Thursday, July 25, 2019

Why The Next "Age of Intelligence" Scares The Bejesus Out Of Me

A little over a month ago, I wrote a post titled How To Teach 2500 Years Of Intelligence History In About An Hour.   The goal of that post was to explain how I taught the history of intelligence to new students. Included in that article was the picture below:


I am not going to cover all the details of the "Ages of Intelligence" approach again (you can see those at this link), but the basic idea is that there are four pretty clear ages.  In addition, I made the case that, driven by ever changing technology as well as corresponding societal changes, the length of these ages is getting logarithmicly shorter. 

Almost as an afterthought, I noted that the trend line formed by these ever shortening ages was approaching the X-intercept.  In other words, the time between "ages" was approaching zero.  In fact, I noted (glibly and mostly for effect) that we could well be in a new "Age of Intelligence" right now and not know it.

When I publish a piece like the one mentioned above, I usually feel good about it for about ten minutes.  After that, I start to think about all the stuff I could have said or where to go next with the topic.  In this case, the next step was obvious--a little speculative thinking about what comes, well, now.  What I saw was not pretty (and, to be frank, a little frightening).

Looking out 10 years, I see five hypotheses (The base rate, therefore, for each is 20%).  I will indicate what I think are the arguments for and against each hypothesis, and then, how I would adjust the probability from the base rate.  

The Age of Anarchy  
No one knows what is going on, no one knows what to do about it.  Technology just keeps changing and improving at an ever increasing pace, and no one person or even one organization (no matter how large) can keep up with it.  Strategic intelligence is worthless and even tactical intelligence has only limited utility.

Arguments for:  This is certainly what life feels like right now for many people.  Dylan Moran's rant probably captures this hypothesis far better than I could:




Arguments against:   This is a form of the same argument that has been made against every technological advance since the Ancient Greeks (Socrates, for example, was against writing because it "will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing..."  Replace "writing with "books" or "computers" or "cell phones" and you have another variation on this Luddite theme).  In short, every age has had to adjust to the risks and rewards new technologies bring.  The next age of intelligence is unlikely to be new in this respect.

Probability:  17%

Age of Irrelevance
Artificial intelligence (AI) takes over the world.  The algorithms get so good at understanding and predicting that we increasingly turn over both our intelligence production and our decisionmaking to the computers.  In this hypothesis, there is still a need to know the enemy there is just no longer a need for us to do all those tedious calculations in our tents.  The collection of intelligence information and the conduct of intelligence analysis becomes an entirely automated process.

Arguments for:  Even a cursory look at the Progress in Artificial Intelligence article in Wikipedia suggests two things.  First, an increasing number of complex activities where humans used to be the best in the world are falling victim to AI's steady march.  Second, humans almost always underestimate just how quickly machines will catch up to them.  Efforts by the growing number of surveillance states will only serve to increase the pace as they move their populations in the direction of the biases inherent in the programming or the data.  

Arguments against:  AI may be the future, but not now and certainly not in the next ten years.  Four polls of researchers done in 2012-13 indicated that that there was only a 50% chance of a technological singularity--where a general AI is as smart as a human--by 2040-2050.  The technology gurus at Gartner also estimated in 2018 that general artificial intelligence is just now beginning to climb the "hype cycle" of emerging technologies and is likely more than 10 years away.  The odds that this hypothesis becomes reality go up after ten years, however.

Probability:  7%

Age of Oligarchy
Zuckerberg, Gates, Nadella, Li, Bezos, Musk, Ma--their names are already household words.  Regular Joe's and Jane's (like you and me) get run over, while these savvy technogeeks rule the world.  If you ain't part of this new Illuminati, you ain't $h!t.  Much like the Age of Concentration, intelligence efforts will increasingly focus on these oligarchs and their businesses while traditional state and power issues take a back seat (See Snow Crash).

Arguments for:  92% of all searches go through Google, 47% of all online sales go through Amazon, 88% of all desktop and laptop computers run Windows.  These and other companies maintain almost monopoly-like positions within their industries.  By definition, the oligarchy already exists.

Arguments against:  Desktops and laptops may run on Windows but the internet and virtually all supercomputers--that is, the future--run on Linux based systems.  Browsers like Brave and extensions like Privacy Badger will also make it more difficult for these companies to profit from their monopoly positions.  In addition, an increasing public awareness of the privacy issues associated with placing so much power in these companies with so little oversight will expand calls for scrutiny and regulation of these businesses and their leaders.

Probability:  27%

Age of Ubiquity
We start to focus on our digital literacy skills.  We figure out how to spot liars and fakes and how to reward honest news and reviews.   We teach this to our children.  We reinforce and support good journalistic ethics and punish those who abandon these standards.  We all get smart.  We all become--have to become--intelligence analysts.

Arguments for:   Millennials and Gen Z are skeptical about the motives of big business and are abandoning traditional social media platforms in record numbers.  They are already digital natives, unafraid of technology and well aware of its risks and rewards.  These generations will either beat the system or disrupt it with new technologies.

Arguments against:   Human nature.  Hundreds of books and articles have been written in the last decade on how powerful the biases and heuristics hardwired into our brains actually are.  We are programmed to seek the easy way out, to value convenience over truth, and to deceive ourselves.  Those who do happen to figure out how to beat the system or disrupt it are likely to hold onto that info for their own economic gain, not disperse it to the masses.

Probability:  12%

Blindside Hypothesis
Something else, radically different than one of approaches above, is going to happen. 

Arguments for:   First, this whole darn article is premised on the idea that the "Ages of Intelligence" approach is legit and not just a clever pedagogical trick.  Furthermore, while there are lots of good, thoughtful sources regarding the future, many of them, as you can see above, contradict.  Beyond that:

  • This is a complex problem, and I generated this analysis on my own with little consultation with other experts.  
  • Complex problems have "predictive horizons"--places beyond which we cannot see--where we are essentially saying, "There is a 50% chance of x happening, plus or minus 50%."
  • I have been thinking about this on and off for a few weeks but have hardly put the massive quantities of time I should to be able to make these kinds of broad assessments with any confidence.  
  • The lightweight pro v. con form of my discussion adds only a soup├žon of structure to my thinking.    
  • Finally, humans have a terrible track record of predicting disruption and I am decidedly human.  
Bottomline:  The odds are good that I am missing something.

Arguments against:  What?  What am I missing?  What reasonable hypothesis about the future, broadly defined, doesn't fall into one of the categories above? (Hint:  Leave your answer in the comments!)

Probability:  37% 

Why This Scares Me
Other than the rather small probability that we all wake up one morning and become the critical information collectors and analysts this most recent age seems to demand of us, there aren't any good outcomes.   I don't really want chaos, computers or a handful of profit-motivated individuals to control my digital and, as a result, non-digital life.  I also fully realize that, in some sense, this is not a new revelation.  Other writers, far more eloquent and informed than I, have been making some variation of this argument for years.  

This time, however, it is more personal.  Intelligence leads operations.  Understanding the world outside your organization's control drives how you use the resources under your control.  My new employer is the US Army and the US Army looks very different in the next ten years depending on which of these hypotheses becomes fact. 

Monday, July 22, 2019

I Made It!

I started my new job as Professor of Strategic Futures at the US Army War College last week.  So far, it has been a fairly predictable, if seemingly unending, series of orientations, mandatory trainings, and security briefings.  I don't mind.  To paraphrase Matthew, "What did I go into the Army to see?  A man running without a PT belt?"

What I have been impressed with is the extraordinary depth of knowledge and genuine collegiality of the faculty.  It is an interesting feeling to be constantly surrounded by world class experts in virtually any domain.

Equally impressive is the emphasis on innovation and experimentation.  I am surrounded by an example of this right now.  I am writing this post on one of a number of open access commercial network machines in the War College library.  In the back of the room, a professor is leading an after action review of an exercise built around Compass Games' South China Sea war game (BTW, if you think it odd that the Army would have students play a scenario which is largely naval in nature, you are missing my point about innovation and experimentation). 

Scattered throughout the rest of the library are recently acquired, odd-shaped pieces of furniture designed to create collaborative spaces, quiet spaces, and resting spaces (among others).  Forms soliciting feedback suggest that the library is working hard to figure out what kind of spaces its patrons want, and what kind of furniture and equipment would best support those needs.  In the very rear of the building, there is a room undergoing a massive reconstruction.  No telling what is about to go in there, but it is clear evidence that the institution is not standing still.  

I will continue to write here on Sources and Methods, of course.  I also hope to get a few things published on the War College's own online journal, The War Room  (Check it out if you haven't.  It's very cool). Other than that, I look forward to pursuing some of my old lines of research and adding a few new ones as well.

For those of you who want to contact me, you can call me in my office at 717-245-4665, email me at kristan dot j dot wheaton dot civ at mail dot mil or, as always, email me at kris dot wheaton at gmail dot com.  You can also message me on LinkedIn.