107. “The Queue”

[Editor’s Note: Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to present our November edition of “The Queue” – a monthly post listing the most compelling articles, books, podcasts, videos, and/or movies that the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Mad Scientist Initiative has come across during the previous month. In this anthology, we address how each of these works either informs or challenges our understanding of the Future Operational Environment (OE). We hope that you will add “The Queue” to your essential reading, listening, or watching each month!]

1. Is China a global leader in research and development? China Power Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 2018. 

The United States Army’s concept of Multi-Domain Operations 2028 describes Russia and China as strategic competitors working to synthesize emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, hypersonics, machine learning, nanotechnology, and robotics, with their analysis of military doctrine and operations. The Future OE’s Era of Contested Equality (i.e., 2035 through 2050) describes China’s ascent to a peer competitor and our primary pacing threat. The fuel for these innovations is research and development funding from the Chinese Government and businesses.

CSIS’s China Power Project recently published an assessment of the rise in China’s research and development funding. There are three key facts that demonstrate the remarkable increase in funding and planning that will continue to drive Chinese innovation. First, “China’s R&D expenditure witnessed an almost 30-fold increase from 1991 to 2015 – from $13 billion to $376 billion. Presently, China spends more on R&D than Japan, Germany, and South Korea combined, and only trails the United States in terms of gross expenditure. According to some estimates, China will overtake the US as the top R&D spender by 2020.”

Second, globally businesses are funding the majority of the research and development activities. China is now following this trend with its “businesses financing 74.7 percent ($282 billion) of the country’s gross expenditure on R&D in 2015.” Tracking the origin of this funding is difficult with the Chinese government also operating a number of State Owned Entities. This could prove to be a strength for the Chinese Army’s access to commercial innovation.

China’s Micius quantum satellite, part of their Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) program

Third, the Chinese government is funding cutting edge technologies where they are seeking to be global leaders. “Expenditures by the Chinese government stood at 16.2 percent of total R&D usage in 2015. This ratio is similar to that of advanced economies, such as the United States (11.2 percent). Government-driven expenditure has contributed to the development of the China National Space Administration. The Tiangong-2 space station and the “Micius’ quantum satellite – the first of its kind – are just two such examples.”

2. Microsoft will give the U.S. military access to ‘all the technology we create’, by Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times (on-line), 1 December 2018.

Success in the future OE relies on many key assumptions. One such assumption is that the innovation cycle has flipped. Where the DoD used to drive technological innovation in this country, we now see private industry (namely Silicon Valley) as the driving force with the Army consuming products and transitioning technology for military use. If this system is to work, as the assumption implies, the Army must be able to work easily with the country’s leading technology companies.  Microsoft’s President Brad Smith stated recently that his company will “provide the U.S. military with access to the best technology … all the technology we create. Full stop.”

This is significant to the DoD for two reasons: It gives the DoD, and thus the Army, access to one of the leading technology developers in the world (with cloud computing and AI solutions), and it highlights that the assumptions we operate under are never guaranteed. Most recently, Google made the decision not to renew its contract with the DoD to provide AI support to Project Maven – a decision motivated, in part, by employee backlash.

Our near-peer competitors do not appear to be experiencing similar tensions or friction between their respective governments and private industry.  China’s President Xi is leveraging private sector advances for military applications via a “whole of nation” strategy, leading China’s Central Military-Civil Fusion Development Commission to address priorities including intelligent unmanned systems, biology and cross-disciplinary technologies, and quantum technologies.  Russia seeks to generate innovation by harnessing its defense industries with the nation’s military, civilian, and academic expertise at their Era Military Innovation Technopark to concentrate on advances in “information and telecommunication systems, artificial intelligence, robotic complexes, supercomputers, technical vision and pattern recognition, information security, nanotechnology and nanomaterials, energy tech and technology life support cycle, as well as bioengineering, biosynthetic, and biosensor technologies.”

Microsoft openly declaring its willingness to work seamlessly with the DoD is a substantial step forward toward success in the new innovation cycle and success in the future OE.

3. The Truth About Killer Robots, directed by Maxim Pozdorovkin, Third Party Films, premiered on HBO on 26 November 2018.

This documentary film could have been a highly informative piece on the disruptive potential posed by robotics and autonomous systems in future warfare. While it presents a jumble of interesting anecdotes addressing the societal changes wrought by the increased prevalence of autonomous systems, it fails to deliver on its title. Indeed, robot lethality is only tangentially addressed in a few of the documentary’s storylines:  the accidental death of a Volkswagen factory worker crushed by autonomous machinery; the first vehicular death of a driver engrossed by a Harry Potter movie while sitting behind the wheel of an autonomous-driving Tesla in Florida, and the use of a tele-operated device by the Dallas police to neutralize a mass shooter barricaded inside a building.

Russian unmanned, tele-operated BMP-3 shooting its 30mm cannon on a test range / Zvezda Broadcasting via YouTube

Given his choice of title, Mr. Pozdorovkin would have been better served in interviewing activists from the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and participants at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) who are negotiating in good faith to restrict the proliferation of lethal autonomy. A casual search of the Internet reveals a number of relevant video topics, ranging from the latest Russian advances in unmanned Ground Combat Vehicles (GCV) to a truly dystopian vision of swarming killer robots.

Instead, Mr. Pozdorovkin misleads his viewers by presenting a number creepy autonomy outliers (including a sad Chinese engineer who designed and then married his sexbot because of his inability to attract a living female mate given China’s disproportionately male population due to their former One-Child Policy); employing a sinister soundtrack and facial recognition special effects; and using a number of vapid androids (e.g., Japan’s Kodomoroid) to deliver contrived narration hyping a future where the distinction between humanity and machines is blurred. Where are Siskel and Ebert when you need ’em?

4. Walmart will soon use hundreds of AI robot janitors to scrub the floors of U.S. stores,” by Tom Huddleston Jr., CNBC, 5 December 2018.

The retail superpower Walmart is employing hundreds of robots in stores across the country, starting next month. These floor-scrubbing janitor robots will keep the stores’ floors immaculate using autonomous navigation that will be able to sense both people and obstacles.

The introduction of these autonomous cleaners will not be wholly disruptive to Walmart’s workforce operations, as they are only supplanting a task that is onerous for humans. But is this just the beginning? As humans’ comfort levels grow with the robots, will there then be an introduction of robot stocking, not unlike what is happening with Amazon? Will robots soon handle routine exchanges? And what of the displaced or under-employed workers resulting from this proliferation of autonomy, the widening economic gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the potential for social instability from neo-luddite movements in the Future OE?   Additionally, as these robots become increasingly conspicuous throughout our everyday lives in retail, food service, and many other areas, nefarious actors could hijack them or subvert them for terroristic, criminal, or generally malevolent uses.

The introduction of floor-cleaning robots at Walmart has larger implications than one might think. Robots are being considered for all the dull, dirty, and dangerous tasks assigned to the Army and the larger Department of Defense. The autonomous technology behind robots in Walmart today could have implications for our Soldiers at their home stations or on the battlefield of the future, conducting refueling and resupply runs, battlefield recovery, medevac, and other logistical and sustainment tasks.

5. What our science fiction says about us, by Tom Cassauwers, BBC News, 3 December 2018.

Right now the most interesting science fiction is produced in all sorts of non-traditional places,” says Anindita Banerjee, Associate Professor at Cornell University, whose research focuses on global sci-fi.  Sci-Fi and story telling enable us to break through our contemporary, mainstream echo chamber of parochialism to depict future technological possibilities and imagined worlds, political situations, and conflict. Unsurprisingly, different visions of the future imagining alternative realities are being written around the world – in China, Russia, and Africa. This rise of global science fiction challenges how we think about the evolution of the genre.  Historically, our occidental bias led us to believe that sci-fi was spreading from Western centers out to the rest of the world, blinding us to the fact that other regions also have rich histories of sci-fi depicting future possibilities from their cultural perspectives. Chinese science fiction has boomed in recent years, with standout books like Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body ProblemAfrofuturism is also on the rise since the release of the blockbuster Black Panther.

The Mad Scientist Initiative uses Crowdsourcing and Story Telling as two innovative tools to help us envision future possibilities and inform the OE through 2050. Strategic lessons learned from looking at the Future OE show us that the world of tomorrow will be far more challenging and dynamic. In our FY17 Science Fiction Writing Contest, we asked our community of action to describe Warfare in 2030-2050.  The stories submitted showed virtually every new technology is connected to and intersecting with other new technologies and advances.  The future OE presents us with a combination of new technologies and societal changes that will intensify long-standing international rivalries, create new security dynamics, and foster instability as well as opportunities. Sci-fi transcends beyond a global reflection on resistance; non-Western science fiction also taps into a worldwide consciousness – helping it conquer audiences beyond their respective home markets.

6. NVIDIA Invents AI Interactive Graphics, Nvidia.com, 3 December 2018.

A significant barrier to the modeling and simulation of dense urban environments has been the complexity of these areas in terms of building, vehicle, pedestrian, and foliage density. Megacities and their surrounding environments have such a massive concentration of entities that it has been a daunting task to re-create them digitally.  Nvidia has recently developed a first-step solution to this ongoing problem. Using neural networks and generative models, the developers are able to train AI to create realistic urban environments based off of real-world video.

As Nvidia admits, “One of the main obstacles developers face when creating virtual worlds, whether for game development, telepresence, or other applications is that creating the content is expensive. This method allows artists and developers to create at a much lower cost, by using AI that learns from the real world.” This process could significantly compress the development timeline, and while it wouldn’t address the other dimensions of urban operations — those entities that are underground or inside buildings (multi-floor and multi-room) — it would allow the Army to divert and focus more resources in those areas. The Chief of Staff of the Army has made readiness his #1 priority and stated, “In the future, I can say with very high degrees of confidence, the American Army is probably going to be fighting in urban areas,” and the Army “need[s] to man, organize, train and equip the force for operations in urban areas, highly dense urban areas.” 1  Nvidia’s solution could enable and empower the force to meet that goal.

If you read, watch, or listen to something this month that you think has the potential to inform or challenge our understanding of the Future OE, please forward it (along with a brief description of why its potential ramifications are noteworthy to the greater Mad Scientist Community of Action) to our attention at: usarmy.jble.tradoc.mbx.army-mad-scientist@mail.mil — we may select it for inclusion in our next edition of “The Queue”!


1Commentary: The missing link to preparing for military operations in megacities and dense urban areas,” by Claudia ElDib and John Spencer, Army Times, 20 July 2018, https://www.armytimes.com/opinion/commentary/2018/07/20/commentary-the-missing-link-to-preparing-for-military-operations-in-megacities-and-dense-urban-areas/.

77. “The Tenth Man” — Russia’s Era Military Innovation Technopark

[Editor’s Note: Mad Scientist Laboratory is pleased to publish the second in our series of “The Tenth Man” posts (read the first one here). This Devil’s Advocate or contrarian approach serves as a form of alternative analysis and is a check against group think and mirror imaging. The Mad Scientist Laboratory offers it as a platform for the contrarians in our network to share their alternative perspectives and analyses regarding the Future Operational Environment.

Today’s post is by guest blogger Mr. Ray Finch addressing Russia’s on-going efforts to develop a military innovation center —  Era Military Innovation Technopark — near the city of Anapa (Krasnodar Region) on the northern coast of the Black Sea.  Per The Operational Environment and the Changing Character of Future Warfare, “Russia can be considered our ‘pacing threat,’ and will be our most capable potential foe for at least the first half of the Era of Accelerated Human Progress [now through 2035]. It will remain a key adversary through the Era of Contested Equality [2035-2050].” So any Russian attempts at innovation to create “A Militarized Silicon Valley in Russia” should be sounding alarms throughout the NATO Alliance, right?  Well, maybe not….]

(Please note that several of Mr. Finch’s embedded links in the post below are best accessed using non-DoD networks.)

Only a Mad Russian Scientist could write the paragraph below:

Russia Resurgent, Source: Bill Butcher, The Economist

If all goes according to plan, in October 2035 the Kremlin will host a gala birthday party to commemorate President Putin’s 83d birthday. Ever since the Russian leader began receiving special biosynthetic plasma developed by military scientists at the country’s premier Era Technopolis Center in Anapa, the president’s health and overall fitness now resembles that of a 45-year old. This development was just one in a series of innovations which have helped to transform – not just the Kremlin leader – but the entire country.  By focusing its best and brightest on new technologies, Russia has become the global leader in information and telecommunication systems, artificial intelligence, robotic complexes, supercomputers, technical vision and pattern recognition, information security, nanotechnology and nanomaterials, energy tech and technology life support cycle, as well as bioengineering, biosynthetic, and biosensor technologies. In many respects, Russia is now the strongest country in the world.

While this certainly echoes the current Kremlin propaganda, a more sober analysis regarding the outcomes of the Era Military Innovation Technopark in Anapa (Krasnodar Region) ought to consider those systemic factors which will likely retard its future development. Below are five reasons why Putin and Russia will likely have less to celebrate in 2035.

President Putin and Defense Minister Shoigu being briefed on Technopark-Era, Kremlin, 23 Feb 2018. Source: http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/56923, CC BY 4.0.

You can’t have milk without a cow

The primary reason that the Kremlin’s attempt to create breakthrough innovations at the Era Technopark will result in disappointment stems from the lack of a robust social structure to support such innovations. And it’s not simply the absence of good roads or adequate healthcare. As the renowned MIT scientist, Dr. Loren R. Graham recently pointed out, the Kremlin leadership wants to enjoy the “milk” of technology, without worrying about supporting the system needed to support a “cow.” Graham elaborates on his observation by pointing out that even though Russian scientists have often been at the forefront of technological innovations, the country’s poor legal system prevents these discoveries from ever bearing fruit. Stifling bureaucracy and a broken legal system prevent Russian scientists and innovators from profiting from their discoveries. This dilemma leads to the second factor.

Brain drain

Despite all of the Kremlin’s patriotic hype over the past several years, many young and talented Russians are voting with their feet and pursuing careers abroad. As the senior Russian analyst, Dr. Gordon M. Hahn noted, “instead of voting for pro-democratic forces and/or fomenting unrest, Russia’s discontented, highly educated, highly skilled university graduates tend to move abroad to find suitable work.” And even though the US is maligned on a daily basis in the Kremlin-supported Russian media, many of these smart, young Russians are moving to America. Indeed, according to a recent Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) report, “the number of asylum applications by Russian citizens in the United States hit a 24-year high in 2017, jumping nearly 40 percent from the previous year and continuing an upward march that began after Russian President Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012.” These smart, young Russians believe that their country is headed in the wrong direction and are looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Everything turns out to be a Kalashnikov

There’s no doubt that Russian scientists and technicians are capable of creating effective weapon systems. President Putin’s recent display of military muscle-power was not a mere campaign stratagem, but rather a reminder to his Western “partners” that since Russia remains armed to the teeth, his country deserves respect. And there’s little question that the new Era Technopark will help to create advanced weapon systems of “which there is no analogous version in the world.” But that’s just the point. While Russia is famous for its tanks, artillery, and rocket systems, it has struggled to create anything which might be qualified as a technological marvel in the civilian sector. As some Russian observers have put it, “no matter what the state tries to develop, it ends up being a Kalashnikov.”

Soviet AK-47. Type 2 made from 1951 to 1954/55. Source: http://www.dodmedia.osd.mil Public Domain

The Boss knows what’s best

The current Kremlin leadership now parades itself as being at the forefront of a global conservative and traditional movement. In their favorite narrative, the conniving US is forever trying to weaken Russia (and other autocratic countries) by infecting them with a liberal bacillus, often referred to as a “color revolution.” In their rendition, Russia was contaminated by this democratic disease during the 1990s, only to find itself weakened and taken advantage of by America.

Since then, the Kremlin leadership has retained the form of democracy, but has removed its essence. Elections are held, ballots are cast, but the winner is pre-determined from above. So far, the Russian population has played along with this charade, but at some point, perhaps in an economic crisis, the increasingly plugged-in Russian population might demand a more representative form of government. Regardless, while this top-down, conservative model is ideal for maintaining control and staging major events, it lacks the essential freedom inherent within innovation. Moreover, such a quasi-autocratic system tends to promote Russia’s most serious challenge.

The cancer of corruption

Despite the façade of a uniformed, law-governed state, Russia continues to rank near the bottom on the global corruption index. According to a recent Russian report, “90 percent of entrepreneurs have encountered corruption at least once.” Private Russian companies will likely think twice before deciding to invest in the Era Technopark, unless of course, the Kremlin makes them an offer they cannot refuse. Moreover, as suggested earlier, the young Era scientists may not be fully committed, understanding that the “milk” of their technological discoveries will likely by expropriated by their uniformed bosses.

Technopark Era is not scheduled to be fully operational until 2020, and the elevated rhetoric over its innovative mandate will likely prompt concern among some US defense officials. While the center could advance Russian military technology over the next 15-25 years, it is doubtful that Era will usher in a new era for Russia.

If you enjoyed this edition of the “Tenth Man”:

– Learn more about Russia’s Era Military Innovation Technopark in the April 2018 edition of the TRADOC G-2’s Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) OE Watch, Volume 8, Issue 4, pages 10-11.

– Read Mad Scientist Sam Bendett‘s guest blog post on Russian Ground Battlefield Robots: A Candid Evaluation and Ways Forward.

Ray Finch works as a Eurasian Analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office. He’s a former Army officer (Artillery and Russian FAO).