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. [www.kk.org]
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...