A-Space Past and Future

This week marks the second anniversary of the first live internal demo of the intelligence community’s A-Space project, groundbreaking for the IC in its goal of collaborative use of social media across agency lines. Somewhere in Maryland, a remarkable government employee and friend named Mike Wertheimer should pause and quietly celebrate the fruition of his early evangelism for it.

I was still a government employee then, but wrote about the effort at the time here on Shepherd’s Pi (“A-Space: Top-secret social networking“). It makes me chuckle to remember back to those days when it was still mostly unheard-of for IC employees to blog openly on the public web about current technology projects. Now you can’t shut ’em up! 🙂

It made sense, I thought, to set down a few notes at the time for several reasons: Continue reading

Data in the Cloud from Dallas to Mars

There’s a lot going on at this week’s Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC 09); it’s a traditional launchpad for cool new stuff. I thought I’d point out several of the government-relevant announcements and technology roll-outs.

I specifically want to spotlight something called Codename Dallas, and how NASA and others have begun using it. In the keynote this morning Microsoft’s Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie told PDC attendees (and his streaming-video audience) that a landslide of new sensors and observational systems are changing the world by recording “unimaginable volumes of data… But this data does no good unless we turn the potential into the kenetic, unless we unlock it and innovate in the realm of applications and solutions that’s wrapped around that data.”

Here’s how we’re addressing that, with a bit of step-by-step context on the overall cloud-computing platform enabling it.  The steps are: 1. Azure, 2. Pinpoint, and 3. Dallas.

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Cyber Deterrence Symposium webcast

As I type this, I’m sitting in a seventh-floor conference area at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, listening to the keynote speaker for the second of five panels today in the “Cyber Deterrence Symposium,” a joint production of INSA (the Intelligence and National Security Alliance), and the Homeland Security Policy Institute.

If you’re reading this on the day of the symposium (Monday November 2, 2009), you can tune in to the live webcast of the speakers and panels. It is a stellar line-up, see the roster below.

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DCGS Worldwide Conference 2009 is next week

DCGS Conference logo
US Joint Forces Command is sponsoring next week’s third annual DCGS Worldwide Conference in Virginia Beach, and I’m looking forward to participating on a great panel. If you don’t know much about the world of the “Distributed Common Ground/Surface System,” you can find some slightly dated background information at http://www.globalsecurity.org/intell/systems/dcgs.htm. DCGS is in many ways all about ISR, or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance – as well as their integration throughout the defense intelligence enterprise through the network of JIOCs (Joint Intelligence Operations Centers) and elsewhere.
 
There aren’t a lot of unclassified guides to the DCGS and ISR world for me to point to out on the web as background, although an anti-war group has posted a draft version of Army Intelligence Field Manual  (FM) 2-01, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, which you can read in html format here.
 
 
The conference’s overall goal is “bringing together program offices, developers, and users to focus on establishing a fully integrated and seamless Enterprise in support of the warfighter.” Quoting more specifically from the conference material, “The conference objectives are to:
  • Improve knowledge of DCGS and JIOC capabilities for security, engagement and relief and reconstruction activities
  • Increase the utility and value DCGS provides to Irregular Warfare and General Purpose Forces operating independently, and through increasingly lower echelons
  • Markedly improve the ability to integrate with U.S. agencies, coalition forces, and other partners across the ISR enterprise
  • Inspire new thinking in areas of acquisition of ISR services, DCGS capability metrics, and the rapid delivery of intelligence solutions to the warfighter.”
 
The panel I’m participating on is titled “Amplifying ISR: Bringing Proven Advanced Video Processing Technologies to the Warfighter Now,” led by my good friend John Marshall. Below is the line up of the panel, which will focus primarily on the key topic of how to exploit and manage the waves of information coming off the profusion of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) around the world.

Moderator:
Mr. John A. Marshall
Chief Technology Officer
Joint Transformation Command – Intelligence
United States Joint Forces Command (USJFCOM)
 

Panel Members:


Ms. Michelle Munson

President and Co-Founder, Aspera, Inc.


Mr. Lewis Shepherd

Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Institute 

Panel Members:


Mr. Robert Gourley

CTO, Crucial Point


Mr. Rudi Ernst

CEO/CTO, Pixia Corporation


Ms. Casey Henson

DIA/DS-CTO


Dr. Kari Kelton, Ph.D.

Chief System Sciences Officer, NSI, Inc.

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The scientist who gave DARPA ChemBot a holographic Twitter

If that title seems a bit LSD-fueled, the subject matter warrants it. Here comes some Chemistry gone wild!

First, have a look at this bizarre video. It stars a soft robot, or chemical robot – “ChemBot.” Even the experienced geeks at IEEE Spectrum are calling it “by far one of the coolest and weirdest robot prototypes we have ever seen.”

This particular prototype by iRobot and University of Chicago researchers was just unveiled, at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems this past week. (More on the conference here.) It was built in response to DARPA’s interest in chemical robots, a program run by Dr. Mitchell Zakin.

The DARPA “ChemBots” page describes the program as creating “a convergence between materials chemistry and robotics through the application of any one of a number of approaches, including gel-solid phase transitions, electro- and magneto-rheological materials, geometric transitions, and reversible chemical and/or particle association and dissociation.”

What’s the anticipated DoD mission use? In DARPA’s words, “With ChemBots, our warfighters can gain access to denied spaces and perform tasks safely, covertly, and efficiently.”  Or, as CNet’s “Crave” gadget blog puts it, “the weird little blob inflates and deflates parts of its body, changing size and shape–and scaring the living daylights out of us. We don’t know exactly when ChemBot will join the Armed Forces, but we can only beg: please, oh please, keep it away from us.” 🙂

 Does Mitch Zakin Dream of Electric Sheep?

With that kind of geeky appeal, this video has been gathering some Internet buzz over the weekend, appearing on several tech blogs. But the better story is the scientist behind the science. Several of us have been following Mitch Zakin’s work for a while, primarily because he is also the PM for the Programmable Matter Program — the “novel physics” of “a new functional form of matter, based on mesoscale particles, which can reversibly assemble into complex 3D objects upon external command.”

There is revolutionary promise for such composability in multiple fields, not just defense. Zakin described it several years ago in a speech as “a concept so simple, yet so revolutionary that it pushes even the DARPA envelope. A vision that has profound implications for how we think about chemistry and materials. A vision that could provide our warfighters with meaningful technological surprise.”

Zakin is a demonstrably brilliant scientist, of the sort you expect to find at DARPA. Indeed, in that same speech (“The Next Revolution in Materials“) which he gave at DARPA’s 25th Systems and Technology Symposium a couple of years ago, Dr. Zakin said: “I joined DARPA because it is unfettered by conventional wisdom.” 

One area where he has been exploring beyond traditional boundaries is in developing “the infochemistry project,” which combines the powers of chemistry and information technology. In an exotic illustration, Dr. Zakin is directing a research program on “Chemical Communications,” which I’m not sure I fully understand but which sounds like some sort of holographic persistent Twitter:

The Chemical Communications Program is exploring innovative methods to develop self-powered chemical systems that can encode an input string of alphanumeric characters (i.e., a message), convert the message to a modulated optical signal, and transmit it repetitively to a receiver. 

The ultimate goal of this program is to develop a small replicator device, with the form factor of a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) or cell phone that―

  • Permits the user to input an arbitrary 60-character alphanumeric message.
  • Translates the message into an appropriate set of modulated chemistries.
  • Embeds these chemistries into a disposable substrate (the transmitter).
  • Ejects the substrate for deployment.

The replicator device will enable warfighters to generate disposable optical transmitters in real time, each with a user-specified message.  It will be compact, lightweight, and powered by batteries or solar cells.                        – DARPA website, Chemical Communications Program

With projects like these under his belt, Zakin is credited with reviving the chemistry discipline at DARPA, which had fallen away over the years. But now he’s scheduled to leave the agency in 2010. He is uncertain where he’s heading, but perhaps he can be persuaded to spend some time with like-minded souls in Microsoft Research; I suspect many there would find his infochemistry approach very appealing.  

An interesting profile of Dr. Zakin in the journal Analytical Chemistry notes that “Academia is one option. Venture capitalism is another. Zakin has launched so many basic science research projects that have the potential of becoming commercial products that he says, ‘it’s almost a sin not to look at all that from the other side.’ ”

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Departure of the Pentagon CISO

I’ve had the good fortune to work with talented folks in my (short) time in Washington, since moving back East in 2002, particularly in the Intelligence Community and Department of Defense.  And one such fellow at DoD has been Bob Lentz, the outgoing deputy assistant secretary of Defense for information and identity assurance – the Chief Information Assurance Officer and equivalent to a private-sector CISO.

I gave an interview this afternoon to Federal News Radio (AM 1500 in the DC area, worldwide at www.FederalNewsRadio.com), on Bob’s tenure, and what will come next for DoD in the wake of his departure. You can read the news story about the interview here, or listen to the entire 15-minute interview as an mp3:

Shepherd interview on Federal News Radio, 10/13/2009

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A few words about a few great Pentagon leaders

I was thinking about the Pentagon over the long weekend – appropos, given the Memorial Day celebration. But my thoughts were also sparked by viewing a 9/11 documentary, reviving all the memories of that dark day’s attacks on New York and Washington – which ultimately led to my joining the ranks of defense intelligence for a while.

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DNI Flags at Half-Mast

Only the second-ever Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, resigned today effective immediately. As the Associated Press reported this afternoon in the wake of the announcement, “Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Burgess, Jr. is temporarily serving as acting national intelligence director… McConnell’s letter did not explain why he resigned before the Senate’s confirmation of his replacement. President Barack Obama has nominated retired Adm. Dennis Blair to be the next national intelligence director.” 
Analysis:  Given the impending Senate hearings on Denny Blair’s confirmation and the expected smooth sailing, most people I know were mildly surprised that McConnell jumped ship today, rather than waiting for a formal turnover to a confirmed Blair. McConnell has had a solid, successful track record of leading the IC in an era of long-needed reform, while contributing to a track record in his tenure of zero terrorist attacks on American soil.

odni-red-flagsBut then my inbox pinged with another notice from the Office of the DNI: release of “The 500-Day-Plan Update at Day 400” (download the PDF version here).  It contained a graphic depiction of the troubling challenges remaining – actually using graphic “red flags” to mark areas at risk.  More on the flags below.

Those who work in and with the intelligence community have been intimately familiar with the DNI’s 500-Day Plan.  When it was first drafted I was still in government and had my tiny slice of input into its composition through the interagency review process. Its release was hailed by some (“ODNI Earns Kudos for 500-Day Plan,” in Federal Computer Week) and greeted with a yawn in some sectors of the community itself. “Another reform plan? I’ll make room on the shelf.” Continue reading

March of progress with human consequences

Fact: Today Cisco announced a new program with “learning solutions partners” to support China’s growing IT infrastructure by “Nurturing Talent in More Than 100 Training Centers Across 31 Cities in China” (Cisco Launches Talent Development Strategy for China“)

Analysis: One day last week an enterprising handyman in my little town of Montross, Virginia spied a large sinkhole in the long driveway leading up to our house. He offered to my wife that he’d fill and level the hole for $20.  Sold! Continue reading

My other computer is a Cray

Fact: The annual ACM Gordon Bell Prize is about to be awarded at “SuperComputing 08” (or SC08) which takes place November 15-21 at the Austin Convention Center in Texas. The convention is “the” international conference for high-performance computing, networking, storage, and analysis. The Association for Computing Machinery makes the Bell award “to recognize outstanding achievement in high-performance computing,” in honor of Microsoft’s legendary Gordon Bell, one of the pioneers of supercomputing.

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