Monday, September 14, 2009

An idea whose time will come

Our current conflicts have two problems (among others) which require solutions:
1) We need a better capability of tracking our enemies, whether they are massing for an assault, or simply skulking around planting IEDs for later use against our forces.
2) Our public needs to be involved and support our military in winning these conflicts.

While these two disparate requirements appear far apart, there is a mechanism which could link them together.

One of the most miserable failures in the Iraq war was the inability of the Bush administration to keep the American public on the side of winning the war. Our troops were unparalleled. Our equipment outshone anything in history. Our missions were successful. Yet in the public opinion, we were losing the war right up to the day we won it. How can we reconcile such a dichotomy?

Unfortunately the people of America were never enfranchised into participating in the war to any degree larger than: "support the troops", "continue to consume and pay taxes", and "reelect tough-speaking legislators". The options for someone who wanted to actively and directly help win the war were very few and stiff. You could quit your job and volunteer for the military, but the military wasn't really pleading for help and the administration continuously stated that there were more than enough troops already available.

What we needed in Iraq (and in Afghanistan... and even in Vietnam) was a way for the layperson to assist in actively prosecuting the war. In World War II and prior conflicts, this psychological/social need was provided through a war time economy requiring every worker to 'pitch in' and work long hours to keep tanks and planes rolling off assembly lines. Conflicts including Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan are or were completely lacking a link between average Americans and their every day lives and the successful prosecution of war. It is quite obvious that a public which takes no serious part in executing a war, will quickly tire and turn against it. There is nothing directly and individually invested, so there is nothing lost by defeat. This is readily heard in groups from both sides of the political spectrum decrying each conflict as "This is President X's war!" They are right in some sense, because they haven't directly invested anything into a war, and thus have nothing personally on the line that would be threatened by failure.

Modern peer-to-peer tools have created the opportunity to fix this.

With a network of 24/7 UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) that can be deployed to provide an overview of vast areas of potentially hostile territory, our military is running a deficit in the capability of handling the quantities of data available.

Using modern tools, video coverage provided by UAVs, ULVs, and other reconnaissance tools can be integrated in real time and segmented into tiles for analysis by the lay person, at home, on their computers or TV screens.

As an example, Baghdad is roughly 81 square miles in area. If UAV coverage of Baghdad were universal and tiled appropriately, that 2 billion sq. ft. could be broken down into areas of some 20,000 sq. ft., with each section being streamed to 100,000+ personal computers, at which normal civilians would 'contribute' to the effort by monitoring an extra window on their PC or TV for activity which might look like either massing of forces for an attack, smuggling of weapons, or planting of IEDs.

Some immediate concerns:
- How can enemy agents be prevented from participating and providing false positives or negatives?
This concern is exactly analogous to proofing of peer-to-peer networks against poisoning by false content and stopping email spam. Rating systems, Bayesian filters, feedback mechanisms and many other technologies have proofed such systems well in the past.

- Will civilians be exposed to live footage of combats taking place?
Certainly not. While timeliness of intelligence is essential, providing a few minutes of lag between real time and civilian volunteers will allow a layer of military controllers to dynamically block out an area where there is current combat activity. A few minutes lag in identifying an enemy operative planting an IED is unlikely to lower the value of such intelligence significantly.

- Will enemy agents be able to use this system to locate coalition forces?
In the same way that civilians will be prevented from viewing actual combat action, tiled streams which would show the current location of coalition forces would be automatically removed from the pool available for civilian observation. With enough random tiles available for viewing, and only a small percentage removed due to presence of troops, it would be impossible for the enemy to use either the existence or non-existence of a particular tile to determine the distribution of friendly forces. Beyond this, client systems will not selectively choose tiles, but rather be assigned tiles randomly.

- What will motivate civilians to participate?
A very modest level of patriotism would be sufficient to bootstrap the project. From there, user groups and direct accomplishment awards will continue to motivate people. Campaigns can foster local competitions for who can spot the largest or most important tiles. People may even wear their success rating in the effort on t-shirts. It will be an element of pride to be one of the many volunteering their time and effort to directly assist our troops in prosecuting a war.

- What about genuine false negatives or positives?
Tiled streams can be monitored by more than one end user. When activity is suspected by one user, other users monitoring the same stream will be automatically polled. Upon a threshold of agreement, that stream will be promoted to review by a higher echelon of either experienced, reliably correct users, or actual military review.
False negatives can also be tested by substituting in streams depicting actual activity as a test to determine the capabilities of a particular user in identifying activity of interest. The better a user does under test, the more weight is given to that user's reports either negative or positive.


It is important to not get bogged down solely in the efficacy of the project in hampering the enemy. Much of the total benefit of this program would come simply from an increased level of interest and support for the war among the general populace. Right now, we win the war in the theater of conflict, and only lose the war in politics at home. While this project will deliver useful information in combating insurgencies, the predicted increase in domestic support caused by civilians actively participating in a role that directly supports our military forces would be equal or greater than the benefit of enhanced intelligence.

This technology is available today and attempts to address the larger problem of domestic indifference to solving very important international problems such as the stability of Iraq and/or Afghanistan. This piggybacks on counterinsurgency policy in that several non-state actors have made end runs around the goal of defeating the US, by instead attempting to demoralize the US populace directly through expert manipulation of media resources. Effectively this project would be a counterattack in the media/morale combat space.