War 2.0: Drones and Autonomous Minions

Like it or not, the needs of our military drive a lot of technology innovation. At SXSW 2017, the Director of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) office talked about how new ideas are being implemented by the Department of Defense. Titled “The Future of Warfare,” the interview between Will Roper (pictured above) and Nicholas Thompson of Wired is now available online.

Leading off this hour-long conversation, Roper notes that the DOD “has been doing warfare the same way for the last 25 years. Our job at SCO is to try to change the game.” Five more of his soundbites from this fascinating (and frightening) interview are as follows:

  1. A little more transparency: “Our military systems can do amazing new things. It is time to start telling the world about some of these new systems. Because we don’t want to just get ready to fight the new war, although we need to be able to do that. We also want to be able to deter tomorrow’s war. And, if you don’t tell the world what your changes are (at least give them a hint of them), then there is not going to be any deterrent in the mind of your opponent. So, we are showing a little bit of what we are doing. But, we are still keeping the best locked away tight for a rainy day.”
  2. The Halo effect: “Video games right now are made to emulate warfare as best they can. I would not be surprised if eventually the chicken and egg cycle completes, where we start making warfare more like games. Many video games explore the idea of one person controlling multiple things. That’s one of the big thrusts that you see for across all areas for us in the Strategic Capabilities Office. We love the idea of taking a manned system and allow it to transcend from a single thing to being a team of things (where the manned system controls a lot of unmanned things). I think the video game industry gives us a lot of insights on how to do this. What if the leading edge of war were systems being controlled by people who are a step back from the front lines. So the dangerous jobs are delegated to machines.”
  3. Off-the-shelf hardware is good: “In the case of our drones and our autonomous minions, we are trying to stay within the space of commercial technology. So this kind of technology is probably not going to be as high-performing as something that we could build ourselves. But, we use commercial technology because we know that if these new machines are left in the battlefield, then anyone in the world can touch it. So, where we put our investment is in the high end of low technology. Let’s add software that allows those systems to collaborate with a fighter or a ship or a submarine in a way that a terrorist group could never do. Software is relatively easy to protect, but hardware is not.”
  4. DOD needs to embrace data: “We at the Pentagon don’t treat data the same way that a company like Google or Apple or Amazon does. For us, data is kind of like the exhaust that comes out of our systems. That’s not the way people who are working in AI or machine learning are thinking. They are thinking whoever has the most data is going to be able to train the most intelligent machine and that machine is going to have the best advantage. The Pentagon needs to be saving and stockpiling all of its data from every flight and every mission and every exercise and every event that is machine discoverable. What if in the future, we are fight a military all of whose systems learn. So, Day 2 of the war, they are smarter than Day 1. But if we are fighting with systems that don’t learn then we have put the burden on people to try to make whatever they need to do work within a system that is effectively fixed. I fear that we at the Pentagon are not moving down that path quickly. So that is one of our major focuses this year — treating data as a strategic resource.”
  5. Revenge of the drones: “SCO is really enjoying working with the Air Force on a concept called Avatar where fighter pilots now have small, mini-drones that fly in front of them that can take the leading edge of risk. Now the fighter effectively becomes something different, something that has a greater reach and more capabilities than you could see with a single fighter. This is part of the strategy to have more teams [of manned and unmanned resources] everywhere.”

Watch other presentations from 2017 via the SXSW YouTube Channel. Also, check out our SoundCloud page for hundreds of podcasts from March Magic. If you have a speaking idea for SXSW 2018, enter your proposal in the PanelPicker beginning June 26.

Hugh Forrest tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often (but not always) cover technology-related trends. When not attempting to wordsmith or meditating, he serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW in Austin.



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Hugh Forrest

Hugh Forrest


Celebrating creativity at SXSW. Also, reading reading reading, the Boston Red Sox, good food, exercise when possible and sleep sleep sleep.