Saturday, January 21, 2012
Air Force’s Top Brain Wants a ‘Social Radar’ to ‘See Into Hearts and Minds’
Chief Scientists of the Air Force usually spend their time trying to figure out how to build better satellites or make jets go insanely fast. Which makes Dr. Mark Maybury, today’s chief scientist, a bit of an outlier. He’d like to build a set of sensors that peer into people’s souls — and forecast wars before they erupt.
Maybury calls his vision “Social Radar.” And the comparison to traditional sensors is no accident, he tells Danger Room. “The Air Force and the Navy in this and other countries have a history of developing Sonar to see through the water, Radar to see through the air, and IR [infrared] to see through the night. Well, we also want to see into the hearts and the minds of people,” says Maybury, who serves as the top science advisor to the Air Force’s top brass.
But Social Radar won’t be a single sensor to discover your secret yearnings. It’ll be more of a virtual sensor, combining a vast array of technologies and disciplines, all employed to take a society’s pulse and assess its future health. It’s part of a broader Pentagon effort to master the societal and cultural elements of war — and effort that even many in the Defense Department believe is deeply flawed. First step: mine Twitter feeds for indications of upset.
“We’re supposed to provide ISR,” says Maybury, using the military acronym for intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance. “But our constituents [say], ‘Don’t just give me a weather forecast, Air Force, give me an enemy movement forecast.’ What’s that about? That’s human behavior. And so [we need to] understand what motivates individuals, how they behave.”
Maybury, dressed in his preferred outfit — a double-breasted black blazer and silver, rectangular glasses — discussed his Social Radar notion as part of a 90-minute interview in his Pentagon office, his native Massachusetts accent growing thicker as the discussion drew on. An artificial intelligence and language processing specialist, he’s been working for the military, on and off, since the mid-1980s. But as the counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan wore on, he found himself drawn further and further into what he calls the “human domain” of combat.
In the last few weeks, the Pentagon may have downgraded counterinsurgency in its strategy revamp. But the need to spot potential troublespots early — and to understand how American actions might impact those restive populations — clearly isn’t going away. U.S. special forces are still training foreign armies (and impacting the people of those countries). The Shadow Wars continue — from Yemen to Pakistan to Mexico. And the geopolitical chess match with China will require deep knowledge of all of the pieces on the board.
Using biometrics, Social Radar will identify individuals, Maybury noted in his original 2010 paper on the topic for the government-funded MITRE Corporation. Using sociometrics, it will pinpoint groups. Facebook timelines, political polls, spy drone feeds, relief workers’ reports, and infectious disease alerts should all pour into the Social Radar, Maybury writes, helping the system keep tabs on everything from carbon monoxide levels to literacy rates to consumer prices. And “just as radar needs to overcome interference, camouflage, spoofing and other occlusion, so too Social Radar needs to overcome denied access, censorship, and deception,” he writes.