generally described as problematic. Discussion at the symposium explored the idea that when many different people from many different areas of expertise are contributing, keeping track of all that develops becomes increasingly difficult. Furthermore, the ability to fuse many open-source capabilities to create something new might dramatically reduce the time needed for research and development for technology applications. Clearly, not all technologies are amenable to open-source development. But of the ones that are, the combinatorial potential of the multitude of open-source efforts was seen as a troubling possibility. One participant declared that, at least for the technologies discussed at the symposium, there are few better examples of technology levelers for a non-state actor than exploitation of open-source technologies and expertise; the open and available nature of the Internet and open-source content offers clear and explicit instruction on how to do something and in some cases will nearly do it for you—you only need to hit “play.”
The Challenge of Keeping Up
In the various discussions about how surprising or disruptive technologies could emerge, there appeared a recurring question: Could such technology and expertise be discovered solely from the published literature? Because researchers, particularly those in academia, are so highly motivated to publish, does it stand to reason that the literature is an obvious source of information about new technology developments?
The literature is large and varied, and so identifying the potentially important advances from a large and increasing number of scientific articles requires a sophisticated approach as well as subject-area expertise. This sentiment was
widely shared among symposium participants, with one stating it explicitly when he asked a speaker for clarification of one of the presentation topics. In thanking the speaker for the informative answer, he said, “Cool. Thanks for the update. It’s hard to keep up with the literature.”
It was pointed out that keeping up with the literature entails more than simply counting papers, although it was noted that there is value in such observations, if only to uncover trends and to discern popular areas of published research. Also mentioned was the evolution of the literature to include Web publishing and blogging, which presents new challenges for tracking. To paraphrase many symposium participants, in order to extract knowledge from the published literature and obtain data on frequency of publication in a timely way, there would have to be ongoing collaboration with the academic community. The discussion continued, exploring the idea that facilitation of interactions between U.S. and non-U.S. scientists might be important in enabling the monitoring of technological advances and their uses, at least within academic organizations.