In a world where globalization makes it possible for adversaries to compete with American technologies, the United States must consistently innovate and adopt new tools and methods to stay ahead in the national security space.
That was the message at a special panel held at Georgetown University on Monday, called “The Future of Innovation in National Security.” It featured five panelists across the security space from the Pentagon, the Intelligence Community, and the private sector.
The panel discussion was an extension of a course at Georgetown University called “Hacking 4 Defense” – for which The Cipher Brief is a media sponsor – which aims to use new methodology to find solutions to real national security challenges identified by U.S. government agencies.
The key question of this endeavor was: “how we do gain advantage by not playing the same game that has been played before” and “force [the enemy] to engage with a different set of rules,” said Milo Medin, Vice President of Access Services at Google and a member of the Defense Innovation Board, an initiative set up by former Defense Secretary Ash Carter in 2016.
General Paul Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took it a step further, saying “innovation is about ideas that answer a problem that scales into the culture or the organization.”
“It’s not enough to have bright ideas; you have to be able to operationalize,” he added.
In order to do that, all sectors of society will have to be tapped, said Andrew Hallman, CIA Deputy Director For Digital Innovation, a Directorate launched in 2015, and tasked with reinventing the CIA for the big data era.
“We have to be able to be embrace whole-of-nation approaches…the commercial sector, the private industry, startups and innovation hubs, to dominate our adversaries” and “mobilizing that grassroots, local innovation.”
Part of that is developing a culture that allows for innovation, said Soraya Correa, Chief Procurement Officer at the Department of Homeland Security.
“We are constantly talking about how do we improve, how do we protect the Homeland, what are the technologies out there that [we] can bring in to enable us to do our mission much better? Because we do have to stay ahead of the threat that’s out there,” she said. “So everyone is talking about innovation and we’re trying to find ways to integrate that into our culture.”
That would involve leaders with “an appetite for failure” because “we can learn a lot from those mistakes,” she added.
Medin, however, argued that “we all make mistakes, the question is, are we making new mistakes? We shouldn’t be making the same old mistakes. There are things that are known not to work, and we should just not do those, right?”
Panelists also discussed recruiting the best talent into innovation offices, with competition between the private and public sectors. Medin acknowledged that the private sector can generally pay much more than government. But, he said, “government has all kinds of interesting sets of problems and systems that industry does not. The challenge is how do you get people to go into [the] security space in the government for permanent careers? That is something we really should think about.”
Effective Inter-Department Information Sharing
With multiple innovation offices across government agencies and departments – from In-Q-Tel to DARPA, for instance – panelists were asked whether there was enough done on sharing information and coordinating innovation.
Erin Simpson, CEO for Archer Avenue Consulting, a company that develops data strategies for clients in the security space, said it was a challenge because “unless you make it your business to spend a fair amount of time talking to people on the government side, on the vendor side, on the academic side, you have no idea what’s going on,” she said. “It’s a fantastic challenge but not one that the government seems particularly interested in.”
But Hallman differed in his view. “We have room to grow, we have to align more in that space, but I don’t think it’s quite that bleak.”
Correa agreed. “I’m not saying we’re perfect, but we are reaching out,” she said.
“One of the things DHS has done is that we do reach to the other agencies, we do talk to the Intelligence Community, the Department of Defense, and we try to understand what they’re working on and share ideas,” said Correa. “The other thing we’ve been doing – especially over the past two years – is talking to industry more.”
Gen. Selva added that not all innovation was meant to be shared across agencies. “There’s a whole stream of research and development inside the defense department on things that are unique to defense. We have to subdivide why we do that research because nobody else will do it.”
Given the billions of dollars spent on Research and Development (R&D), panelists were asked when they believed the investments paid off – to which Selva responded bluntly “the place we get the return is combat effectiveness – the survival of our forces in the modern battle space – if that’s an adequate return for that investment. I would argue it is.”
With Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin recently commenting that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other technologies purported to displace humans were 50-100 years away – even as a core pillar of the Third Offset strategy – panelists were asked when it was appropriate to discuss AI.
Medin said it was important to define what type of AI was being discussed. “General purpose AI is not just around the corner.” On the other hand, in his view, machine learning AI is already available – “and should be used in the operational context today.”
General Selva agreed, defining AI into two categories: “narrow AI” as in “teaching machines to do tasks” and “general AI” where machines are “self-aware.”
“What we can do is employ narrow AI to empower humans to make decisions faster in an ever increasingly complex battlespace.” That, in turn, would “change the dynamic in a battle space.”
Asked if foreign technology could be leveraged to add to U.S. security purposes, Hallman said “the reality is that with the globalization of technology, even if you look for U.S.-only solutions, you’re probably not getting U.S.-only solutions.”
He said it was important to think more broadly about the concerns and make a “risk-based decision.”
“How do we do this in a way – with counter-intelligence concerns, dependency concerns – that doesn’t leave us so far behind technologically that we miss the boat entirely?”
Leone Lakhani is an executive producer and reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @LeoneLakhani.
Callie Wang contributed to this report.