Autonomous Systems in Military Operations Webinar, 8 Nov 17 Debrief


Personal Notes and Rapid-Fire Reflections

Short disclaimer: I'm not affiliated with NATO and I'm an outside practitioner. However, being somewhat entrenched in the Old Dominion University entrepreneurial ecosystem, and given that the NATO Innovation Hub was right up the street, it's nice to know what our neighbors are up to!

This is a rough debrief on the Autonomous Systems in Military Operations Webinar/Workshop which took place November 08, 2017. This was held by both the NATO Transformation Command Autonomy Project Team and the NATO Allied Command Transformation's (ACT) Innovation Hub in Norfolk, Virginia. The three hour workshop's goal was to facilitate discussion on how autonomous tech could improve NATOs future capabilities.

I'm not an expert in autonomous systems, but I listened intently while taking copious amounts of notes. This is far from being a comprehensive collection and I suggest waiting for the Innovation Hub's official report to be released. In the meantime, someone might find this useful, and corrections and even better insights can be offered as well.


The Power of Questions

  • Questions 11, 13, 14, 15, 17, 23

Other Insights

  • My thoughts on predicting game-changing tech, and making sense of the future

  • A historical example of innovation from Lockheed

Back to Other Insights from the Workshop

  • Space X versus NASA's NPR 7120.5

Overheard via Chat

Ending Thoughts

Footnotes and Recommend Reading


The Power of Questions

The most powerful tool in any innovator's repertoire is the question. It was fantastic to see some deeper insights presented by virtual and onsite participants, many of who were subject matter experts in their respective industry and military branch. They were already in a sense, "witnesses in the battlefield," and personally encountered innovation challenges of their own.

Sometimes the questions themselves elicit even deeper questions. This also plays in the favor of innovators: to get on the right path, you have to ask the right questions.

I hurriedly recorded any notes for each question presented. This list will be incomplete. I didn't have notes for some questions and clearly some insights intersect with other questions.

Question 11. Does NATO need a common understanding/definition of autonomy?

A common language across the NATO coalition is crucial for understanding, but one theme that came up was that we don't need more prescriptive textbook definitions on autonomy.

So far, it seems many member nation states are still discussing the ramifications. We also need to understand each nation state's understanding of what autonomy and what it means to them for both military and civilian applications. Not everyone will have the same understanding.

Question 13. What are the opportunities and challenges?

The issue of trust kept coming up, especially institutional vs individual trust.

Question 14. What are the topics and areas to explore in priority?

Cybersecurity issues: You don't know you're hacked until after the fact. Sometimes, you never know.

How is control shared between AI and the human? People may trust a human as a backup, or an intermediary, but sometimes the human still makes the error when trying to intervene in control. How might we make humans trust a machine? After all, trust isn't entirely rational, but emotional.

Accountability is a complex and emotional issue and will involve the human element. The autonomous "targeting" process and having an autonomous weapon "finish the difficult work" doesn't mean no one is responsible. It was mentioned that we don't need to look at the targeting process as binary – meaning to kill or not to kill – but rather reducing the effectiveness of the enemy. That's where autonomous targeting systems can be effective.

Who would be lawfully accountable? Would the system operator? The government of the nation state? The developer? Insurance companies?

Question 15. What solutions for teaming between humans + machine AI?

How do we preserve human jobs? Tough issue is facilitating transition between the human to the AI.

What are some of the body language challenges in negotiating control between human and AI? I'm reminded of a recent breakthrough done by the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute.

How might we put the call out there for users to offer ideas to military and its developers? And what do users/developers need? Sometimes no one really knows. This seems like an issue of how to get feedback loops for requirements for software development, especially when the tech is both new and rapidly advancing.

Question 16. How will autonomy impact future NATO ops across air, land, and sea?

How will contractors be affected in the future?

The cybersecurity of systems is always an issue.

Consider the value proposition for small member nation states versus larger member nation states in the NATO alliance.

Is it possible that outdated technology can be resold to enemies and terrorists?

How do we manage interoperability between supplier systems companies, especially when autonomous tech evolves so quickly?

How do we prevent accidental fratricide?

Question 17. What should be the strategy for NATO nations and industry/commercial sectors?

This is a tough and another complex issue because of a lack of information sharing. Everyone has different agendas and different motivations. We also want to prevent duplicating innovation efforts by those in the commercial space.

How might we invite more educational institutions working together with NATO nations? Open innovation tournaments can help communities tap into a wider pool of creative capital. Just recently the first NATO Innovation Challenge was held at Old Dominion University to search for innovative ideas from companies and organizations all over the world that would help NATO vastly improve its humanitarian mission, especially in the areas of energy, medicine, logistics and security.

One obstacle is dispelling the myth that NATO is only about military and defense: NATO also has a humanitarian mission as it helps in many disaster relief scenarios. There's no doubt many in higher education institutions are apprehensive to the military in general.

Question 23. How can NATO take advantage of commercial and/or civilian developments

I think there are plenty of examples now that nation states can learn from the commercial sector. Especially in maritime.

Someone mentioned autonomous ships, which reminded me of Google's and Roll-Royce's partnership. This also presents other challenges: are autonomous ships hackable? Maybe prone to enemy takeover?

We also have plenty of Search + Rescue examples in the commercial sector. For example, when harsh weather conditions or terrain prevent humans from doing operations, we send UAVs, depending on the task.

This also presents questions like how do we ensure that civilian applications are validated and approved for military usage?

Other insights

My thoughts on predicting game-changing tech, and making sense of the future.

Other challenges mentioned was the difficulty in predicting what's really "game changing" technology. This is a common existential obstacle even in the private sector, because it's not just about emerging technology, but using that technology to solve real customer and constituent problems.

In innovation practitioner-ship, we teach participants "future sensemaking" skills to help them make sense and navigate the muddy and often complex waters of emerging 21st century technologies. Many of these are common sense like sending representatives to critical science and tech conferences, exploring findings in basic and applied research often buried in higher education institutes, et al.

And some are tacit interdisciplinary co-creation skills and concepts that extend beyond the default brainstorm and the default mode of meeting, which by the way, take some experiential training to get used to. (If you're familiar with question-storming techniques using the "How Might We?" stem, you're on the right track.)

A historical example on innovation from Lockheed

Game-changing technology is difficult to "predict" or sense because of how innovation actually occurs. It's easy to sense new emerging tech, but searching for specific problems to solve is a tougher endeavor. Innovations are not necessarily single events, either. The puzzle pieces are often buried, sleeping and awaiting someone to make the right fit and connections from disparate sources and time periods.

For example, Ben Rich who was Lockheed's second director of the legendary Skunk Works from 1975-1991, wrote in his memoir titled "Skunk Works" how they serendipitously discovered the breakthrough theory behind stealth technology.

During the cold war in the 1960s, the American military faced the challenge of increasingly advanced Soviet air defenses: it was evolving faster than the Americans were able to thwart it. The question was how could aircraft sneak past radar and successfully deliver a lethal payload – in this case, a nuclear bomb to the Soviet motherland?

A thirty-six-year-old Skunk Works mathematician Denys Overholser pored over a research paper titled "Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction," authored by Soviet scientist Pyotr Ufimtsev. It took the patience, subject expertise, and curiosity of a mathematician to navigate the byzantine paper:

"As [Overholser] explained it, Ufimtsev had revisited a century-old set of formulas derived by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell and later refined by the German electromagnetic expert Arnold Johannes Sommerfeld. These calculations predicted the manner in which a given geometric configuration would reflect electromagnetic radiation. Ufimetsev had taken this early work a step further."

Ufimtsev's equations provided a way to make the radio wave reflections off hard surfaces predictable, a key insight which would allow Overholser and others to create computer software that could design stealth aircraft.

According to Overholser, an airplane can be broken down into a series of flat triangles so that each triangle's radar signature and cross section can be calculated. The result would be a process to design aircraft composed of flat angular surfaces, aka "faceting." In Ben Rich's words, "similar to cutting a diamond into sharp-edged slices." This led to the development of the F-117 and the ability to have a dramatically reduced radar signature.

This is a common pattern in how innovations really happen: 1. A combination of insights 2. a talented ecosystem of interdisciplinary teams and 3. a specific burning problem to solve. A circular trifecta of illumination, engineering, and thus transformation.

This also illustrates another common feature of innovation: The puzzle pieces from basic research and applied research need time to mature. Certain technologies and theories must also advance and coalesce so that the conditions for innovation can be ripe. This is where teams need not just subject matter expertise, but also sensemaking skills and proactive awareness of emerging technology and research.

In the Skunk Works case, it took more than a century for conditions to ripen. Ufimtsev wasn't the lone genius. He built upon the work of James Clerk Maxwell – a physicist from the 19th century. Theoretical Physicist Arnold Johannes Sommerfeld would then refine those formulas in the later 19th century. Up until the 1960s, the formulas only existed in their raw form: pure theoretical math.

But when supercomputers came into fruition, it provided a platform to put those formula to use and make faceting possible. The program called Echo-1 had to be coded and invented from scratch. An interdisciplinary U.S. team of scientists, aircraft designers, and mathematicians captured this opportunity – closing the gap between mathematical theory and aircraft design – to make the F-117 Nighthawk possible. When supercomputers evolved enough to handle more powerful 3D calculations, other companies seized the opportunity, like Northrop Grumman and its B-2 Spirit.

Innovation is never a linear sequence nor an isolated idea. It's always a process and a combination of the right people, the right insights, and serendipitous events towards a burning challenge.

Back to the Other Insights on the Workshop

One thing brought up was the lack of strategies and processes to get people outside of NATO to assist. Open Innovation challenges, with adequate rewards and bounties, are a great first step. As an outsider, I think the Innovation Hub is doing excellent.

Exploring the commercial tech already out there. It's not just about the technology. How to apply it to the right problems (again, the Skunk Works example).

SpaceX versus NASA's NPR 7120.5

Another question: How do you change within a defense bureaucracy? Bureaucracy and red tape can be problematic. Someone had inquired about academic literature that studied how bureaucracies transformed themselves to be more agile and quicker. None were provided yet.

If I remember correctly, someone from NASA had chimed in about how his organization worked versus the "luxuries" that SpaceX possesses. SpaceX is allowed to "blow up rockets" and are inundated with less paperwork. SpaceX designed their procedures from scratch and the ground up to succeed in what they do now. NASA is bound by more traditional regulations found in NPR 7120.5, which prevents the organization from "rebooting" to be more faster and agile.

This reminds me of a Reddit thread from 2015 titled "Redditors who have worked at NASA and SpaceX: How do management and decision-making process differ?

Overheard via chat

  • Los Angeles has a BOT that helps you challenge parking tickets. He must be referring to DoNotPay BOT.

  • AI is often divided into proactive and reactive. Proactive implies thinking while the latter is more limited to reacting to more specific stimuli.

  • The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has a longer report slated to be presented to the United Nations. I discovered that this same report may be here on the SIPRI website, titled Mapping the Development of Autonomy in Weapon Systems. It was authored by Dr. Dr Vincent Boulanin and Maaike Verbruggen, and published recently this month in November 2017. This addresses definitions of autonomy but also military drivers and challenges. Thanks to the participant that mentioned this.

  • Autonomous weapons are often discussed within the United Nations CCW (Certain Conventional Weapons?), but plenty of confusion arises when it comes to definitions and interpretations.

  • NATO STO HFM (Human Factors and Medicine Panel?) plans to begin a study related to development of autonomous medical systems for tactical evacuation.

  • The Israelis already have an armed autonomous perimeter patrol vehicle.

  • Brief mention of KEEL technology.

Ending Thoughts

Global industrial players are on the hunt for competitive advantage. This makes mergers and acquisitions in defense industries an attractive pursuit. The speed at which the commercial space innovates has overtaken national defense labs, forcing some nations to seek alternate solutions.

So how can NATO member states and its governments foster successful defense research and technology institutions?

One idea offered was for NATO to retain some independence with its in-house science and technology developments. And rather than reinventing the wheel, it can also leverage its funding to tap into the performance, effectiveness, and creative capital of the private sector, notably defense, and thereby creating a new innovation ecosystem.

That's all for now. Please leave some comments and feedback below.


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Related Further Reading:

SIPRI: Mapping the Development of Autonomy in Weapon Systems (Nov 2017)

Autonomous weapons are already here. How do we control how they are used?

How Lockheed's Skunk Works Got into the Stealth Fighter Business

Ben Rich's Memoir Skunk Works

r/SpaceXLounge: Redditors who have worked at NASA and SpaceX: How do management and decision-making process differ? 

US Defence Strategy from Vietnam to Operation Iraqi Freedom: Military Innovation and the New American War of War, 1973-2003 (Strategy and History) by Robert R. Tomes (2007-02-25)

Local initiatives:

NATO Innovation Challenge Pitch Day and Award Ceremony (Full Replay)

NATO Innovation Hub


ODU Innovation Center

TempO: Business Creation, Incubation, Acceleration

Bryann Alexandros