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Disruptive by Design: Cognitive Device Wish List

Perhaps it’s time for Defense Department procurers to ask more of smart devices.

By Lt. Col. Ryan Kenny, USA

Slapping the term “cognitive” or “smart” in front of a given technology is an easy marketing tool conveying an advanced level of automation whereby devices change behaviors with little or no human control. Cognitive networks, cognitive electronic warfare tools, cognitive radios. Without “cognitive,” they would just be dumb devices.

Are cognitive devices that intelligent? How adaptive are they? Furthermore, when confronted with an adversary similarly equipped, do they make the right adaptations? Perhaps it’s time for Defense Department procurers to ask more of smart devices.

With this in mind, I present this cognitive device wish list.

Adaptive Power Control. Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics, masters talk power. Units must efficiently manage power allocation and use to enable freedom of maneuver. As unmanned systems laden with new sensors and transmitters proliferate, demand for intelligent power control will increase. Soon, the days of communication leaders worrying only about the maintenance status of generators will feel as quaint as colonial officer concerns for firewood.

Cognitive radios and electronic warfare tools, particularly for dismounted troops, should demand engineering solutions that scale power output in response to the environment and mission requirements. Wasted power means carrying more batteries or power harvesting devices. Transmitting with too much power means being on the receiving end of precision fires.

Power transfer between unmanned systems—imagine mobile recharging stations—should be required as stand-alone hardware or add-ons to larger mobile platforms. A swarm of electronic-warfare drones or retransmission radios automatically attach, bat-like, to an Abrams tank for a quick hit of direct current.

Save and Tag or Delete. If you’ve ever spent an afternoon cleaning an old hard drive or organizing files in the cloud, you can appreciate the military’s expanding problem in deciding what data to tag and save or delete. The Defense Department urgently requires smart data warehousing solutions.

Engineering decisions on how to smartly save or delete data must be made at every level in the stack. Standardized metadata tagging is critical for developing machine learning solutions efficiently. Proliferated sensors worn on bodies, packs and tracks require filtering to make delete decisions. If the department does not solve the metadata problem, it will add to the increasing hay in the stack. Furthermore, if it fails to delete redundant or useless data, it will inadvertently place a toll on every data highway it owns—from push-to-talk radios in the field to inter-device switching in data centers.

Omni Channel Connectivity. In a previous SIGNAL Magazine article, I discussed named data networks and how this TCP/IP replacement can enable omnichannel connectivity. A combat environment, where platforms move farther and faster, both in and out of electronically contested environments, requires solutions that deliver omnichannel connectivity. Communicating using all things in all ways would mean dynamically sending data packets via radio frequencies hopping in response to range, interference and the state of the network of other friendly devices. For example, this approach would allow swapping to quiet point-to-point light communication within range of enemy sensors and dynamically returning to noisy 5G electro-magnetic pathways in friendly lines.

The days of owning the spectrum and operating out of enemy range are behind us. Now is the time to break down the barriers between technologies designed to work within their slice of the spectrum.

Optimized Prime. Most near and dear to my heart, it is time for communicators to establish requirements for smart solutions to our community’s unique problems. The future fight will not be won simply through smart robots delivering smart munitions. Those forces will require smart networks to smartly manage all their data! Many problems face those responsible for transmission, networks, software solutions and cybersecurity.

Future retransmission capabilities executed by unmanned systems may establish mobile radio frequency pathways undetected by enemy electronic-warfare scouts. Consider future software-defined networks that enable multiple levels of classification and user-defined access that replace redundant stacks of switches, routers and servers. Think about programmable hardware from antennae to video walls. Visualize a suite of cybersecurity tools that fuse intelligence data extracted from network sensors and user devices along with information scraped from public websites and the dark web. Communicators should require all of these specific technologies to be designed with cognitive principles.

Devices that change behaviors with little or no human control inspire utopian and dystopian views. Some see a world where the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks have been outsourced to intelligent devices. Others imagine a world fraught with self-driving cars forced to choose between running over three grandmas or one kindergartner. The reality probably resides somewhere in the middle. Not every cognitive technology will solve the military’s problems—but plenty of current advances can be exploited.

Lt. Col. Ryan Kenny, USA, created an online forum to foster discussions on emerging technologies at www.militarycommunicators.org. The views expressed here are his alone and do not represent the views and opinions of the Defense Department, U.S. Army or other organizations with which he has had an affiliation.