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December 18 2012

DARPA and Defense Department look to a more open source future

As the United States military marches further into the age of networked warfare, data networks and the mobile platforms to distribute and access them will become even more important.

Open Source Uncle SamOpen Source Uncle SamThis fall, the (retired) eighth Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff described a potential future of the military that’s founded not only in open source thinking, but in next-generation user interfaces and biohacking straight out of science fiction. If even some of the strategic thinking he described at this year’s Military Open Source Conference in D.C. is applied to how the technology that supports the next generation of war fighters is built, dramatic evolutionary changes could cascade down the entire supply chain of one of the world’s biggest organizations.

In his remarks, James E. “Hoss” Cartwright, a four-star general who retired from the United States Marine Corps in August 2011, outlined a strategic need to make military technology more modular, based upon open standards and adaptable on the battlegrounds of the future.

Cartwright, the first holder of the Harold Brown Chair in Defense Policy Studies for the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a member of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee, and an adviser to several corporate entities in the defense industry, is well placed to have an informed and influential opinion.

Over the course of his talk at the Military Open Source Conference, Cartwright outlined how open source software models could be applied to hardware, making vehicles into adaptable platforms for different missions, not vertically integrated programs that can take a decade or longer to design, build or change.

Given the scope of the Pentagon’s current capabilities and DARPA’s research, potential ethics concerns abound, from drone warfare to sentient robotics to targeted genetic plagues to brain scanning to biohacking.

In that context, Cartwright prioritizing ethical qualms about secrecy, privacy and big data over those raised by biohacking was notable.

The issue that Cartwright said bothered him the most, however, was big data. “There are really no secrets out there,” he said. By exposing data to a larger dataset, it’s possible to correlate real identities. (That’s the so-called “Mosaic Effect.”)

That’s what’s now happening with network intrusions from other countries, he said, which leads to genuine national security headaches. Cartwright noted that while the federal government has huge classification protocols, they’re nearly all discoverable if you know how to correlate the information. Even correlations in anonymized data can lead to the discovery of true identities.

Big data concerns aside, Cartwright highlighted a strategic need for the U.S. Department of Defense to address these risks and develop improved man-machine interfaces, from touch screens for unmanned vehicles and weapons systems to prosthetics for veterans.

Making these changes won’t happen overnight. The relevant time scale is many years, if not decades. It’s far from easy to turn an aircraft carrier and its battle group around, much less to shift the U.S. Department of Defense’s approach to procuring and using technology. That said, hearing a retired four-star general articulate this kind of strategic thinking has stayed with me.

Biohacking on the battlefield

Retired General James E. CartwrightRetired General James E. CartwrightAt the outset of his remarks, General Cartwright shared an anecdote involving former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, where they asked a sergeant at a base in Savannah, Ga., what he though of mobile.

The sergeant said that he loved it. He would rather leave his rifle behind than a military-enabled smartphone. “I can call any help I need with it, it always works, and I don’t have to go to school for it,” Cartwright recounted the sergeant’s response.

The sergeant’s comments reflect a serious issue for the 2.5 million people who have to fight, reflected Cartwright.

“We’re asking them to go into a ‘Star Wars’ bar on a regular basis,” he said, pointing to the language challenges soldiers face abroad. “We don’t know whether they’re saying something that will get them shot or hugged.”

Improved interfaces for mobile devices are, however, just the tip of the iceberg for improvements to the connection of soldiers to vehicles and weapons systems. Radical advances in storage, processing power and robotics are also offering new opportunities to help wounded warriors.

The cutting edge now is fully mechanized, battery powered, wireless prosthetics, said Cartwright, pointing to research in San Diego. Related research successfully enabled a soldier in Walter Reed Hospital who had lost three limbs to move a prosthetic limb only by using a brain-enabled chip.

“What we found was that, as soon as they put a chip on, phantom pain went away,” said Cartwright. “The FDA just licensed one.”

Bionic limbs have been around for years, but in 2012, amputees are climbing skyscrapers and moving bionic limbs using direct neural control.

Programmable soldiers?

The event horizon Cartwright described in his comments at the conference, however, went far beyond prosthetics into a tale of potential augmentation straight out of the annals of science fiction.

The retired general described an experiment in which a mouse ran a maze with a computer chip wired into its brain. After the researchers transferred that chip to another mouse that had never seen the course, the second mouse could run the maze. Such software-driven activities, if they were to be successfully improved and tested, could have profound implications for soldiers.

For instance, could you take a recruit, provide someone basic skills, then add a chip and upgrade him from basic to full rifleman?

“It takes 66 repetitions to get a habit,” said Cartwright. “It takes tens of thousands for Olympic quality. What if you can take that down?”

Even if these kinds of experiments aren’t deployed for humans any time soon, other technologies are already far along in development.

When you hit about age 55, said Cartwright, ocular nerves and auditory nerves start to degenerate. He described ongoing experiments with wired interfaces for human’s ocular nerves where developers were writing code to interpret visual stimuli for the brain.

“We’re now at the point where you can see good forms with purely programming,” he said.

Even if this level of biohacking doesn’t make its way into use by disabled veterans next year, the need for a combination of datasets, programming, man-machine interfaces, and biological research to augment the capabilities of current war fighters is, in Cartwright’s assessment, increasingly important.

“We’re getting to the point where, absent something like this, most of our systems require you to be an engineer to run them,” he said. “We need to improve the machine interface so that anyone can use it. That’s as important as the capability itself.”

Part of developing new capabilities for warfare using the brain, however, will need to be securing those interfaces against hackers. Interfaces and access points to “wetware” will need to be hardened, just like hardware and software.

If you can’t hack it, don’t pack it

One huge challenge that the armed services are facing today, Cartwright said, is adapting code in response to what soldiers are actually encountering in the field.

We can’t send issues back and have people quickly rewrite code, he said, which presents significant problems. To put it another way, the DoD wants the armed forces to be able to “write as they fight.”

Cartwright described a pilot program where contractors and grad students were sent into the field so they could understand the problems they were working against and reduce the time to write code to address it. The results were promising: they didn’t lose any technical staff and turnaround time for patches went down drastically, once they were able to get inside the decision cycle.

Only programmers in the field can teach analytic algorithms to determine the difference between an ambush and a drug deal, said Cartwright.

“You can’t do that unless you know how to dig for data and understand context,” he said. “That’s the turnaround time that we needed to stay inside an adversary’s decision loop.”

That’s particularly relevant for networked warfare. According to Cartwright, new software works in the “cyberfight” in Afghanistan for about 9-14 days before it needs minor changes — but new systems take years to build. Top leadership in the military thinks a problem in the battlefield means that an entire new platform is needed, he said, but you’re looking at 14 years to build a new kind of truck.

Open source military hardware?

What needs to change is the incentive structures for the people building and designing the “platforms of record” in the future, said Cartwright. That means designing programs and apps for problems we actually have, versus developing something that doesn’t get into the field for 10-15 years — and if you guess wrong on who an adversary will be, that sends you into a modification cycle of at least three years.

Open source methods, by way of contrast, can give the military the ability to change software in weeks and months, not years, said Cartwright. In that context, he indicated that the Pentagon is looking at how they can move from tightly, singularly integrated programs in the direction of more open platforms and open standards, where war fighters can add or get capabilities with modularity and at a speed measured in weeks and months, not months and years.

During the question and answer period that followed his remarks, Cartwright followed up on his comments on open source. Cartwright said that the Pentagon would like to get to the point where platforms are a conveyance for the needs soldiers have, with infrastructure set up in such a way that things can be switched out.

Notably, he said that in the past few years of the financial crisis, defense technology manufacturers that are agnostic to platform are faring far better. “They’re building code — sensors, activities — and others are not,” he said, “and if one or two programs are canceled, they’re in trouble.”

Cartwright asserted that military service acquisition people have started to understand the value of flexibility of technology that enables soldiers to quickly configure technology for fights.

To scale that across the entire military, he said, they must adopt more common standards across all services. Eventually, that would mean “displays, chipsets, anybody in this room can write code against, depending upon what the customer wants.”

Cartwright said he’d like to see today’s model of open source extended to military software and hardware.

“We’re thinking about a future where everyone’s garage can be a sweat house for the military,” he said, playing to his audience of military open source conferees.

Making these changes, however, won’t be easy or fast. “We’re still an industrial nation at heart,” he said. “We’re trying to get over that.”

In response to a follow-up question, he was frank about the time it may take to shift the thinking of some acquisition officers on open source and modularity.

“We’ve been working to make it look like it’s being fixed,” he said, “but we may need to wait for people to age out.”

Image Credits: Wikipedia and mil-oss.org

October 11 2012

Culture transmission is bi-directional

I read this piece in the New York Times the other day and have read it two or three more times since then. It dives into the controversy around DARPA’s involvement in hacker space funding. But frankly, every time I come across this controversy, I’m baffled.

I usually associate this sort of government distrust with Tea Party-led Republicans. The left, and even many of us in the middle, generally have more faith in government institutions. We’re more likely to view government as a tool to implement the collective will of the people. Lots of us figure that government is necessary, or at least useful, to accomplish things that are too big or hairy for any other group of citizens to achieve (in fact, a careful reading of Hayek will show even he thought so – commence comment flame war in 3 ..2 ..1 …).

So, to summarize, the right dislikes big government and typically the left embraces it. At least, right up until the moment the military is involved. Then the right worships big government (largely at the temple of the History Channel) and the left despises it.

Of course, I don’t know anything about the politics of the people criticizing this DARPA funding, just that they are worried that defense money will be a corrupting influence on the maker movement. Which would imply that they think Defense Department values are corrupting. And they might be right to have some concerns. While the U.S. military services are probably the single most competent piece of our entire government, the defense industrial complex that equips them is pretty damned awful. It’s inefficient, spends more time on political than actual engineering, and is where most of the world’s bad suits go to get rumpled. And there is no doubt that money is a vector along which culture and values will readily travel, so I suppose it’s reasonable to fear that the maker movement could be changed by it.

But what everyone seems to be missing is that this isn’t a one-way process and the military, via DARPA, is essentially saying “we want to absorb not just your technology but the culture of openness by which you create it.” That’s an amazing opportunity and shouldn’t be ignored. The money is one vector, but the interactions, magical projects, and collaboration are another, perhaps more powerful vector, along which the values of the maker movement can be swabbed directly into one of the most influential elements of our society. This is opportunity!

O’Reilly is participating in the DARPA MENTOR program and Dale has already discussed our involvement at length. So I need to disclose it, but this post isn’t about that. This post is about the idea that the military has been a change agent in our society many times before. This is an opportunity to do it again and for makers to influence how it happens.

For quite a few years, I worked in the defense space and, frankly, took a lot of crap for it from my friends on the left coast. But I always felt that the military was an important part of American society regardless of whether you agreed with its purpose or actual use, and that the best way to counter its less desirable tendencies was to engage with it. So while I worked my day job I also spent those years aggressively advocating open source software, emergent and incremental software processes, and “permissionless programming” web platforms for the DoD. I thought that the military could benefit from all of these things, but I also explicitly felt that they were a vector along which the cultural attributes of openness, transparency, and experimentation would readily travel. Those open and emergent ideas were a culture virus and I intended to shed them everywhere I could.

If you’re a technologist, you know that the military has always pushed the envelope. Silicon Valley itself began with Stanford’s government partnership during the Second World War. The world’s first interactive computer was Whirlwind, a component piece of the massive air defense program SAGE. So, if your vision is to unleash a democratized third industrial revolution based on the maker model, this is your opportunity. If you can insert open culture and values into the defense establishment at the same time, even better.

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