Written by Christin Young
on November 17, 2017

On November 14, OGSystems had the pleasure of hosting USGIF’s GEOINTeraction Tuesday event at our Chantilly, Virginia headquarters. USGIF’s mission to “Accelerate Innovation” directly complements the OGSystems’ belief that “better is possible” and we were delighted to welcome nearly 100 guests to our facility. Dr. Anthony Vinci, Associate Director for Capabilities for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) was the special guest speaker for the evening. Dr. Vinci touched on several areas of interest to those both in government and commercial industry. Here are the things we found most compelling:

1. We need to get to the future… and the future is Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The first step to moving forward is understanding the threats we face as a nation. “One threat I want to focus on is one that was science fiction 10 years ago and now all of the sudden it’s become real,” Vinci said. “I think that the US, China, and Russia are in an arms race for AI.” Our adversaries are charging forward in their pursuit, going so far as to acknowledge that whoever becomes the leader in this field will eventually rule the world.

2. Our adversaries may outpace us

Vinci noted that our competitors have an advantage in that they can adapt to change faster – they don’t have our history and billions of dollars of legacy systems. Terrorist organizations can create new weapons systems simply by purchasing a drone on Amazon and strapping a grenade to it. Others can skip an entire generation of military and intelligence capabilities because they have a command economy and different social or government structures.

GEOINTteraction Speech

“It’s a scary time because I think there’s a real possibility that the US could become second best, that we could lose some of these arms races,” Vinci said. “We can’t even imagine a world in which we weren’t the dominant GEOINT power, but it’s a possibility and I think we need to confront that possibility and we need to ensure that it doesn’t happen. We need to ensure that we remain dominant.”

3. Commercial space is a complete game changer

Government produced capabilities used to dominant the sensor market. Vinci noted that the speed at which commercial industry can produce products — ones that may not necessarily have been made specifically for NGA — forces the agency to adopt a new mindset and embrace those things that can support its mission.

The commercial market also opens brand new sensors — think autonomous vehicles and Internet of Things devices such as FitBits, Amazon Alexa, and even smart lightbulbs. All these things represent 20.4 billion connected things by 2020 and two zettabytes (2 trillion gigabytes) of data by 2025. We need ways to exploit that data and make sense of it and commercial industry will be at the forefront.

4. We can’t succumb to “Future Shock”

Vinci quoted Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book, “Future Shock,” which is a term Toffler coined about the stress that goes with adapting to continuous change or “the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.”

This is the world we live in — we must work in this state of continuous change and constantly adapt to the future as it happens. NGA employees or anyone working directly or indirectly for the government in national security interests, it’s their mission to provide the best information to our warfighters and decision makers, regardless of the stress of that change.

“I think it’s our job to be constantly attempting to outrun that change, to stay ahead of the curve to make products that are even better to out due our adversaries and disrupt them,” Vinci said. “We need to turn that conversation around to make them feel the stress of that change where they can’t adapt fast enough. That’s what strategic competition is.”

5. Some of the most striking change we’re going to see is the relationships between machines and humans and how they interact.

In the past, machines were on the sensor side. They represented the satellites in space or aircrafts that captured the film. Over time, machines began taking part in earlier and earlier phases of analysis. First, with the digital transfer of information, then with the ability to zoom in and out of an image.

“Soon I believe AI-based intelligence will be how we think about things, where we start to lose the closeness we once felt to producing something that was human intelligence and that can be scary,” Vinci said. “Our fear and stress is irrelevant though, it’s our duty to provide the best product and if machines can help us keep up and provide that extra piece of insight that we need, we should allow it to happen.”

Vinci noted that humans will always be a core part of the analysis process because they provide the context. Anyone can program a computer, but knowing what questions to ask is where the creativity and intuitive human thought comes in, and that’s what’s important. Questions such as: What things should I try to identify with this computer vision system? Or what does it tell me about the world and why is it important? What should I recommend to that warfighter/decision maker? Those are the questions that only people can answer, assuring our place in analysis.

6. Innovation will be the form of competition

When we talk about the future being faster, it’s in the very act of innovation that needs to be faster. The very act of coming up with new ideas and fielding them needs to be faster. In time, it will be a flat world in terms of technology – we will all have access to similar technology types – what will differentiate us is how we change it or evolve it.

“That’s what it means to be a disruptor, you become so fast that you change the environment around you and it becomes hard for others to keep up,” Vinci said. “It’s strange to think of innovation as a form of competition but it is – it will be the form of competition. How fast can we adapt and innovate against an adversary?”

7. You need a culture of courage

In order to make these moves forward, Vinci stressed that it takes courage. He told the story of Billy Mitchell, widely considered the father of the Air Force after crusading for more air power after World War I. His belief that an airplane could sink a battleship was believed by few, and he relentlessly tried to convince his superiors. He was court-martialed for his behavior, and eventually vindicated when the Japanese sunk the SS Arizona at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Vinci stressed that it can’t just be one or two people pushing for change; it must be a cultural shift. Everyone must show up every day with that goal in mind.

“The process of innovation and disruption becomes part of the process of serving the government as part of a greater enterprise,” Vinci said. “We need to be part of this continual invention and reinvention of GEOINT. It’s why we’re here and why we’ve served in war zones or got into the Intelligence Community (IC) or the Department of Defense (DoD). There’s a mission part that gets us up in the morning and I think we have a duty to not forget that and to continue to push things further.”

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