Burning Man, Artificial Intelligence, and Our Glorious Future

I’ve had several special opportunities in the last few weeks to think a bit more about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its future import for us remaining humans. Below I’m using my old-fashioned neurons to draw some non-obvious links.

The cause for reflection is the unexpected parallel between two events I’ve been involved in recently: (1) an interview of Elon Musk which I conducted for a conference in DC; and (2) the grand opening in London of a special art exhibit at the British Library which my wife and I are co-sponsoring. They each have an AI angle and I believe their small lessons demonstrate something intriguingly hopeful about a future of machine superintelligence

Burning Man meets the British Library,

Burning Man meets the British Library: “Crossroads of Curiosity” by artist David Normal

Onstage with Elon Musk, AFCEA Symposium,

Onstage with Elon Musk, AFCEA Symposium, “Revolutionary Changes in Intelligence”

Let’s take my experience as a snapshot case study, first with Elon Musk setting up the theory and hypothesis on the perils of “Strong AI” where artificial general intelligence could lead to Superintelligence. The “glorious future” in my title is of course an ironic reference to an idealized paradise of robotic perfection.

My 90-minute conversation with Elon onstage at the recent AFCEA Intelligence Symposium was wide-ranging and covered technology areas he’s currently leading work in – space, transportation, energy, innovation in general – but he wanted to lead off with Artificial Intelligence. He began by reiterating some of the arguments he and others like Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates have been making on the potential dangers in “summoning the demon” of Strong AI. (You can read “AI or Not AI?” for quick background, and I recommend Nick Bostrom’s recent book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.)

DSC_6424 (3)I had a string of questions on the AI topic, focused on implications which he and others haven’t addressed yet, at least publicly. I won’t give Elon’s answers – the session was off the record – but they were thoughtful and quite compelling.

(Maybe you should register to attend the next AFCEA event, so you don’t miss out again.)

Here’s one of my questions, on an under-examined implication of the current AI debate:

Shepherd: “AI thinkers like Vernor Vinge talk about the likelihood of a “Soft takeoff” of superhuman intelligence, when we might not even notice and would simply be adapting along; vs a Hard takeoff, which would be a much more dramatic explosion – akin to the introduction of Humans into the animal kingdom. Arguably, watching for indicators of that type of takeoff (soft or especially hard) should be in the job-jar of the Intelligence Community. Your thoughts?”

If your appetite is whetted and you do want to tap the world’s greatest AI experts for the current state of their work, you can’t do better than looking at their own presentations at a secluded conference earlier this year in Puerto Rico hosted by the Future of Life Institute, a group which studies the challenges in ensuring the safety of AI systems, in an effort to counter dystopian developments. I found it difficult to dismiss the anxiety evident among several of these brilliant folks. UC-Berkeley’s Stuart Russell tweaked any skeptics who pooh-pooh AI worries, with this slide bearing a reminder from the early days of atomic research:

Russell on AI

But let’s not get too AI-gloomy.

Instead, let’s turn to the parallel story from the arts, born at the very human Burning Man festival. I’m a fan of California artist David Normal, an innovative painter and installation-artist long active in Burning-Man circles. I like his work precisely because it demonstrates the incredibly complex, densely-layered inventiveness of a highly literate creator. One Los Angeles art critic’s review of an earlier San Francisco exhibition by Normal captures what caught my eye:

…the work is inspired by a set of influences as disparate and random as the content of the scenes themselves. The artist’s zoomorphic forms are inspired by Northern Renaissance masters, for instance, and his muscular figures and contorted poses are reminiscent of early Mannerism, as if Timothy Leary had come in and rearranged Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. There are numerous other archaic referents to be found in this curious puzzle–Normal’s Chemical Imbalance, for example, is composed around the form of the Kaballah, and contains quotes from Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa, and an Escher lithograph. It is this dizzying and complex fusion that Normal calls Crazyology–taken from a Charlie Parker song, the term is more than just a title of the exhibit, it is intended as a description of the mishmash of influences in the artist’s work. Normal explains: “The list of art techniques and philosophies that exploited and exulted in the irrational is a long and distinguished history that I would sum up as Crazyology….When people ask me what my style is, I say, Crazyology, and that way I have my own term for my work, and I can also refer to all the great crazy stuff that has inspired me – Surrealism, Punk, Dada, Pop Art, Psychedelic Art, etc.”

As fans of that kind of bushy-dendrite complexity, this summer my wife Kathryn and I have joined the Eccles Centre for American Studies and the Burning Man Arts Foundation in funding a major exhibition at the British Library through November 2015, entitled Crossroads of Curiosity. (Here’s information if you’re planning a London visit, which I highly recommend, and here’s a link to more photos and videos of the exhibit opening with Burning Man founder Larry Harvey and British Library Chief Executive Roly Keating.)

At face value, the new installation is stunning but straightforward: four 8-foot-by-20-foot massive lightboxed murals incorporating rich imagery from the Library’s digitised collections, mounted on the BL’s grand Piazza. It is described in the catalogue as “a series of dramatic tableaux featuring provocative juxtapositions of vastly different times, places, and peoples.”

Another photographer in the Crossroads of Curiosity

20 June - Crossroads of curiosity 01The pieces were first shown last fall at Burning Man 2014, where they were centrally arrayed on the ordinal compass points around the 105-foot-tall Man himself in the desert at Black Rock City (photo at right during their installation there).

But the story of how they came to be – their inspiration – is as interesting an element of the art as the visual images themselves. You see, there’s a man-plus-machine creation story…

A Mechanical Curator Lights Up the Desert

Several years ago the Digital Research Team and British Library Labs under the mighty Mahendra Mahey teamed up with Microsoft Research/Azure (while I was working there) to use their cloud infrastructure to work on a collection of 65,000 high-quality scanned books which were digitized through a partnership with Microsoft and the British Library a decade earlier. What to do with them? One idea from the BL Labs Technical Lead, Ben O’Steen was to set loose an algorithmic bot programmed to recognize pages which had an image or illustration, and digitally clip each one to save separately. The “Mechanical Curator” was born, and the resulting collection was eye-opening. Earlier the group at the BL had decided to do something generous: release the images for free public domain use. As spelled out in late 2013, their intent was to spark the creative imagination of others:

“We have released over a million images onto Flickr Commons for anyone to use, remix and repurpose. These images were taken from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th century books digitised by Microsoft who then generously gifted the scanned images to us, allowing us to release them back into the Public Domain.

“The images themselves cover a startling mix of subjects: There are maps, geological diagrams, beautiful illustrations, comical satire, illuminated and decorative letters, colourful illustrations, landscapes, wall-paintings and so much more that even we are not aware of.

“Which brings me to the point of this release. We are looking for new, inventive ways to navigate, find and display these ‘unseen illustrations’. The images were plucked from the pages as part of the ‘Mechanical Curator’, a creation of the British Library Labs project. Each image is individually addressible, online, and Flickr provies an API to access it and the image’s associated description.

“We may know which book, volume and page an image was drawn from, but we know nothing about a given image.”

So the algorithms weren’t semantic, or “knowing.” They weren’t capable of characterizing the images, much less “understanding” them. The algorithm never raised an eyebrow, squinted its eye at an illustration and murmured “Now, that’s promising…”

In fact, it’s not surprising that the bot was assiduous but dumb. The state of computer-vision image-recognition is improving thanks to recursive deep-learning algorithms but not yet beyond childlike abilities. See “On Welsh Corgis, Computer Vision, and the Power of Deep Learning” on Microsoft’s AI research and “Welcome to the AI Conspiracy” on Google, Yahoo and Baidu. Adult-level semantic understanding is certainly not approachable today, even in the single focused domain of image recognition.

But the technical spadework was done with the BL collection, for others to build on. Ben O’Steen, the project’s technical lead at BL Labs, made all his code freely available on GitHub. for the million-plus JPEG2000 image files and associated OCR XML metadata [see here for technical info].

Most importantly, the collection was now available to the eyes of the global crowd, via Flickr. I met a student of information science volunteering work at BL Labs, Wendy Durham, who captured the back-story:

In December 2013, BL Labs and Digital Research Teams released 1 million algorithmically snipped images from 65,000 digitised books on to the Flickr Commons. Since then, the British Library Flickr Commons photostream has amassed a staggering 260 million views.

“Just a week after the release, one of those viewers was David Normal, a collage artist from California, interested in 19th century illustration for his work. Following a Facebook posting about the British Library Flickr Commons launch from the guitarist of the punk band ‘Flipper,’ David was thrilled to discover the serendipitous size, quality and relevance of the photostream content with his plans for a project he had organised with the annual arts festival ‘Burning Man’ in the Nevada desert, USA…

In the desert – click for more photos from Burning Man

“After initially creating four 3 ft. by 8 ft. paintings, David transformed them into four 8 ft. by 20 ft., double sided and illuminated light boxes that were built around the base of the Burning Man statue, forming the centrepiece of the event. Over 70,000 people came to the event and saw the work…”

That telling leaves out an important step, though: What images to pluck from the photostream? And how to arrange them in a way that would create “art”? Here’s where the human element enters. Insert magic here, one might say.

The Spark of Human Creativity

Normal described that creative element in an important lecture in the British Library’s Chaucer Room last fall; I’ll excerpt the details which begin about 6 minutes into the video.

[While planning for 2014 Burning Man with BM director Larry Harvey] “he and I batted this back and forth and came up with the idea of a crossroads of curiosity, that would expand the idea of a cabinet of curiosities, out from just the rectilinear presentation of objects in a case, to be being sets of dramatic tableaux, that are a collection of human dramas and human phenomena.”

“So I was looking for 19th century illustrations, and it was only shortly after that that I learned of the British Library’s release into the Flickr Commons of over a million images. So that was really a kind of stupendous thing for me… Once I had that in hand, I was extremely inspired, because I had just an endless amount of collage material to work with to create these pieces.”

“Working with the British Library’s collection, I began to make the collages, and what I would do is just go searching through the database, just looking at one image after another, about the same way as if I was going to go through a book looking at every illustration in the book, and then I would mark the images that I liked. So it was a very entrancing process. I would sit there for hours, just clicking one image after another, sometimes going through a hundred or two hundred images without seeing anything that was of interest to me – and at other times being in kind of a vein, of things that I liked; and I would favorite all these out.

“I collected something like a total of 3,000 images. And then I would begin to select the ones that I liked best.

“People always ask me, ‘Why did you select the certain things that you liked?’ and a lot of times the things would just go together. I mean, I believe that the machine-gun and the skunk were just side by side with each other in the Flickr favorites page, so it was just sort of obvious, the work had already been done for me. But the Afghan warrior here, he was close by, and so he ends up – I decided to put him on, riding the skunk… the background ended up getting filtered out, and so in the process of making the collages I experimented quite a bit… I did so many different versions. Some elements didn’t end up in the final piece. For instance, I had a troubador with an elephant head…and while that might have been good, he just didn’t seem to fit in [Audience laughter]. So these became the raw material from which I painted, the collages actually became sketches.”

Lightbox prototype, 21'x18', 2011. Original painting oil on canvas, 2010.

Lightbox prototype, “The Human Tree.” 21’x18′, original painting oil on canvas, 2010.

By the way, at about the 10-minute mark David goes into some technical discussion of the innovative lightbox materials and procedures he invented for this project and earlier lightbox exhibits; if you’re a fan of advanced electrical/fabrication techniques you’ll enjoy it. My wife and I own one of his earlier small lightbox prototypes “The Human Tree,” which hangs in our Music Room (left).

Like many artists since the dawn of Impressionism (and every -ism since), David Normal isn’t quite sure how to explain in words his train of creative thinking – because it’s not a logical procession. Again from his lecture:

“At Burning Man, people came around and were fascinated by the work, they spent a lot of time trying to decipher what the meaning of these strange images was. I took to giving what I called ‘Docent Tours,’  where I would walk people around from image to image, and explain the imagery and what it meant to me. The reason I call it a docent tour is because I actually don’t really have much better of an idea of what the imagery means than anybody else [audience laughter]. I mean, I made it, but it wasn’t like it was made with some sort of, you know, didactic purpose, that it’s supposed to explain something to somebody. Rather, the images are very much expresssions of [pauses] – oh, of something that’s just energetic – how shall we say – It’s not a specific  – emotional… You know it’s not specifically confined to something that I can put into words. But I do put into words! And I’ll explain this to you soon, when we go and look at these prints I brought with me….”

Certainly the essence of the creative arts is ineffable, and it is impossible to capture or even describe fully the remarkable human inspiration and boundary-jumping leaps which trace the advance of human intellectual history. Some analysts today drive a debate on whether human-level AI will demonstrate the “same” human-like spark. (See for example “Creativity: The Last Human Stronghold?” by the thoughtful technologist and AI observer Israel Beniaminy on attempts to program machine creativity in poetry, art, math, and science.)

But it’s difficult to believe in a human-challenging degree of “intelligence” when the British Library’s Mechanical Curator never came up with the idea of putting the Afghan warrior riding on the skunk; the algorithm would never ponder a collage with an elephant-headed troubadour – much less realize that it “just didn’t fit in.”

The computers never suggested looking to Burning Man for inspiration, or turning paintings into lightboxes, or having a huge party to open the exhibit with Burners from across Europe, Taiko drummers, atonal chant singers and the London’s ultrahip DJ Yoda, all dancing on a Library Piazza bearing banners celebrating the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta housed inside, symbolizing man’s insatiable determination to win and protect his liberties.

To make the connection of my two themes explicit: Elon Musk came up with the unconventional idea behind his startup SolarCity while driving to the desert for Burning Man in 2004. His inspiration wasn’t a self-optimizing algorithmic feedback calculation but instead the very human notions of radical self-expression and radical self-reliance reinforced at Burning Man. And even earlier, in 2002 no recursively learning business algorithm running (then or now) would EVER have recommended that a businessman should create a scrappy rocket startup SpaceX to take on Lockheed, Boeing, and the challenge of Mars settlement.

In short, no programmer knows how to encode an AI with audacity. I doubt we ever will. Remember those old Apple advertisements with their call to “Think Different”? That’s humanity’s saving grace. We alone are able to create new and independent meaning from the complexity of the world (and “big data”) around us.

Will Superintelligence Supersede Humans?

I follow in detail the latest AI research and advances, and speaking as someone who has written about “autonomous killer robots” for years, I’m glad that the debate is reaching the mainstream, and can recommend reading several recent pieces:

My bottom line is the same feeling I have about a world with nuclear weapons; it’s not that I am skeptical of the dangers – it’s just that I remain optimistic of our ability to avoid or overcome the dangers.

I’m less interested in what the machines will do on their own, because I see evidence across history – ancient and continuing – of humanity’s ability to invent and then control by further invention. We’ve done it with the most awesome and fearful technology imaginable – the power of atomic and nuclear fission. Our ability to invent new technical, political, and social means of dominating our own Golems should stand us in good stead even with AI.

Call it insight, or the ineffable human spark, whatever it is we have it – and there’s enduring power in thinking the unexpected. David Normal saw a serendipitous art in siting his exhibit where it is: as he explains, “It’s actually placed literally (no pun intended) over 5 stories of books that are housed underneath the piazza – likely the very books from which the collage material was derived.”

What computer would get that joke?

Twitter Search as a Government case study

In addition to periodic think-pieces here at Shepherd’s Pi, I also contribute a monthly online column over at SIGNAL Magazine on topics relating to intelligence. This month I keyed off a recent discussion I had onstage at the 2015 AFCEA Spring Intelligence Symposium with Elon Musk, particularly a colloquy we had on implications of the emerging cleavage (post-Edward Snowden) between Silicon Valley technology companies and their erstwhile innovation partners, U.S. intelligence agencies.

That discussion sparked some thinking on the public/private sector divide on tech innovation – and on basic operational performance in building or adopting new technologies. It’s always been a hobbyhorse topic of mine; see previous pieces even from way back in 2007-08 like “Pentagon’s New Program for Innovation in Context,” or “A Roadmap for Innovation – From the Center or the Edge?” or “VC-like Beauty Contests for Government.”

I have an excerpt from my new SIGNAL piece below, but you can read the entire piece here: “The Twitter Hare Versus the Government Turtle.”

Is the public/private divide overstated? Can the government compete? Without going into the classified technology projects and components discussed at the symposium, let’s try a quick proxy comparison, in a different area of government interest: archiving online social media content for public use and research. Specifically, since Twitter data has become so central to many areas of public discourse, it’s important to examine how government and private sector are each addressing that archive/search capability.

First, the government side. More than half a decade ago, the Library of Congress (LoC) announced in April 2010 with fanfare that it was acquiring the “complete digital archives” of Twitter, from its first internal beta tweets. At that time, the LoC noted, the 2006-2010 Twitter archive already consisted of 5 terabytes, so the federal commitment to archiving the data for search and research was significant…

  … Fast forward to today. Unbelievably, after even more years of “work,” there is no progress to report—quite the opposite. A disturbing new report this week in Inside Higher Education entitled “The Archive is Closed” shows LoC at a dead-stop on its Twitter archive search. The publicly funded archive still is not open to scholars or the public, “and won’t be any time soon.”

  … Coincidentally this week, just as the Library of Congress was being castigated for failing in its mission to field a usable archive after five years, Twitter unveiled a new search/analytics platform, Twitter Heron—yes, after just six months [after releasing its previous platform Twitter Storm]. Heron vastly outperforms the original version in semantic throughput and low latency; yet in a dramatic evocation of Moore’s Law, it does so on 3 times less hardware.

Twitter Storm vs Twitter Heron

Oh, and as the link above demonstrates, the company is far more transparent about its project and technology than the Library of Congress has been.

All too often we see government technology projects prove clunky and prone to failure, while industry efforts are better incentivized and managerially optimized for success. There are ways to combat that and proven methods to avoid it. But the Twitter search case is one more cautionary example of the need to reinvigorate public/private partnerships—in this case, directly relevant to big-data practitioners in the intelligence community.

 – Excerpts from SIGNAL Magazine, “The Twitter Hare Versus the Government Turtle.” © 2015 AFCEA International.

Intelligence, Artificial and Existential

"Not to Be or Not to Be?" artwork by Shuwit, http://shuwit.deviantart.com/

“Not to Be or Not to Be?” artwork by Shuwit, http://shuwit.deviantart.com/

I just published a short piece over at SIGNAL Magazine on an increasingly public debate over artificial intelligence, which the editor gave a great Shakespearean title echoing Hamlet’s timeless question “To be, or not to be”:

AI or Not AI?

Caution tempers opportunity as experts ponder artificial intelligence

May 6,2015 – Artificial intelligence, or AI, has been on my mind recently—and yes, that’s something of a sideways pun. But it’s worth exploring the phrase from another double-entendre standpoint by asking whether the nation’s intelligence professionals are paying enough attention to AI.

In the past week I have seen two brand-new movies with AI at their center: the big-budget sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron (I give it one star, for CGI alone), and the more artistically minded Ex Machina (three stars, for its lyrical dialogue expressed in a long-running Turing Test of sorts). With Hollywood’s efforts, the uptick in public attention to AI is mimicking the increasing capabilities of real-world AI systems. And the dystopian plot elements of both Ultron and Ex Machina also are mirroring a heightened sense of impending danger or doom among many of the world’s most advanced thinkers….

…continues at “AI or Not AI?”

Besides the Hollywood attention, mainstream publications are exploring the topic. On a flight from London yesterday I read EconomistThe Economist’s new cover story, “Rise of the Machines: Artificial ntelligence scares people—excessively so,” and recommend it as an up-to-the-moment backgrounder on the economic and social questions being posed with the increasing levels of AI investment and research by the likes of Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Baidu.

My interests in the topic include the applicability, potential benefits, and any unanticipated risks of AI use in national security, including defense and intelligence systems. Last month I helped lead the National Reconnaissance Office’s 2015 Industry Day, which laid out in a classified setting the mission architectures and implementation of advanced research efforts. While those briefings were classified, NRO Director Betty Sapp has been quoted describing NRO’s Sentient Project:

[Director Sapp] cites an experiment now in limited operations known as Sentient. It is demonstrating the power of using the full architecture against a problem set by doing automated tipping and cueing from one sensor to another—acting at machine speeds, not at the pace of humans. “I can see the strength of that [complete ground system approach] when I look at Sentient in even the way it is behaving in operations,” Sapp states. Saying Sentient is doing a very good job of getting new capability out of existing assets, she allows that more people from the defense and intelligence communities have come to the NRO to view the system’s demonstrations than for any other capability since the beginning of the organization’s history. “It is demonstrating the capabilities we want throughout our Future Ground Architecture,” she offers, adding that these capabilities probably will become operational in the year 2020 or beyond.

If the overall AI topic tickles your fancy, as I point out in the SIGNAL piece there are only a few seats left for the May 20/21 Spring Intelligence Symposium where I’ll be discussing the topic with Elon Musk, in a broader discussion of the future of Research & Development. If you have a TS clearance, please join me and register here.

Meet the Future-Makers

Question: Why did Elon Musk just change his Twitter profile photo? I notice he’s now seeming to evoke James Bond or Dr. Evil:

twitter photos, Elon v Elon

I’m not certain, but I think I know the answer why. Read on…


“Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

      – Niels Bohr, winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize for Physics

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.”

      – Winston Churchill

If you take those two quotations to heart, you might decide to forego the difficulty of predicting the future, instead aiming to bend the future’s story arc yourself. In a nutshell, that’s what R&D is all about: making the future.

Who makes the future for the intelligence community? Who has more influence on the future technologies which intelligence professionals will use: government R&D specialists, or private-sector industry?

On the one hand, commercial industry’s R&D efforts are pulled by billions of invisible consumer hands around the globe, driving rapid innovation and ensuring that bold bets can be rewarded in the marketplace. Recent examples are things like Web search, mobile phones and tablets, and SpaceX launches.

To be fair, though, the US IC and DoD have the ability to focus intently on specific needs, with billions of dollars if necessary, and to drive exotic game-changing R&D for esoteric mission use. During my time in government I saw great recent successes which are of course classified, but they exist.

If you want to explore both sides and you have a Top Secret clearance, you’re in luck, because you can attend what I expect will be an extraordinary gathering of Future-Makers from inside and outside the IC, at next month’s AFCEA Spring Intelligence Symposium.

Spring IntellLast fall, the organizing committee for this annual classified Symposium began our planning on topics and participants. We decided that this year’s overall theme had to be “IC Research & Development” – and we decided to depart from tradition and bring together an unprecedented array of senior leaders from inside and outside, to explore the path forward for IC innovation and change.

The May 20-21 Symposium, held at NGA’s Headquarters, will be a one-of-a-kind event designed to set the tone and agenda for billions of dollars in IC investment.  On the government front, attendees will witness the roll-out of the new (classified) Science & Technology 2015-2019 Roadmap; see this article for some background on that. Attendees will also meet and hear R&D leaders from all major IC agencies, including:

  • Dr. David Honey, Director of Science and Technology, ODNI
  • Dr. Peter Highnam, Director, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA)
  • Glenn Gaffney, Deputy Director for Science & Technology, CIA
  • Stephanie O’Sullivan, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence
  • Dr. Greg Treverton, Chairman, National Intelligence Council
  • The IC’s functional managers for SIGINT, MASINT, GEOINT, HUMINT, OSINT, and Space

Meanwhile from the private sector, we’ll have:

  • Elon Musk, CEO/CTO of SpaceX, CEO/Chief Product Architect of Tesla Motors, CEO of SolarCity, Co-founder of PayPal
  • Gilman Louie, Partner at Alsop Louie Venture Capital, former CEO of In-Q-Tel
  • Bill Kiczuk, Raytheon VP, CTO, and Senior Principal Engineering Fellow
  • Zach Lemnios, IBM VP for Research Strategy and Worldwide Operations
  • Pres Winter, Oracle VP, National Security Group

When I first proposed that we invite an array of “outside” future-makers to balance the government discussion with a different perspective, I said to my colleagues on the planning committee, “Wouldn’t it be awesome to get someone like Elon Musk…”

Well, we did, and next month I’ll be welcoming him on stage.

These are dark and challenging times in international security, but for scientists, technologists, and engineers, there’s never been a more exciting time – and like them, intelligence professionals should stretch their horizons.

I’m looking forward to the conference… and here’s your link to register to join us.

PS: Just to whet your appetite: new video of this week’s SpaceX revolutionary Falcon9 first-stage landing attempt on a drone barge at sea – nearly made it, very exciting:

Young Americans and the Intelligence Community

IC CAE conferenceA few days ago I travelled down to Orlando – just escaping the last days of the DC winter. I was invited to participate in a conference hosted by the Intelligence Community’s Center of Academic Excellence (IC CAE) at the University of Central Florida.  The title of my speech was “The Internet, 2015-2025: Business and Policy Challenges for the Private Sector.” But I actually learned as much as I taught, maybe more.

First, several surprises I learned while preparing for my presentation. UCF is now the nation’s second-largest university, with over 60,000 students (second only to Arizona State University). The size of the undergraduate/graduate student population obviously translates into a robustly diverse set of student activities. Among those we met with were several leaders and members in the Collegiate Cyber Defense Club (see their site at HackUCF.org), which has hundreds of members, weekly meetings, and is fresh off winning the national 2014 Collegiate Cybersecurity Championship Cup, beating out more than 200 schools based on performance in competitions throughout the year.

LS speaking at IC CAE conference

IC CAE conference, photo by Mike Macedonia

Another surprise was the full extent of the umbrella activity within which the conference was organized.  The UCF IC-CAE is one of several such centers (overall info page here) established over the past decade, since a 2005 congressionally-mandated mission “to increase intelligence community job applicants who are multi-disciplinary, as well as culturally and ethnically diverse [via] grants to competitively accredited U.S. four-year colleges and universities to support the design and development of intelligence-related curricula.” There are some two dozen colleges now participating, including Duke, Penn State, and Virginia Tech.

One more significant thing I learned: young Americans today are not hostile to the nation’s intelligence mission and those who perform it. In fact, I published a short piece today at SIGNAL Magazine on some startling recent poll results, which I reviewed while preparing for the UCF visit. From my piece:

NSA’s negative coverage [over the past two years] was driven by a long series of front-page stories covering Edward Snowden’s leaked documents, including their impact on technology giants such as Facebook, Apple, Google and others. Many pundits have opined that young American millennials are horrified by the revelations and angry at the NSA for “domestic spying.”

Yet the 2015 national survey by the respected Pew Research Center asked specifically about the NSA, and it reveals that, “Young people are more likely than older Americans to view the intelligence agency positively. About six in 10 (61 percent) of those under 30 view the NSA favorably, compared with 40 percent of those 65 and older.”

 – excerpt from “NSA’s Biggest Fans are Young Americans

I didn’t know much about the IC-CAE program before my campus visit, but it strikes me overall as a valuable channel for the Intelligence Community to remain in close sync with the nation’s values and societal changes.  And, as I wrote in SIGNAL, I learned that “students at the nation’s second-largest university reflect the Pew poll findings, and on balance hold a positive view of the intelligence community and its efforts in the national interest. They admire our nation’s intelligence professionals, and they’re supportive of a robust foreign-intelligence collection program.”

I’ve posted the slides that accompanied my talk below, though of course much of the discussion isn’t reflected in the slides themselves. Smart audience, insightful questions.



I must mention that the other presenters at the conference were great as well. In sum it was an enjoyable and enlightening experience, and it was reassuring to observe that America’s next great generation will be eager and expert recipients of the reins of national security.


Insider’s Guide to the New Holographic Computing

In my seven happy years at Microsoft before leaving a couple of months ago, I was never happier than when I was involved in a cool “secret project.”

Last year my team and I contributed for many months on a revolutionary secret project – Holographic Computing – which is being revealed today at Microsoft headquarters.  I’ve been blogging for years about a variety of research efforts which additively culminated in today’s announcements: HoloLens, HoloStudio for 3D holographic building, and a series of apps (e.g. HoloSkype, HoloMinecraft) for this new platform on Windows 10.

For my readers in government, or who care about the government they pay for, PAY CLOSE ATTENTION.

It’s real. I’ve worn it, used it, designed 3D models with it, explored the real surface of Mars, played and laughed and marveled with it. This isn’t Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance.” Everything in this video works today:

These new inventions represent a major new step-change in the technology industry. That’s not hyperbole. The approach offers the best benefit of any technology: empowering people simply through complexity, and by extension a way to deliver new & unexpected capabilities to meet government requirements.

Holographic computing, in all the forms it will take, is comparable to the Personal Computing revolution of the 1980s (which democratized computing), the Web revolution of the ’90s (which universalized computing), and the Mobility revolution of the past eight years, which is still uprooting the world from its foundation.

One important point I care deeply about: Government missed each of those three revolutions. By and large, government agencies at all levels were late or slow (or glacial) to recognize and adopt those revolutionary capabilities. That miss was understandable in the developing world and yet indefensible in the United States, particularly at the federal level.

I worked at the Pentagon in the summer of 1985, having left my own state-of-the-art PC at home at Stanford University, but my assigned “analytical tool” was a typewriter. In the early 2000s, I worked at an intelligence agency trying to fight a war against global terror networks when most analysts weren’t allowed to use the World Wide Web at work. Even today, government agencies are lagging well behind in deploying modern smartphones and tablets for their yearning-to-be-mobile workforce.

This laggard behavior must change. Government can’t afford (for the sake of the citizens it serves) to fall behind again, and  understanding how to adapt with the holographic revolution is a great place to start, for local, national, and transnational agencies.

Now some background… Continue reading

Title Forthcoming…

According to the calendar, summer ended yesterday, and September has closed that door and opened others.

One door which opened for me is that I have just been elected as the new 2014-2015 Deputy Chairman of the AFCEA Intelligence Committee, serving under incoming Chair Jake Jacoby, retired USN Vice Admiral, whose day job is as EVP of defense giant CACI International, but I like to think of him as my old boss as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency a decade ago. I’ve written before about the AFCEA Intelligence Committee which I described as “a prestigious collection of some of the smartest minds in that field… driving innovation, not only in intelligence but in the broader national security realm.” We proved that last week by joining INSA in hosting the well-reported Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington DC, which made quite a bit of news with speakers like DNI Jim Clapper, the Directors of CIA, NSA, DIA, NGA, FBI, and a myriad of other experts from inside and outside government – including privacy advocates, journalists, and government critics as panelists.  I’m looking forward to more exciting activities and research over the next year with AFCEA

At the same time, a door is closing. Due to Microsoft’s corporate restructuring, on Thursday September 18, 2014, the company made several tough decisions (see “Microsoft to close Microsoft Research lab in Silicon Valley” among other news stories).  And that day marked the final day at the company for the merry band of brothers in the esteemed Microsoft Institute for Advanced Technology in Governments, which I have led since 2010.  It was a pleasure to lead these extraordinary individuals and a privilege to work daily alongside the world’s most talented experts in their fields, guys like Dave Aucsmith, Bob Hayes, Bruce Harris, and Aris Pappas, who are each brilliant leaders and sterling friends.

I’m still on the payroll at Microsoft, and may or may not stay in the company, but I can’t say enough good things about what we all accomplished since I joined the Institute nearly seven years ago to work alongside geniuses like George Spix.  (By the way, that’s the longest I have ever spent in any one place in my entire fun-packed career.) When I joined the group as its first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) straight from DIA, I found it filled with like-minded innovators, eager to enable difficult government missions with cutting-edge research and technical solutions. Much of what we did remains, necessarily, shrouded in corporate proprietary information and the nature of the sensitive counsel we provided senior government executives. But also along the way we wrote innovative white papers, conducted seminars, and traveled the world working with Microsoft’s field teams and solutions architects to devise unbelievable capabilities, for local and national governments trying to serve and protect their citizens. Most of all, we had a blast working together.

LS EBC Badges

Hundreds of senior government leaders from around the globe have visited the Microsoft Institute; some badges from our Executive Briefing Center

In the parlance of our day, I’m “updating my LinkedIn profile.” But I even consider that as fun, too – because of the serendipitous breadth I see there, for a kid who has gone from writing dusty political science papers on civil-military relations, serving as a Cold-War Pentagon Kremlinologist for Andy Marshall, doing policy and speeches for the mayors of San Francisco and San Jose, helping launch an artificial-intelligence data-mining startup (successful!) in Silicon Valley – to then helping the IC answer the attacks of 9/11 and fight the Global War on Terror.

My time with Microsoft has been another incredible ride in a long, fun roadtrip … and I’m eager to turn the wheel around the next bend and floor it.


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