The Pentagon Wants You To Tell Them What To Invest in for the Future

Workmen give minute touches inside the United States Pavilion before opening of Montreal’s Expo 67 on April 26, 1967.

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Workmen give minute touches inside the United States Pavilion before opening of Montreal’s Expo 67 on April 26, 1967.

The military is on the hunt for the next big tech breakthrough. Here’s how to help. By Patrick Tucker

The Pentagon is asking for ideas from the private sector on breakthrough technologies to guide military investment for the next decade and beyond.

On Wednesday, Defense Department officials issued a request for information calling on interested parties “to identify current and emerging technologies…that could provide significant military advantage to the United States and its partners and allies in the 2030 time frame.”

It’s a sort of prelude to the not-yet-revealed offset strategy, the Pentagon’s ambitious plan to develop technology to put the United States decades ahead of rival nations like China and Russia in short period of time.

Previous examples of offset breakthroughs include precision-guided weapons and stealth. The concepts that win the current competition could shape weapons investment — indeed the military itself — well into the next decade.

“We’re after a competition of ideas,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Engineering Stephen Welby said on Wednesday during a briefing with reporters. “It’s a good time to ask, what’s the future of the department look like? That’s what we’re asking here.”

Who are they asking? Silicon Valley first.

We made the pilgrimage to the Bay…We talked to people in the start-up world about bets that they’re making. We would love to hear from folks in those communities.
Stephen Welby, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Engineering

“We made the pilgrimage to the Bay,” said Welby, referring to that American Mecca of computer technology, San Francisco Bay. They “talked to people in the start-up world about bets that they’re making. We would love to hear from folks in those communities.” That includes everyone from hotshot, 20-something social network magnates to “billionaire hobbyists” with rockets and moon ambitions.

There’s just one problem, no matter who you ask, predicting what sort of technology will remain relevant decades into the future was a lot easier when the Defense Department first attempted it 30 years ago. “The crystal ball worked pretty well,” said Welby, when the United States had but one major adversary in the Soviet Union and exclusive domain over the most cutting-edge research and development.

That’s no longer the case. New breakthroughs are copied, innovated against and rendered obsolete as quickly as the Internet spreads to new portions of the globe. Just look to the most recent Gartner report on those futuristic technologies that are already over the crest of the hype cycle like “big data” and “augmented reality,” technologies that have reached the point of investor saturation long before becoming household names. Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil posits that, as a result of information technology, the rate of technological advancement will increase by a factor of 5.6 per linear decade.

Without validating Kurzweil’s figures, Welby said that, broadly speaking, it’s a problem that the military is aware of. “The reality is that we’re not likely to get a 40-year run out of any technology,” he acknowledged. “You won’t have a 40-year advantage.” 

The best bets include more capable robotic systems, commonly known by the shorthand, autonomy.  “The emergence of autonomy is a real shaper,” of the military approach to securing technological dominance in the future, said Welby. “The ability of systems to react to their environment…autonomy is an emerging technology with strong applications,” he said.

(RelatedThe Pentagon’s New Offset Strategy Includes Robots

The request for information lists five broad areas of exploration: space, undersea, air strike, missile defense and “other technology-driven concepts.”

Does it make sense to plan that far into future given the rapid pace of technological progress? Mathew Burrows, the director of strategic foresight at the Atlantic Council and author of The Future Declassified: Megatrends That Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action (Palgrave, 2014) applauded the effort as timely, if not overdue. His only criticism: 

“The five focus areas seem very constraining. There will be a lot of emerging technologies that don’t fall neatly into one or the other of the categories. Hopefully [the Defense Department] will look beyond their five constructs to see how emerging technologies—that don’t fall neatly into one of them—could transform the battlefield of the future.”

If you care to tell the military what they should invest in for the future, the link is here.

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