Saturday, February 24, 2018

Two Steps Ahead

Electronics miniaturization, global technology parity, and the Internet all combine to make awesome and frightening potentialities. When you see things you never imagined you would, it's easy to believe this is a world's first; the truth is, in most cases, your epiphany is late to the party. That is the single biggest threat to your appreciation of the value or danger of any technology: the assumption that civilizations' evolution will somehow wait for your brain process to catch up.

The top image is from 2017, in ISIS-controlled territory, the second is from 2009 in Afghanistan when General Jonathan Vance was in command. There is an argument by some that this idea - driving remote controlled explosive vehicles into enemies - really started in 2001 in Gulf War I as a counter to IEDs, but again that's other people's egos talking. Some people recall a Clint Eastwood movie, "The Dead Pool", and a cheesy gasoline explosion made by a remote controlled (RC) car weapon in the 1980's.

The image below demonstrates the idea behind all of these goes back to before WWII. The Goliath was made by Germany and used against Russian T-34's in WWII, but they stole the idea from a French prototype they fished out of the Meuse river. French defence research created the idea. One could make an argument that even they stole the idea and repurposed it in ground vehicle form from remote control airplanes in WWI. Or, in the vernacular of patent lawyers, "it's use in the new form was obvious".

It was Field Marshall Foch that stated to his own legacy's impairment that the biplane was:
Les avions sont des jouets intéressants mais n'ont aucune utilité militaire
(Airplanes are interesting toys, but of no military value.)
This is as great a folly as Bill Gates stating, " No one will need more than 640KB RAM for a computer."
“640K ought to be enough for anybody.”
In any case, many people, many powerful important people, went past dangerous technological things with only mild amusement. And a lack of significance. I do not blame them for it, but I urge you not to let them off the hook either. We all need someone looking at the problem from a wider perspective.
 Now more than ever.
People, no matter their stature nor visionary prowess, cannot encompass the entirety of everyone else's thought processes. That's a feature, not a bug. When one makes a pronouncement and turns around to more important things assuming you can forget the danger that lay in front of you, that might seem like a safe bet. Why? Because you determined it's not significant, remember?
Eventually, that idea, I suggest it as created by the French, was cast aside by the Germans as too expensive when the ends and means drifted farther than they could accommodate. The Goliath was forgotten without significance by the people stumbling past it. But the idea was not lost, it was "de-prioritized" in the minds of people that assumed they were smarter than the rest. They believed their vision must be the right vision. Why?
In all cases, an idea emerges then lays dormant that people think, at the time, they could avoid because they didn't see any immediate need to get ready to stop it. This is technological hubris. This is the single biggest, insidious, and most dangerous human behavior that prevents today's mankind from being ahead of tomorrow's adversary. It is one man's arrogance that he must be smarter, or smart enough, to out-think everyone else. A fatal tautology.
Asymmetric warfare, combined with the promulgation of technological parity brought on by electronics miniaturization, globalization, and the Internet, means that no government can avoid actively working on counters to technology. This isn't a self-serving opinion. It is a technological reality.
The luxury of time is no longer on anyone's side. That's not a bug, that's a feature. I have worked with people originating from the entire globe. I have traveled from Hawaii to Hungary. People everywhere are equally inventive, equally creative. Now they all have access to almost everything.
When someone claims that Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are some new threat no one had time to imagine coming, well, let these images determine what you think of that belief:
IEDs, Warsaw Uprising, Poland, 1944.
Petard - satchel charge (IEDs), France, 16th Century.

There is only one way to gain two steps ahead of anyone else, giving you one step to prepare, and that is to make deliberate, consistent, and well-rounded investments in research and development. You must do this not for your own satisfaction, but despite it.
We warned about a threat in 2005 that included internet-based ambush, made our own versions in 2007 through 2010, that didn't appear until 2017. We weren't listened to, and got no recognition nor credit, but the information was ready and waiting when it did occur. That's two steps ahead whether it's appreciated or not. I hope I have avoided the impression that I thought I was being originally creative, I wasn't, because my point is that it wasn't any one technological novelty that was important for the idea to be a threat then. All these technological threats PRECEDE everyone's imagination.
The realization that is important for you to understand is that this idea combined with many other trends ongoing at the time, other technological ideas that one needs to be mindful of in conjunction, made for a stark change in the likelihood of imminent arrival. That was my novelty. One can never guess, with absolute certainty, the risk-on moment. But appreciating the lower bound is soon is a truly valuable skill. That is prescience. 

If someone claims that they have discovered a new threat, your first response should be skepticism. Unless it's me, of course, then it's gospel. I won't be too arrogant in pointing out I have been ahead of the curve on many things fresh people will tell you are new. I assure you I was there first because I have been at the game longer, I started researching robotics in 1988. I bored my International Baccalaureate English class with a 6 minute presentation on robotics. It took 15 minutes. I placed eighth in the world in the Solar Roller at the 2000 BEAM/ World Championship Robotics Games. I've been thinking on robotics, explosives, and counter-IED since before 1998.

Most of my good ideas get de-prioritized.
If anyone claims to know a new technological threat, the first thing you should consider is how old is that person? Just how recent is that corporate knowledge?

The good news is, so long as they last, there are people that have the time and space to think ahead and around for you. You need people not slaved to the development of any one technique or technology that understand the bigger picture, the danger, and that embody enough corporate knowledge to see past our own collective shortcomings because that's what they are paid to do. No one person can see all the danger. No one interpretation can encompass all the manifestations that can appear. To believe otherwise is technological hubris.

I believe it was a (the?) Russian Chief of Staff that said it best, the value of research is foresight. 

Any commander entering a new conflict from this point going forward, must accept he/she will see technological disruption that, to him/her, must seem like the unimaginable. Every one of them must accept that this notion of unimaginability is false and will always be false, and that might be accepted. The hard part will be convincing them that it has never been true.

In case you were wondering in what way we were two steps ahead, this is a demo from 2007.  Ten years ahead of the emergence from an asymmetric threat.

This was a water disruptor driven on an RC car prototype aimed into a dummy target, with the help of EOD operators of the Fleet Dive Unit Pacific at Exercise Desert Rat 2007, to demonstrate a cheap, fast, and real explosive vehicle borne IED .

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