Archive for the ‘Technology & Social Change’ Category

DEFCON is one of the largest and longest-running hacker cons. It takes place in Las Vegas as this nerd baccanal where hackers show off their research and party with their peers. Its founder Jeff Moss–known by his handle Dark Tangent–now sits on the Homeland Security Advisory Council and is the chief security officer for ICANN. The director of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, made a first-ever appearance in large part to woo hackers to the agency.

Despite this new air of, well, respectability, the conference is a free-for-all–heavy on alcohol, black hats, and off-color talks.  DEFCON’s unofficial “survival guide” gives a taste of what to expect: Rule #1 reminds attendees that prostitution is illegal, Rule #2 warns against using the very-likely compromised ATM, and Rule #4 admonishes anyone who would connect to the DEFCON network–using no less than six anal sex jokes.  This is not out character for a hacker con; one of my favorite presentations from HITBSecConf this year started with painful language lesson on picking up a prostitute in Malay. Once you got past that (oh, and the “fisting” references, too), there was some great information. Get the picture?

Recently, I trolled someone on Twitter who said wouldn’t attend DEFCON or Black Hat, because he preferred more secure, vetted environments. The comment is all kinds of stupid, because a convention like DEFCON is exactly where people who want to understand attackers should go–namely, anyone responsible for defending networks and hosts. However, there is no doubt that these conferences can be a hostile environment for a lot of professionals–not the least of which are women.

Make ran a story on one attendee’s response to sexual harassment at DEFCON. Her name is KC, a freelance journalist preoccupied with technology and social justice, who blogs at Single Voice.  She devised a project of Red and Yellow Cards (in the rugby or soccer vein) to call out sexist behavior.  We are talking some very serious behavior.  KC describes the catalyst:

Let it be known that I went to Defcon with a reasonable amount of armor on already. I was reasonably aware of the frat party environment I was stepping into. I have many friends who are involved with helping make Defcon roll smoothly each year, from speakers to goons. And still, nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught of bad behavior I experienced.

Like the man who drunkenly tried to lick my shoulder tattoo. Like the man who grabbed my hips while I was waiting for a drink at the EFF party. Like the man who tried to get me to show him my tits so he could punch a hole in a card that, when filled, would net him a favor from one of the official security staff (I do not have words for how slimy it is that the official security staff were in charge of what was essentially a competition to get women to show their boobs). Or lastly, the man who, without prompting, interrupted my conversation and asked me if I’d like to come back to his room for a “private pillowfight party.” “You know,” he said. “Just a bunch of girls having a pillowfight…. fun!” When I asked him how many men would be standing around in a circle recording this event, he quickly assured me that “no one would be taking video! I swear!” I’m pretty sure this is the point where my lovely partner Morgan asked him if he thought propositions like his had anything to do with contributing to women not feeling welcome at Defcon. This was a very difficult concept for this poor soul to wrap his head around.

The cards themselves (yellow and red) received a very positive reaction from women and Dark Tangent himself, but there was some pushback from male attendees.

The project intrigued me and I have been meaning to write something, but I felt a real urgency to do so when Robert Graham of Errata Security posted a counterpoint of sorts to what he saw as punitive sexual harassment policies entitled “Sexual harassment policies: education please, not threats.”*  His bottom line is this:

Education is a better solution to this than threats. Men should be told that just because she hasn’t slapped you doesn’t mean she’s in to you, it just means she is in a social situation she’s had little experience with.

The thing about hostile, threatening policies is that they discourage legitimate speech. People become scared and go too far censoring themselves. It becomes something that can be exploited by the disgruntled to censor things that have little to do with sexual harassment. As a guy, I don’t see the cases of sexual harassment that I know exists (from reliable reports), but what I do see is the frequent exploitation of anti-harassment policies.

Graham is a libertarian who has written some compelling arguments of that bent (which I commented on in “Law, Order, and the Accidental [Cyber] Guerrilla“); KC is an “anarchist” with a feminist bent. I wanted to hear the dialogue between the two, so I tweeted.

KC responded with several tweets:

I fail to see what is aggressive, angry, infantalizing or threatening about holding people accountable for their behavior [cite]

I also flat out don’t believe the whole “men don’t know better/are unaware!” excuse. [cite]

Also, let’s talk about the frustrating social expectation of women needing to to be the patient educators… (1/2) [cite]

…vs the nonexistent expectation of men simply being more responsible and sensitive at cons. (2/2) [cite]

Graham responded in kind. The gist is that shaming doesn’t solve the problem long-term while education is a better route. Frankly, I find KC’s to be the more compelling argument. I, too, am unconvinced by the “‘men don’t know better/are unaware!’ excuse.” Graham cites the misogyny among male attorneys, for example; he seems to be saying attorneys are the exception to the rule, but I think there are some uncomfortable commonalities.

For better or worse (mostly worse), I have a lot of experience with attorneys. Today, more than 50% of law students are women, and the general sense I get is that there is this growth in very hostile attitudes among thirty-something (and younger) male attorneys towards women as a perceived threat to men’s position in the workplace. The harassment isn’t some poorly articulated come-on; it is a power play to defend their turf. While I doubt women have reached anywhere near that parity in the hacking community, it is worth asking the question how much of this behavior boils down to bullying and turf-defending.

A more compelling counterpoint came from @maradydd:

If you’d like some context, one of the stories @ErrataRob is telling is mine. [cite]

My creeper didn’t learn from “stop touching my butt/asking to see my boobs.” I doubt a card would’ve helped. [cite]

Here, KC and Graham are not too far apart. The card is an educational tool–one that might not work. Indeed, all education may not work.  I sympathize with Graham’s desire to protect freedom of speech; I really do. However, I see little recourse except for the more ‘punitive’ measures such as BRUCON’s anti-harassment policy.

* – On Twitter, I initially attributed the article to David Maynor.  Both are with Errata, and both tweeted about it.  I simply hit “quote tweet” on the wrong one, and the misattribution followed from there.  Mah bad!

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In March, I attended the National Defense Industry Association’s 2010 Ground Robotics Capabilities Conference & Exhibition. If you have not attended one of these NDIA events, they are a great opportunity to witness the give and take between the defense industry, the military’s internal development centers such as the U. S. Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) or the Office of Naval Research, and the in-the-thick-of-it warfighters. As an outsider, it gave me a good sense of the concerns, anxieties, and needs of each group in regards to the expanding role of robotics on the battlefield.

In addition to the presentations, I had the chance to interview a number of figures from industry and government. One such person was Daniel Theobald, President and CTO of Vecna, a high-technology company that offers a range of services and products in the areas of business, healthcare, and robotics. Having graduated at the top of his class at MIT, Theobald has taken on the challenges of artificial intelligence and mobile robotics. He is the inventor of the Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot, or “BEAR,” a unique robot for its use of hydraulics and a humanoid form. Recently, Vecna posted a new video of the BEAR in action:

Theobald was patient enough to sit down with me for an hour and answer my questions. I had planned to cut this into smaller pieces, but I find it all fascinating–so here it is in its entirety.

Erich Simmers: One of the things that struck me as I was looking at the various robotics was that your design was the only one that featured a humanoid design with a face. Both of those are not traditional engineering tasks. What was the internal process that led you to create this BEAR system with a kindly face?

Daniel Theobald: Like any engineering project, it’s an evolution. There’s the initial concept and things will built on each other. One of the things that we knew early on was that we needed bimanual manipulation. You just can’t have a chance of manipulating large, heavy objects without two arms. That was a given. We knew we needed to have a capable mobility platform. If you look at all the existing platforms that are out there, they essentially have two fixed tracks and maybe they have some flippers, but you can’t drive sidewise along a hill without flipping over for instance, so we knew we needed to have this concept of tracked legs that would allow us to operate on any orientation, on any slope, and any terrain. That naturally led to human form, which is kinda interesting. Unlike many, we did not go after the task saying we want to build a humanoid robot. That was never our intention. It was just one of those serendipitous–probably not serendipitous, that form exists for a reason–but the outcome of the engineering was that form. Really, it was here are the tasks and here’s the best form that evolved to address those tasks rather than we want to build a humanoid robot and what can we do with it. The head and the kindly appearance–that’s all after-the-fact. At one point, we came up with the name BEAR, “Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot,” and, of course, hey, we might as well make it look like a bear. We played around with a lot of different looks, and the head is the most changeable part of the robot, too. We can make it look like anything we want anytime, but there was some thought this is supposed to be a robot that’s helping people, so why make a skull-and-crossbone looking thing. Part of the discussion there was around fire rescue. If you are going to send a robot into a burning building to try and get the three-year-old, you don’t want some hideous looking, scary war machine going in there and the kid’s just going to hide under the bed. You want something that’s somewhat comforting looking. Now, does it accomplish that? Who knows. That was the evolution of the whole system.

ES: A defense contractor once told me that–in this case, he was designing small arms–“I always tell my engineers, ‘it’s every bit as important how it looks as how it works.’” Does this tie into the marketing of your product?

DT: Oh sure. It’s kinda sad, but humans like shiny things. You can have the greatest technology, but if it doesn’t look good, you just can’t get the air time in people’s heads to ever make progress. It’s certainly an important consideration. Some people would probably argue we’d get a lot more interest if we made it look like the terminator or something like that. Looks are very important.

ES: In P. W. Singer’s book Wired for War, he quotes various Pentagon insiders who are demanding that unmanned system that looks like the terminator. [Note: In fact, the ole Cyberdyne Systems T-101 would feature prominently in one presenter’s PowerPoint.] Is this something you might attempt for a different application–perhaps, a weaponized BEAR?

DT: We’ve gotten that question all along. Certainly, there are important philosophical issues there to think about very carefully. From my point of view, it’s really hard to distinguish between what part of the conflict you’re involved in. War is a messy business. Hopefully, we’re all in it for the right reasons, which are to protect people who need protection…to make the world a safer place in the end. I won’t get into all the politics, though, because there are a lot of people who think the best answer to war is for it not to exist–and I think we would all agree with that, but you can’t just wish it away. The technology itself–like you’ve probably heard many times–is neither good nor evil; it’s really how the technology is used. All you have to do is to walk yourself through a few scenarios to start to understand. Should we have a weapon on the BEAR? What if you are going into–maybe absurd situation–rescue that three-year-old girl and someone is about to shoot her. You want some way to immobilize that attacker. Is that non-lethal? It is impossible to think of a technology that can never be used to hurt people. If we have a robot that can lift 500 pounds, it can lift 500 pounds and throw a boulder on the bad guy, right? In that sense, weaponized/non-weaponized is an arbitrary distinction. I would of course prefer, as much as possible, that we we’re always using our technology to help people and that happens in many different ways.

ES: One of my personal concerns about unmanned systems is how they look to our friends and enemies. For example, many have criticized the MRAP, because it looks like something out of Star Wars and ends up building barriers between populations. Have you given any thought to how unmanned systems look to, say, a Pashtun tribesman?

DT: I haven’t thought about that a whole lot myself, but communication is very, very important. You communicate in lots of different ways–you communicate visually, through audio. This was one of big challenges in Iraq: really communicating with the people, helping them to understand what we’re trying to accomplish and why they should be working with us rather than fighting against us. It’s a very difficult thing to do, particularly when you have cultural differences and language barriers. People are realizing that this is something we really need to pay attention to, because ultimately that’s how you’re going to win or lose wars–how you communicate with the population. The looks of the equipment is an very important part of it, but I’d say there are even easier things like making sure we have really good translators and you’ve got speakers on that piece of equipment that you can talk to people and say, “no need to fear, this is why we’re here,” whatever it is. People tend to assume the worst in the absence of information. They will always create the worst possible scenario in the absence of information, so our job as the United States and technology providers as well is to make sure our technology can provide information to people, so they are not filling it with misinformation. That’s the most important thing. Whenever you can make the technology that’s going into people’s neighbors and homes not appear like it’s not evil incarnate, you’re going to be much better off. It’s much harder to demonize something that’s clearly trying to help you than hurt you.

ES: Does the proliferation of consumer robots–the Roomba for example–help you in that regard?

DT: Yeah, certainly in the United States there has been a real change in attitude over the past half decade. If you look at the Japanese cartoons through the 80s and the American cartoons as well, it’s really interesting because for most of the American ones the robot is the bad guy coming to attack us and our strong soldiers go fight the robot–most, not all of them. If you look at the Japanese media, the robot is always the good guy fighting off Godzilla, right–fighting off the natural forces. We’ve created this robot to protect us. Then, Americans are always like these robots are going to take us over and they going to destroy civilization. It is a very that we’ve had in the United States, and I think it’s starting to change and things like the Roomba probably help that.

ES: Why do you think there’s a difference? I know the Japanese are one of the leaders in robotics technology.

DT: That’s a good question, and I don’t know that I have a good answer. One of the things I noticed when I was over there a couple of years ago was that they embrace technology at a level that we just don’t here. I’m talking about the general population. Here the kids are into music and video games and iPods and all that. [There,] the gadgets, the robotic toys and that kind of thing! From little kids and to mature, adult men, it’s okay to play with toys like that and they love it and they really get into it. There’s just a different cultural attitude towards technology and playing with it and it being fun. They have a real love for robotics and because of that they view robots as friends not foes.

ES: Have you given any thought to doing an education version of the robot?

DT: We’ve talked about doing a mini-BEAR, a half-sized version of the BEAR. It’s just a matter of funding and what the market would be for that. We started to talk to some universities about purchasing full-sized versions of the BEAR for doing their research. It’s a really interesting research area. Simply nobody has done strong manipulation in a mobile robot. You can use a backhoe and grab logs and move them around, but even there of course you are never manipulating things that weighs more than the platform itself. The platform always has a bigger wheel-base, a strong stability cone if you will. You’re counting on static stability to help you do these tasks. We really are the first ones doing manipulation where you’re manipulating things that are bigger or heavier or more awkward than the platform. This is what humans do every day, but you don’t really think anything of it. We’re lifting that trash can and lifting it to the curb and maybe it weights forty pounds sometimes and we’re balancing it. Most smart people like us just drag them, so that might not be a good example. That same level of controllability and manipulating things that are much heavier and awkward than current platforms can do is a very rich, unexplored area of research that we’re helping to open up.

ES: Why is it that a lot of your competitors are, if anything, dismissive of hydraulics?

DT: There are a number of reasons for that. One is that anytime a new technology comes along–you’ve probably seen the research–it’s always dismissive at first. People don’t understand it. People don’t realize what it’s capability is. Hydraulics–and I should be clear that Vecna has a lot of expertise and hydraulics is only one of them. I want to be careful we don’t be pegged as the hydraulic company. We have got a lot of really excellent work going on–everything from machine vision to planning and controls, advanced autonomy, but clearly hydraulics is one of the really big differentiators, because hydraulics wasn’t a viable technology prior to what Vecna is doing for these applications. If you look at the history, it’s very interesting that there was this hydraulics heyday during World War II where they’re using full hydraulics feedback systems to control the large guns on Navy ships and that type of thing–lots of research going on in hydraulics control–but since then no significant hydraulics research has occurred. Particularly if you look at the numbers as a percentage, it’s beyond nothing. There have been a few openings here and there. The large part of the reason for that is that people have not been happy with tradition hydraulics in terms of the energy efficiency of them the way they were implemented in the fifties–like the energy efficiency of everything was extremely poor. In the fifties, they had less capable working fluids. The oils they used were flammable. When that dive bomber would explode on the deck of the ship, your hydraulic systems would burst and you’ve got this hydraulic fluid burning. Well, we have hydraulic fluids that don’t burn anymore. The other big challenge was really heavy systems. Messy, heavy, inefficient–those were all killers and that’s how people would classify hydraulic systems. When we starting the looking of challenge of building a robot that could lift more than its own weight and do it with lots of degrees of freedom and do it quickly…strength times speed give you power, so that’s why we talk about power rather than just strength. We looked at all the different actuation technologies…all of the latest gearing for electric motors, the exotic stuff–none of which is particularly promising. Ultimately, we said, ‘goodness, all that’s left is hydraulics. We really don’t want to do hydraulics, but that seems to be the only thing that’s left. Let’s actually look at hydraulics and see if we can solve the problems that people complain about. This is when we had that big ‘a-ha.’ Nobody’s done anything in hydraulics for fifty years–of course, the technology is inefficient and heavy and messy. With the science and technology we have today, we could solve these problems with hydraulics and that’s what we’ve done. We have a number of complementary projects that we’re working on right now, but we’ve been able to show that we can achieve about ten times the power density of electromechanical system, we can do it cleanly–no leaks, no drips, no nothing, and we can do it efficiently. We can actually have better efficiently than an electromechanical system depending on the task. We have show that we can, not only do tasks very energy efficiently, but the we can also do energy recovery that you simply can’t do with an electromechanical system.

ES: What would be an example?

DT: Here’s the typical example. Most people realize it takes energy to lift something up. When you put that back down, you can get energy back out of it. The amazing thing is that you would spend exactly as much energy lifting a 50 pound weight as you would a 500 pound weight just because of the way the systems are built. The even more amazing thing is you would take exactly as much energy to put down the 50 pound weight as it would take to lift up the 500 pound weight. Even though you’re taking potential energy out of the system, you’re still drawing a tremendous amount of energy from your batteries. It is just because the way the hydraulic systems were designed. The same is true for most electro-mechanical systems–not to the same extent–but with hydraulics you just have a lot of opportunity for energy efficiency and energy recovery that you just don’t have in these other systems. It is pretty exciting. This technology curve… Lots of people are incredulous about it; lots of people are dismissing it, saying “hydraulics is the past.” Well, everybody is starting to realize we can’t get beyond 80 pounds lift capability with our arm and when you do you can’t really do that with high degree of freedom arms. Now, you have some new arms here showing, which are showing lifting that kind of weight. If you notice, they are only lifting it like this–just a very little bit. For all arms, you have a very high mechanical advantage here. Out here, whole different story. You can lift ten times as much–sometimes even a 100 times as much–in this configuration as you can lift in this configuration. That’s why human beings will lift things this way, but for an EOD robot you don’t have that option. You can’t really be on top of that thing lifting it up. I think there’s a tremendous potential here. By no means would I posit or suggest that a hydraulic arm is the right arm for every application, but I think it’s unavoidable that we’re going to see a significant place for hydraulic arms in mobile robotics. If you want robots to do real work, they need to have real strength and they need to use that strength quickly. That means power density, and the only way to get the power density is hydraulics unless you invent an anti-physics machine. There’s just no denying it. The numbers will not let you do it any other way.

ES: You mentioned one of your other specialties–your vision systems. One of the promo videos I watched showed the ability to recognize aggressive action. Particularly in counterinsurgency environments, how have you overcome some of the difficulties in recognizing aggression in a very complex environment [even for human beings]?

DT: That’s research that’s ongoing and, in many ways, in its early stages. It will be fairly focused on particular kinds of actions. The word aggression is probably not the right word. It’s being able to recognize certain activities. For instance, if you put a robot or a persistent stare device (these leave-behind sensors they talk about), you drop one down. You might want to be watching a road and it would be able to tell the difference between from people who are walking by versus someone who’s digging. It’s that digging motion we can recognize. Or being able to pick somebody who’s sighting a weapon as a difference from someone pointing or talking to someone else. There’s very specific actions that would be suspicious in this particular environment. Anytime someone’s digging in a road you can be pretty darn sure they’re planting a bomb there. That the approach there. We’re really fortunate that we have top notch vision researchers that can do things that were not possible even five years ago.

ES: How do these sensors discriminate particularly when you have very difficult rules of engagement? I heard one example of a patrol in Afghanistan where they could fire at an insurgent when he looking through his sights at them but when he would put his weapon down and look with binoculars they were not allowed to fire. Is there a way that the sensors can discriminate between those two similar [gestures]?

DT: That’s a good question. I’m sure given the time and the focus on that particular requirement that it would be very doable. You know, discriminating weapons from non-weapons is a fairly well defined task. Weapons have certain characteristics that other objects don’t in general, but the reality is that we’ll always, almost certainly have humans in the loop making the final decisions. I am not at all an advocate of robots being able to use lethal force–particularly without a human being making the final decision. It’s really hard. I don’t know if you have ever looked through one of these teleconferencing systems or teleoperating systems. To actually have a sense of what’s going on is extremely difficult through one of these systems. You can invent all kinds of examples. Maybe, someone is pointing a gun and it looks like they’re pointing the gun at the robot, but they’re really pointing the gun at the terrorist who is about to kill a kid who’s behind the robot. Do you take that guy out? No, that would be the wrong thing to do. No easy answers there.

ES: There’s one example I read about a CRAM System that mistook an Iranian passenger liner for a fighter plane. What struck me about that particular example was that from the lowest level operator of the system to the CO of the ship they deferred to the machine’s…well, word essentially.

DT: Sometimes, we trust technology way too much, yeah. It’s a real problem, because people will grow comfortable and will defer those type of decisions, but we really need to have good training to say if you haven’t laid eyes on it yourself or have some independent third-party confirmation I wouldn’t be trusting technology to make those kind of calls. Now, you know, the technology will get better and better, but any time you’re thinking about taking an action that is going to result in the loss of life I think we need to have several layers of checks and re-checks to ensure that the right action is being taken at the right time.

ES: In one of the other promotional videos, there’s a tease: “next episode, we drop the BEAR behind enemy lines.” This sounds like a special forces application to me. In what ways do you envision the BEAR serving SOCOM?

DT: One of the very realistic missions for a robot like a robot like the BEAR would be in a hostage situation, for instance, where it simply doesn’t make sense to put further life at risk. You know, suicide mission type of stuff. Chances are if you send a team in there they’re going to end up additional casualties and in addition to the likely casualties of the hostages. You think about actually being able to send in a robot that has the ability to bust through doors, move obstacles out of the way, and use force as necessary and then be able to rescue somebody. You need a robot that has the strength to do that stuff. A big key there is being able to operate in an urban environment inside buildings. This is one of the real keys of the BEAR. Why does the BEAR have a humanoid form and such a small footprint? It can drive around on its track ends. Most of the time you wouldn’t do that–most of the time you have it in a low post, but the reason why is so that it can navigate around human environments. That’s the real challenge. Some of the robots you see here can’t, but they also don’t have the strength to do what needs to be done in that type of scenario. We have tried to pack as much capability and power into as small a package as possible, so when you need them you’ll have them available.

ES: What are some ways you plan to reduce the size and weight of the system?

DT: There is lot of opportunities to reduce the weight. The size is really based on what mission you want. We could easily make a version of the BEAR that’s smaller, but for the tasks that we’re considering right now we think six-foot is just about right. In these current versions, we’ve made no significant effort at weight reduction. It has been a technology demonstrator, so it weights significantly more than it needs to. If you look at our black hydraulic arm there, that’s all carbon fiber, super light, and ultra strong–we would utilize all those same approaches to make an ultralight version of the BEAR, but the BEAR already is the most power dense humanoid robot by far and we can increase that significantly.

ES: At the conference, they’ve talked a lot about open architecture. As a contractor, is this something that’s threatening in terms of diminishing your capability to differentiate yourself.

DT: Whether standardization harms or hurts you really depends on where you are in the market at that time. This is the classic argument of the Apple and the IBM approach–back in the day. At business school, we did a case study on that to understand that very issue. Ultimately, I really believe that open architectures are the right thing and, in the long term, benefits everybody. There are times when coming in with a completely packaged customized solution is the right answer as well, though. It is hard to talk about in the abstract. You have to get into the particular problem you’re trying to solve. I believe in competition, and it’s hard to have real competition without standardization. It’d be nice if there’s a standard interface so that you can plug in an arm from vender A or plug in vender B; plug in navigation unit from vender A or B. I think that’s the ideal that would be nice to achieve. Ultimately there’s lots of forces at work here. We’ve got the economics, industrial side; we’ve got the government. I think we’re going to make a lot of progress in that area–we’ll see. Ultimately, it helps a company like Vecna, because it provides opportunities to get in and provide value without having to provide a complete, integrated solution. Those spots are already taken. You probably wouldn’t want to compete in that space.

ES: Among different contractors across the defense industry, the persistent anxieties I have heard have been “I’m too small of a vender” and “people running these requests for proposals are too preoccupied with risk aversion to bet on a new player or a system that’s, perhaps, too much of a deviation from the norm.”

DT: And they’re not engineers, typically, and they don’t have the expertise to make those decisions. Not necessarily in robotics but in our other business areas, we have been told that as a risk aversion tactic we’re going to go with this big guy, and if you actually look at the statistics, failure rates for projects are off the charts with the big guys in this particular area where we have a 100% success rate. People tend to think of risk in funny ways. You’ve heard the old adage “no one gets fired for hiring IBM,” right? It’s not the success or failure of it; it’s “oh, you made a reasonable decision, it wasn’t your fault when it didn’t go right.” It’s a real important question: how can we increase the success rate of these government projects? In an earlier session, they mentioned the failure rate of large system projects and its staggering to think about how much money has resulted in a scrapped program.

ES: It seems like there has been a rash of those lately.

DT: It’s been that way forever–since the beginning. Sometimes, it’s a little frustrating, but that’s just the way it is. We look at it and say, “Boy, for the scrap that fell off that table, what could we accomplish?” It just takes time and you do good work and talk to people, and hopefully sometime you get a break to get that technology into the warfighter’s hands to do some good.

ES: It seems like the open architecture is a push back from the system of systems approach.

DT: People say things like, “The vendors are taking advantage.” I’ve even hear people talk about profiteering and that kind of thing, and it’s tough. These businesses have put a lot of money and investment in and their shareholders want a profit–that’s the way it works, and that’s understandable. From the government’s side, they think, “goodness gracious, it takes $20 to build this component; why are they charging me $500?” That’s distasteful for everybody who’s a tax payer. Where’s the right trade off?–it’s hard to say. From our perspective at Vecna, we have maintained independence. We have no outside investors or shareholders, so that gives us a lot of flexibility to try to do the right thing and not have to worry about meeting our quarterly numbers. That’s not to say we’re not for profit. We absolutely are, but we’re much more interested in really making a positive difference in the world and when we make a difference we’ve earned some financial reward. It’s not just about how can we get money out of the government or consumers to pay our investors; that’s never been what its about for us. We’re much more interested in solving really hard engineering problems that actually make a positive impact on the world, and as we do that effectively and do make a difference we’ll get some payback financially as well. That’s the icing on the cake for us.

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Richard Machowicz of Discovery’s Future Weapons offers an intriguing list of the “Weapons that Changed the World.”  The top ten includes the RPG-7, the JDAM, the B-52 bomber, the nuclear submarine, the Huey UH-1C attack helicopter, the S-75 Dvina high-altitude surface-to-air missile system, the F-117A stealth fighter, the AK-47, the ICBM, and the military industrial complex.

Several things struck me about Machowicz’s list.  First, the current tension between the needs of counterinsurgency and conventional state-on-state warfare is apparent when technology like the RPG-7 appears next to the F-117A.  (After all, how might a COIN theorist’s list differ from a RMA-minded person?  From a COIN mindset, the list seemed somehow ‘dated’ to me.)  Secondly, I have to wonder whether some of these technologies had a greater impact on culture than they did on the battlefield.  For example, the S-75 Dvina pushed the United States to develop countermeasures and new surveillance methods, but the 1960 U-2 incident had a cultural impact above and beyond the technological leap this one SAM system represented.

This leads me to two important questions.  What does it mean for weapons technology to change the world?  More importantly, how do we understand this change?  Perry Anderson, a historian and literary theorist, proposes a theory that might be useful in this context.*  In “Modernism and Revolution,” he analyzes “Modernist” social movements and the change they represented. As you may know, Modernism is a term applied to various artistic movements including but by no means limited art, architecture, literature, and film, which constituted a radical break from the past. Examples include authors such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisee, and many others. However, Modernism is more than an isolated artistic ideal. Einstein contributions to physics, Freud’s developments in psychoanalysis, and Keynes’ economic theories all represent significant “Modernist” moments in their capacity to change the world. Another, less recognized Modernist is Giulio Douhet, one of the fathers of air power theory.  Douhet was an amateur novelist, painter, and poet, whose contributions led to a Modernist revolution in war making.

What do these world-changing moments have in common?  Anderson suggests that they emerge at the intersection of three key coordinates:  academicism, technology, and the proximity of social revolution.  In terms of academicism, it is not enough for an modernist event to happen.  Rather, there must be an academic theorization that attempts to define and articulate that event.  The second component is a new or improved technology that changes the way we view the world:  mass production, the automobile, the airplane, radio, television, the personal computer, et. al.  Lastly, social revolution according Anderson is Marxist upheaval of the socioeconomic order, but I have broadened this include other forms of radical social change:  the American revolution, decolonization, the atomic age, and many others.

Do the moments in which these weapons changed the world conform to these three coordinates?  Some do, certainly.  In very obvious ways, the atomic bomb and the ICBM changed how the United States and other powers waged war.  In the immediate wake of these advances, the Army struggled to become “high-tech” as the Air Force received increased funding and standing within the military establishment.  Victory and occupation had entirely new implications that decreased the value of conventional military force and increased the need for paramilitary operations.  The world had been changed.

Today, there is little doubt we face one of these revolutionary moments.  Theorists like Montgomery McFate attempt to grapple with the challenges of counterinsurgency, technologies like the RPG-7 have enabled insurgencies to wage asymmetric war effectively, and the rise of radical, supranational groups like Al-Qaida  threaten to overthrow the established social other.  These three coordinates are but one, reductive look at a much more complex moment in which we live.  The important thing to acknowledge is that the weapons themselves are only one component of radical change.  Indeed, even these “weapons that changed the world” would be nothing without radical changes in  thinking and social order of the moment.

* – See Perry Anderson, “Modernism and Revolution,” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Gary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1988).

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