Technology: Autonomy is Upon Us!

I am a technology guy! I love the excitement of new technology of any kind. In my younger days I believed that all technology was good for mankind as long as humanity properly harnessed it.  I believed that all technology could make our lives easier, enable us to do more in less time, and enable more freedom in our lives.  I began to open my technology aperture in the early 1980’s while working for Rear Admiral Wayne Meyer, the father of the Navy’s Aegis fleet of cruisers and destroyers.  Admiral Meyer burst my bubble one day while I was explaining to him how computer automation would reduce the workload burden on our Aegis sailors.  In his famous, cantankerous way, he told me that I was speaking poppycock He then explained to me that automation always makes our lives more complex, busy, and challenged in some unanticipated way!

I have often contemplated Admiral Meyer’s tidbit of knowledge since that day twenty-five years ago.  As the computer revolution of the 90s empowered us all with laptop computers, mobile phones, and now smart phones, we have all heard the lament that our lives have become overwhelmed with more complexity.  Each time I hear these laments, it reminded me of Admiral Meyer’s wisdom.  A current book I am reading treats this subject in interesting and beautiful detail.  The book is What Does Technology Want, by Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine. []

In his book, Kelly explores the idea of technology from man’s beginning to modern times.  He points out that the biggest boost to the growth of technology was when early humans obtained the ability of language about 50,000 years ago.  Before that period, humans made and used tools for survival but the evolution of those tools was slow.  The evolution of technology has been on an accelerating growth curve, following our ability to share knowledge, and self-examine through the power of language. We now stand on the threshold of our technologies being able to share knowledge and self-examine without our intervention!

Kelly examines this situation in every aspect while also asserting that the technium is autonomously moving forward as an interdependent element of humanity.

“…I’ve somewhat reluctantly coined a word to designate the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us. I call it the technium.”

He points out that mankind began to dominate nature and earth about 10,000 years ago. At what point will the technium dominate mankind? That time may be upon us now. As Kelly describes:

“As the most powerful force in the world, technology tends to dominate our thinking. Because of its ubiquity, it monopolizes any activity and questions any non-technological solution as unreliable or important.  Because of its power to augment us, we give precedence to the made over the born.”

Those of us in the business of defense appreciate and understand this dilemma. Military has and will always be technology driven because of the power it delivers to the side with the most capability.  Many wise leaders such as Lieutenant General Paul Van Riper, USMC, and more recently ADM Robert Willard understand better than most the siren song of technology. Each in different ways have worked to ensure that our military leaders, and the soldiers and sailors they lead, continue to think and about how to conduct their missions under the expectation that the technology they rely upon may not be reliable.

At the same time our military technology has ushered us into an era where the data our sensors collect, combined with the data being generated globally, is overwhelming our human ability to make effective use of that data.  This challenge is partially aggravated because our Naval information infrastructure is incapable of supporting the effective collection, storage, processing, and distribution of terabytes of data. As in all of our military challenges, more technology is sought to help alleviate this shortfall.

Interestingly, “autonomy” is identified as one of DoD’s seven science and technology investment priorities. As such, future S&T investments will develop:

“science and technology to achieve autonomous systems that reliably and safely accomplish complex tasks, in all environments.”

One can quickly appreciate the value autonomous command and control support services could have on future military engagements. If we are able to develop new C2 algorithms that understand the mission, situation, and commander’s intent then these new algorithms may be able to sort through terabytes of shared-data to find that right piece of information at the time needed to improve the commander’s decision.  More importantly these algorithms could potentially enable our forces to stay inside of the decision timelines of our adversaries.  As a technologist, my challenge is to help prevent these new autonomous technologies from creating more of what Admiral Willard decried in his seminal Proceedings article, Rediscover the Art of Command & Control, October 2002:

“Command and control is a lost operational art that has been swept into cyberspace by a whirlwind of technologies, made less significant by weak doctrine and misunderstood terms, and put off by future visions of every war fighter possessing relevant information.”

I will gladly take that challenge...


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17 Responses to Technology: Autonomy is Upon Us!

  1. Dear Marv: Fascinating and one target. May I make a suggestion. Immediately start to develop “signals” to replace the technologic carnavor we have developed that has replaced “communicating”.

    • Marv Langston says:

      Lois, your wisdom outshines all of us younger folks… please keep up the great leadership…

  2. Provocative, as usual Marv. But I think you’ve hidden the Genie in the “autonomy” box. I’m a technophile and a humanophile, and have come to realize that we humans are particularly poor at shepherding technological advance. Mostly, it just overruns us, because it affords such great benefits to many people who will gladly pay for it. That’s not bad, mostly. But when Government and military leaders continue to “plan” technology the same way the USSR made 5-year agriculture plans, you can bet they’re going to get it really wrong. In the case of “autonomy” and other arenas of the information age, our leaders need to understand that the changes require immersion, personal integration, and transformation. The new humanotechno-autonomous system-enhanced arena of military activity will be characterized, I anticipate, by extremely close, trusting, understanding relationships among the participants. We will need to understand the machines, and they us, and this will result from cooperative, collaborative experiences. This will give rise to an emerging new set of tacit and explicit “rules” that enable each of us to rely upon one another.

    So what we really mean by autonomy is a new working relationship with a wide variety of entities that have distinct competitive advtanges and peculiar, if not unique, ways of understanding the world, communicating, and cooperating. “Autonomy” isn’t the goal. The actual goal is leveraging human outcomes through continued exploitation of the exponentially improving technology opportunities. We can’t really create “them” in some image plucked out of our inexperienced heads. We might reasonably expect to co-evolve with ever more powerful systems if we set out to do that.

    But to do that, we’d need one or more military organizations to be allowed to become the “new style Army” or the “human-machine hyper-being” or whatever you want to call it. We won’t invent “them” to work for us. We need to co-invent us with them, while we figure out how technology-enhanced-cooperative-systems look, feel, and behave.

    This means we need to get out of the programmatic high altitudes and muck around with new man-machine teams, in a continuous and agile evolutionary approach.

    Getting off the soapbox now….

    • Marv Langston says:

      Rick, brilliant reply as always. The idea of co-invention and emersion is exactly what Kelly suggests. I think we will be pulling closer to your hyper-beings as this notion of autonomy begins to play out. I like your distinction of humanophile and agree that we can’t central plan anything in this area… Thanks, marv

  3. Michael Aisenberg says:

    You are raising what I think is a phenomenon recurringly observed, often predicted in fiction or used as a fictional thesis (Looking Glass War, Forbin Project), but never teed-up for policy analysis and real action. How much of the security infrastructure which we deploy is deployed NOT to accomplish the task of protecting the data, or protecting the network, or using the assets for combat mission, but to protect the data protection infrastructure, qualify and track the human users, track the traffic and protect the firewalls or monitor the use of the IW tools ? As the technology “penumbra” grows and grows more distant from the core mission, the connection between the rationale for initial investments in the technology and the tolerance of the penumbral complexity becomes harder to control, less clearly justified or “rooted” and IMO, more prone to attack, co-optation, misuse and abuse….Ref: Cisco’s latest add, proudly declaring–“By 2020, our network will have grown to 50 billion devices–7 for every user on the planet!” As if that is undeniably a “good” thing…good perhaps for Cisco’s shareholders, for a while…but I think your Admiral got it right…Like the Xerox ad says “How much does all of this cost ?” “What ???” “THIS..all of this paper; all these reports..they might have cost..well…MILLIONS !”

  4. Fred Saalfeld says:

    A fascinating blog, Marv – thanks for including me. I believe we need to return to the strategies of the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s when we became a great melting pot for humanity. At that time we learn to blend cultures, languages, etc. into the shape of the “pot”. Today, our challenge is to blend the technology thinkers, with the communication people and each “talk” to each other, not past one another. In the earlier times, the great equalizer was the American public school system; today, perhaps we should invent another another melting pot school system. In this system, I envisioned technologist, scientist, politicians, and journalists working together to us understand each other better. Keep up the interesting work, Fred Saalfeld

    • Marv Langston says:

      Fred, I agree with you that we need a new and better melting pot system. Some would argue that it is the web or the social networks but those activities fail to create the depth of interaction you are suggesting.

  5. Marv,

    USMC has discussed moving away from the C4I “layered” structure and going to more of a peer to peer structure. They are focused on mission orders. (Interesting comments made at recent C4I dinner and USMC IT day in April 2011.

    r/ Jim

  6. Rex Buddenberg says:


    It’s a pet peeve, and fixing it would only fix symptoms, but it reinforces Rick’s comments about DoD’s Five Year Plans … we routinely get it wrong. You said:

    … and misunderstood terms, …

    DoD 5000 requires every PM to generate a handful of ‘views’. One of those required is TV2 — the glossary. So every PM salutes (needs the checkmark in the box at milestone review time) and hires a contractor to assemble a glossary.

    But there’s nothing in the system that requires PM#1’s glossary to have the same definitions for the same terms as those in PM#2. If you can stand the irony, it’s hilarious reading to spot-check a few terms and see how shoddily they’re multiply defined. A few of my favorite terms to check up on inlcude
    – waveform
    – interoperabiliy
    – information system
    – network

    • Marv Langston says:

      Thanks Rex, just another example of how bureaucracy creates policy that serves to produce less, over many more years, and at greater expense…

  7. Bob Bengtson says:

    Marv, great article and I will definitely check out the book. Your story about Admiral Meyer reminds me of the Marine LtCol (combat engineer) who I worked for as young Navy LT. He referred to the Communications Platoon attached to our unit as the “Complicators”. And this was in the day before PCs became available.

  8. I read all the comments, and find that they are wise, insightful, and valuable. Your posted blog: technology: autonomy is upon us! is certainly interesting. But I have a slightly different concept of how things should, in fact, must progress unless we will be overwhelmed by technology and its growth.

    I constantly get embroiled in active discussions where the first thing which is addressed is how technology, new tools, and their ilk will allow us to solve anything: won’t they? After a pause in the yelling (active discussion) someone (sometimes me) asks the question: What’s the problem? Define the problem, and define what are workable solutions. I will not go on.

    This issue arose is the discussion by Gates, SecDef, who worries about how our military and its support will be rebuilt. The question we have to ask is: what types of wars and challenges will the military face in the near future? Do our current designs, even updates to current designs, provide us with what we envision we will need? I personally think that the answer is NO, and we need to rethink at a Senior Military Level what has to be built. But that in itself is a discussion for another day.

    Technology is truly remarkable, and deserves to be considered and used. But, it is of value if, and only if, the right questions are asked, and then the forms of the answers are available for decision makers. Masses of unintegrated data, incoherently presented, or even obscured by overlays, is worse than useless; it is dangerous.

    Enough. Best to you, and thanks for keeping me in the loop.

  9. Kurt Rothenhaus says:

    Terrific post and I really enjoyed the book. Another great read which is part “Lila” and part “What technology wants” is “The soul of a new machine” by Kidder. Thank you for passing on the big thoughts!

  10. Marc Wilson says:

    Marv – the fact that we are using technology to have this meaningful, collaborative discussion indicates to me that the culprit here is our inability to THINK about the information presented to us as technology enables it to be presented at a much quicker pace. Perhaps what we need to better discipline to periodically disengage unplug and think about what we were just told or read. I think about this often when listening to radio – the talk show host says something, I’m not sure if I agree or not, and he moves on to the next subject/commercial/caller and my mind is taken in new directions. The pace with which we are presented with information demands that we slow it down into chunks that we can consume. It’s like a man vs. food competition on a minute by minute basis.

    I look forward to when technology masks the complexity and helps us focus on the higher-level issues. This about it: when you buy a cake, do you ask about the brand of the suger, the flour, the milk? Or, do you look at the decoration and wonder about the flavor and if that little birthday girl at home will enjoy it? We have been looking at ingredients, not the cake.

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