Mapping Out Future Intelligence Technologies

September 1, 2017
By Robert K. Ackerman
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An ODNI program strives to guide research and development by some unlikely sources.

A new approach to identifying key research targets could help bring nontraditional partners into the realm of developing advanced intelligence technologies and capabilities. It builds on the Intelligence Science and Technology Partnership, or In-STeP, which lays out road maps of key capabilities that can be exploited by government, industry and academia.

The Intelligence Formulation of Risk Management (In-FoRM) program takes intelligence basic research challenges to the basic research community, along with intelligence requirements to industry, instead of merely compiling a wish list. Intelligence requirements, often classified, are used by a diverse group of people to create technical road maps for filling those needs. In-FoRM, a program from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), is expected to filter unclassified information from those road maps to provide to researchers outside of the traditional intelligence community.

David Isaacson, program manager at the ODNI, describes In-FoRM as another way of looking into these road maps. The program strives to turn government research into intelligence capabilities.

“We are hoping to use In-FoRM to set the path going forward,” he says.

Research and development is critical to future intelligence community activities, emphasizes David Honey, ODNI’s director of science and technology. If history is any guide, there is always a fundamental discovery that enables “a new capability to be developed and put into the engineering handbooks that didn’t exist before,” he relates. “That’s one of the goals of the In-FoRM process—to identify those opportunities.”

ODNI officials hope that In-FoRM will establish a directory of capabilities being pursued in specific research areas by private-sector and government organizations and laboratories. A forum held in early August generated a preliminary matrix of research areas and agencies. Sometime soon, a formal report will be released.

In-FoRM has a complex history. It emerged from ODNI’s In-STeP (SIGNAL Magazine, April 2015, “Intelligence Community Strives for Common Research”). This effort generated six road maps, establishing key capabilities, technologies and basic research challenges for the intelligence community and the broader U.S. government. Two of the maps highlighted data management and advanced analytics. As part of In-STeP, the ODNI revisited the Advanced Technical Intelligence Association, which developed all the road maps, and had it use those two as templates to generate a new intelligence production model, Isaacson relates.

A report by the association later identified seven technical areas that could help redefine the means of intelligence production. The report pinpointed basic research problems and formed the basis of the In-VEST challenge series (SIGNAL Magazine, December 2016, “The Intelligence Community Challenges Industry”). The first challenge, known as Xpress, looks at machine generation of analytic products; its successor, Xtend, will examine machine evaluation. Those research challenges became the foundation of In-FoRM, Honey explains.

Based on the list from the August forum, In-FoRM will identify which agencies should pursue certain technologies. Where there are government research gaps for intelligence community needs, the community may need to fund the research itself or not do the research at all.

“We hope to be able to partner with and reach out to the funding agencies that spend the bulk of the basic research dollars,” Honey says. “When we have spoken with them in outreach, they have been very interested in learning our basic research interests. I think there will be a lot of opportunities to partner and leverage.”

But until the ODNI knows how much basic research these agencies will cover, it cannot assess areas for additional investment, he continues. It is way too early to make those assessments and determine what needs to be done, Honey emphasizes. Further progress with In-FoRM and developments in intelligence community requirements could shed light on new areas of research to pursue. “The process is transparent,” he emphasizes. “With In-FoRM, we’re going to inform senior leadership of potential gaps or shortfalls in national security that might result if we are not making the right investments, even down to the basic research area.

“It’s a formal process, and that’s why we still value the other out-of-the-box part that is really where the disruptive technologies come from,” he continues. “But if these [approaches] work, and we’re able to deliver the systems that we envision will be out there, there’ll be tremendous capabilities that will carry the intelligence community for quite some time into the future.”

One advantage In-FoRM offers is its ability to generate a complete list of research sites and topics, both classified and unclassified. By stripping out the classified listings, the system can generate a list of research available to the private sector. “We can work with an entire range of nontraditional performers,” Isaacson says.

One goal is to work the In-FoRM approach through all the In-STeP road maps, which are products in development, Honey points out. For example, the ODNI continues to expand the scope of the weapons of mass destruction it is exploring. The threats from state actors and nonstate actors are entirely different, so the office ensures that it covers all issues.

Honey notes that as the ODNI is moving forward with the road maps, users are contacting the office to share new ways they are using intelligence products. “This alerts us that there are other cuts on these road maps that we need to consider,” he adds. The office will continue to increase its work with industry to understand the enabling technologies and requirements for the basic research world as it continues “to compile this almost encyclopedic approach to the basic research objectives to meet national security needs.” These objectives must be tracked to ensure they are in place, he adds.

There is a lot at stake. The threat picture is changing more frequently than ever. Honey offers that In-FoRM is positioned to change as needed. But one constant throughout the effort is industry, which helps create the road maps. Through this process, industry takes what it learns from the intelligence community back to independent research and development (IRAD), where it makes vital investments based on that information. “It can take advantage of this information well before anyone else even catches on that there is an opportunity there,” he says. “We have seen an impact on IRAD out of In-STeP … we have seen some very good use of the information in that regard.

“You really have to work with groups that think all the time about what that future threat space will look like,” Honey adds.

Many people working in the intelligence requirements community focus on studying present-day threats and actors to anticipate their plans and actions, he explains. This approach gives the intelligence community an idea of where to focus its efforts and can benefit In-FoRM.

This model is top-down, he continues. Another effort represents a bottom-up approach in which organizations that are aware of the threat are not requirements-driven. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the intelligence community’s equivalent, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), are examples of such organizations. The two groups, working in parallel with organizations active in the threat space, will help the requirements-generation process, Honey says.

In many areas, he claims, progress with this process is not as rapid as people might think. “People are surprised because they weren’t following that particular area,” he relates. Experts in the field who are watching various areas closely are not surprised, and these experts are among those who will be counted on to keep In-FoRM current.

For more on machine-augmented analysis of multisource data, see this video:

Technology requirements for the intelligence community will be among the discussions at the Intelligence and National Security Summit September 6-7 in Washington, D.C.
To register, visit

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