Military Trolls for Disruptive Technologies

July 1, 2014
By Rita Boland

Finding early the capabilities that will alter defense processes can have as much effect as developing them.

The next big breakthrough to affect the U.S. military might come from a different country or industry altogether, and discovering it in emerging stages could provide advantages. Developers with the Defense Department have launched a pilot system that aims to find these potential game changers before they become full-blown trends. Along the way, the research will explore what criteria are necessary to perform such a task.

This system rolled out earlier in the year as part of the advancement of the Technology Watch and Horizon Scanning programs—two complementary efforts designed to identify emerging technologies but from different angles. The former tracks key technology buzzwords while the latter looks for emerging scientific concepts and technology applications with disruptive potential. The capabilities these projects seek to detect might be outside the defense realm or might have been previously considered too immature to have much relevance to the technical landscape. The researchers for these programs look more at the science and technology facets of a project than at the application-space adaptation.

The initiatives, which began two years ago, aim to identify emerging technologies that improve the work force or infrastructure, or that have potential enough to lead the department to sponsor research in new areas. “I mean those systems that change or could potentially change the way we do business,” says Brian Beachkofski, director, Office of Technical Intelligence for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering. What the military wants are developments that could alter operational constructs, not upgrade plug-and-play capabilities, he adds.

The military’s research and engineering community will evaluate the exploratory system. The endeavor’s capabilities focus mainly on the Technology Watch effort, but could help inform Horizon Scanning as well. It pulls in bibliometric data from English-language articles and other writings to discover emerging terms that could have impact. Project personnel have interest in technology that would allow them to explore terms in different languages, though such a capability is unavailable in the prototype. In creating the prototype system, developers conducted extensive research into the theory of emergence. The work focuses on global scientific literature, not any particular country or region. Research also focused on patents, which can have significant influence on trends.

Personnel studied different methods of human- and technology-based predictions. “Because of some of the studies that looked at the accuracy of these, we favor a more automated process,” Beachkofski says. The system employs two algorithms to identify emerging areas. The first is a patent data search created by the company 1790 Analytics, in Haddonfield, New Jersey. The Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, in Virginia, developed the second, which focuses on bibliometric data.

Through the prototype system’s interface, users can query emerging technologies, technical terms and similar items. The system then pulls data from independent sources and aggregates it into a single visualization space. With the system now live for employment within certain communities, the developers are pulling in feedback that they will build on as they refine the technology.

The researchers want input on which types of visualization and information provide the most benefits and how to enhance the number of tools inside the platform. A request for information (RFI) went out last fall to learn more about available capabilities and how to incorporate them. One area of interest involves sponsoring a capability to identify new and emerging topics. Others are additional algorithms and forecasting tools that can operate in the system with the same goal of finding those potentially disruptive technologies.

However, Beachkofski says, the exact tools that will benefit the system are still vague. “One of the questions we have, and what we’re hoping to find, is what is the state of understanding technical immersion,” he explains. In the macroeconomics field, experts understand the conditions necessary for economic growth. Technology Watch and Horizon Scanning want to find the precursors on a microeconomic level. Officials want to know what the preconditions are for technologies to become viable and whether data is available to clue into that.

Despite the focus on automation in finding these potential game changers, the system itself will not determine whether a technology is likely to be disruptive. “That is a human analytical process,” Beachkofski explains. In the end, people will have to look over the data presented to determine what inventions could make the big differences.

The prototype system is hosted at the Defense Technical Information Center, offering a user base wider than the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering. Developers are reaching out to scientists and engineers across the services to obtain a variety of opinions. “Getting that customer feedback is going to be really important,” Beachkofski says. Though his office has the need to identify potentially disruptive technologies, the same desire to realize emerging capabilities early exists across the Defense Department.

How the system is used could depend on the organization. In Beachkofski’s office, the same people will employ the software and carry out the human analytics piece. It has a team that looks at technologies early in the maturation process, then evaluates their meaning for military applications. “We create those assessments and put them out,” Beachkofski explains. The system would help feed that assessment process, he adds.

Before humans can begin their appraisals, however, they have to make their queries. And exactly what to query is still uncertain. “That’s where we really need to understand the science of emergence,” Beachkofski says. The idea behind Technology Watch is to start with a technology in mind, then try to evaluate whether it is emerging or staying at a low level of maturity. With Horizon Scanning, the attention is more on technologies not identified, on technologies that the military does not even know of yet. But to do that, people have to move away from query-based solutions. They will have to identify precursors, then use analytical software to nominate technological areas as potentially emerging. “The long-term goal is to really get a system that does both,” Beachkofski states. However, the military does not have a time frame for such a technology right now. Based on the responses to the RFI, the science is not as mature as expected, meaning other evaluations and game plans are necessary.

The prototype-system evaluation is scheduled to continue through this fall, but already the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering has received input from early users. Beachkofski says many people have volunteered to experiment with the technology, demonstrating the interest in such capability.

Success for the prototype system is based on providing analysts with useful information to evaluate and identify potentially emerging and disruptive technologies. The Office of Technical Intelligence also wants to create a conceptual framework of technology emergence, including identifying data-based indicators such as patent-number count over time or author citation metrics. With these indicators, the humans in the loop not only have evidence of emergence, but they can reach out to the patent holders or seminal article authors to better understand the current research direction, opportunities and challenges.

Long term for Horizon Scanning, personnel want to predict accurately the technologies that will be prominent before they appear in the popular media, finding those emerging scientific issues years earlier than through today’s processes. Though tighter military budgets increase the importance of technology, and leaders continue to clamor for more timely fielding of technological capabilities, Beachkofski says Technology Watch and Horizon Scanning are not in direct response to those trends. Government, industry and academia all want to understand the tools that will make a big difference tomorrow. They then can put in the right infrastructure and align projects with business processes. Developers want to make sure their work offers the advantage users want, putting in place tools to keep up with the pace of technology.

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I'm curious to see if the developers "tested" their algorithm "in the past" to see if it would accurately identify current, disruptive technologies. For example, if the algorithm ran in 2005 (and filtered only those academic articles and patents prior to 2006), would it have identified something as "disruptive" as the smartphone? Armed with this information, researchers could conduct further split a/b testing to identify characteristics that could improve accuracy for certain fields/industries of interest.

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