Why we need robotics in the classroom

Autonomous mower from Left Hand Robotics, image from their website

By now, most kids are in school. Well, at least attending school in some fashion. My kids, like many, are in an online program, cobbled together by our local school by administrators that likely ask questions like “The files are IN the computer?” Like most people, we’ll find a way to manage and try to get our kids ready for their adult lives, despite the flawed setup.

When we eventually go back to school, we need to ask harder questions about how well our schools are preparing kids for future careers. One area we’re missing is how we’ll work with autonomous vehicles in the future. We see much talk about autonomous cars, but there are plenty of other areas where autonomous vehicles are quietly proliferating. Too many people focus on jobs that would be taken away. Yes, jobs are going to leave, but new ones will appear. The new jobs require humans that are used to, and can work with, autonomous vehicles as they perform their tasks.

For example, there is a lot of investment in autonomous trucks. Long haul trucks move goods across the country, and the lack of sufficient capacity became obvious when Amazon and other delivery services struggled under the weight of COVID restrictions and increased demand for home delivery. Autonomous vehicles can operate longer and safer, but they aren’t ideal for all circumstances, such as icy roads. The human driver of the future needs to understand how the vehicle works, how to maintain it, and when to take over to keep the truck safe.

Construction vehicles are another area. Currently construction is viewed as a low education job. Its not (think about the engineering that goes into road construction), and in the future it’ll require even more education. Autonomous construction vehicles are now operating in remote sites, running 40 ton excavators and doing the dirty work while humans supervise the project. Before long, construction workers will need expertise in setting up sensors, monitoring equipment, directing an army of robots to build bridges, roads, solar arrays and the other things that make our world a pleasant place to live.

Robots that are out of sight are also getting attention. Underground digging by the BADGER robots in Europe could completely change how our cities are built and enable us to bring in new services (water, sewer, internet, etc.) without requiring expensive and obtrusive digging. Dredging harbors, necessary to ensure enough water depth for container vessels, could become completely autonomous thanks to a new underwater vehicle. These robots can do the dirty work and operate around obstacles using autonomous logic, but they can’t determine what to do. That’s still for humans to perform.

The more we get our kids used to directing and working with robots, the better they will be positioned to work in the future. Technologists are quick to announce the demise of any particular field, but the future is always a hybrid first as new technology adjusts to the reality of the world. Our future with robots is no different, and our kids will work in that future better if we make our schools prepare them for it.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Normalizing deviance on abortion and MAGA

Trailer for the movie “Unplanned”, from unplannedfilm.com

The first time I heard the term “normalized deviance” was at a Project Management group meeting when one of the members (an aviator) described how dangerous it was to fly with multiple equipment waivers. As he described it, once you got used to a piece of equipment not working, it eventually just became accepted, and that lowered the drive to get it fixed. He called that “normalized deviance, and he compared it to smoking marijuana. Twenty years ago, most people considered smoking marijuana illegal. Now? We’re likely to see it legalized in less than ten years throughout the country.

Normalizing deviance comes from constantly doing something that is supposed to be wrong or illegal, and by constant exposure, cause people to accept that behavior. Marijuana use is a great example. If you attended college in the last 20 years, you probably knew someone that smoked marijuana, and they probably were an OK person. Soon it was easy to question why marijuana was illegal. Dangerous substance? So is tobacco and alcohol, but we allow those. “Gateway drug?” Probably not, according to plenty of other studies. Combine that with health and even medical benefits, and soon it is OK to openly support marijuana use.

Normalizing deviance, although it sounds bad, isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s what broke down barriers to inter-racial marriage, or rampant anti-Catholic bias among new immigrants to America. Unfortunately, in the areas of abortion and open support to President Trump, its a troubling trend. In the case of abortion, its accepted that you can’t support women’s rights without also supporting abortion. This flies in the faces of the millions of women that are pro-life, yet its simply accepted in a large part of society.

The other normalized deviance is physical altercations on any Trump supporter. It’s accepted by too many people that if you put up a Trump sign in your yard, or wear a MAGA hat in public, you’re likely to get vandalized or attacked. That shouldn’t be the case. As a young boy during the 1996 Presidential election, I remember getting signs from all three Presidential candidates, mainly because I thought it was interesting. Rampant sign destruction didn’t happen, and when signs were damaged, people didn’t justify it. That’s not the case anymore.

If conservatives continue to allow this normalized deviance, it’ll be near impossible to openly speak about abortion or support conservative candidates. While plenty of people will simply stay quiet and vote conservatively anyway, it’ll be nearly impossible to raise enthusiastic support, especially among young people who are more inclined to be open about their beliefs and opinions.

It’s not enough to simply push back. Making movies like “Unplanned” and scoring legal victories like Nick Sandmann did are good starts, but that can’t be the end state. It not enough to be grudgingly tolerated in the background. The baseline has to be that you can be a woman and be pro-life, and that you can put a sign in your yard and reasonably expect it to stay up. Until that happens, we haven’t normalized enough conservative deviance.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Tariffs on Cruise Lines?

The Pride of America, the only US flagged cruise ship, in Hawaii. Image from Wikipedia.

Cruise ships haven’t had good news in 2020. Many of the first COVID patients in the US, including the people in my area, caught the disease while onboard a cruise vessel. Then cruise lines wanted federal money under the CARES act, even though they aren’t incorporated in the United States, and thus don’t pay US taxes. Combined with the difficulty in cleaning a ship while underway, and cruise lines are facing a difficult return to normal. If stock price is any indication, Carnival Cruise line plummeted from 50 dollars a share in January to almost 8 dollars in April, and is currently sitting around 17 dollars.

Cruise lines have found unique ways to evade US laws and taxes. All but one cruise ship is flagged outside the United States. The flag of the cruise ship allows it to sail in international waters, and dictates what sort of domestic laws apply while onboard. Most cruise ships are flagged in Liberia, Bahamas or Panama. Each of these nations have weak labor laws with limited ability to enforce them. Cruise lines don’t have a minimum wage and get away with significantly lower safety standards. Worse still, if a crime is committed onboard, its notoriously hard to prosecute. A study from the University of Florida found that:

The Cruise Line International Association claims that cruise ships are inherently secure because ships offer a controlled environment with limited access. “However, there has been some startling statistics between 2003 and 2005: 24 people were reported missing and 178 people reported a claim against sexual assault. Additionally, the FBI has opened investigations on 305 cruise-based crimes, from 2000-2005” (Porter, 2006, p.597). The CLIA compares these statistics to U.S. crime rates and harps on being the safest form of transportation and inherently secure. They fail however, to examine the context to which these statistics apply.

Given that Americans make up nearly 75% of cruise line passengers, it seems unfair to have Americans financing a system that is exploiting workers and dodging taxes. The tax dodging makes it easy to undercut any US company trying to start a competitive cruise line. Given the negative attention on cruise lines, its probably time for President Trump to threaten tariffs on the cruise industry.

Cruise ships pay a docking fee and port tariff, based on tonnage, when they dock in a US port. An easy way to encourage better behavior is to raise the port tariffs on non-US flagged vessels, as well as providing a discounted tariff to cruise lines that voluntarily follow US employment and criminal laws. You could have a high tariff, with a discount if the ship pays minimum wages, and a further discount if they follow proper US criminal proceedings. The result is a carrot and stick approach, either getting more money from the industry or enforcing better behavior on the part of the cruise line. Given that cruise lines are struggling, now is the time to negotiate a better deal.

Cruise lines have benefited from America for years under flags of convenience. Perhaps its time they follow the same rules the rest of the United States does.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Kneecapping AI to maintain a bloated military bureaucracy

One of two prototypes purchased by the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Strategic Capabilities Office for its Ghost Fleet Overlord program, aimed at fielding an autonomous surface ship capable of launching missiles. (U.S. Defense Department)

Military drones are popping up everywhere. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we became used to seeing Predator drones flying around with Hellfire missiles, flown from bases in the United States and providing a near 24/7 watch for opportunities to blow up terrorists. The latest batch of drones are now becoming increasingly autonomous, meaning they can not just think for themselves, but react faster than a human and respond to an ever changing environment. In the news recently was how Artificial Intelligence that beat a top US Air Force F-16 pilot, and previously the Navy discussed how its Sea Hunter would operate as an autonomous missile barge.

But I’m not here to talk about technology, not only because details are classified, but also because any technological issues will solve themselves over time. Human engineers are pretty smart. If some piece of code doesn’t work, we’ll find a solution. Technology isn’t holding us back in the realm of military drones. People are, and unfortunately people are the real weakness, as emphasized in this quote:

“AI matters because using drones as ‘loyal wingmen’ is a key part of future air power developments,” said Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia via email. “It’s less important as a fighter pilot replacement.”

If we build an AI that is smarter, faster and all around better than top notch fighter pilots, why on earth would we not replace pilots? The Army just raised the minimum contract for pilots to 10 years, which in military human resources speak means that they can’t keep these people in. All the military services struggle to retain people with skills like flying, electronic warfare, cyber, and anything else that requires significant technical expertise. Using AI to fill these billets gives the military significantly more flexibility in where it sends its manpower. This manpower can be used to lead squadrons of drone aircraft, or on people who lead armies of online bots in cyberspace. It’ll require more training and expertise, and certainly a culture change in how we view people in the military.

Besides being short sighted about replacing people, the other weakness we are going to find with autonomous systems is that we do a terrible job writing out our intentions. I worked with some highly skills folks on the Navy’s autonomous sea systems, and one of the biggest challenges was turning what we call “Commanders Intent” into code. If a vessel is out looking for an enemy, its easy to say “Kill this type of enemy when you see them.” It’s harder to give instructions like “Taking the current geopolitical events into consideration, make a judgement call on whether to shoot down an adversary aircraft.”

To put it bluntly, what does that even mean? The military throws around the idea of “Commanders Intent” like its some sort of magic that springs forth from someone’s brain. In reality, its a lot of processing happening in the back of your mind that constantly takes in data from the world around you. The military benefits from having extraordinary people that stick around long enough to reach command. These extraordinary people find ways to take an ugly bureaucracy devoted toward mediocrity and somehow make it work. As our military bureaucracy has grown, this has gotten more difficult. Extraordinary people are less likely to stick around to fight a bureaucracy devoted to maintaining status quo, especially when business is happy to snap them up and pay them more. Autonomous systems give us a chance to drop much of the bureaucracy and focus on intent, strategy and “end state,” or what we want the world to look like at the end. If we don’t embrace this change, we’re missing out on the truly revolutionary changes that autonomy gives us.

Future warfare is going to feature autonomous systems, and its going to highlight how weak human beings are in a variety of areas. Rather than fight this, the military should embrace autonomous systems as a chance to recapitalize manpower. It should also begin training its future commanders, flag and general officers, about how to actually write out their intent, and stop relying on chance to give us great commanders. We can’t let a military bureaucracy devoted to maintaining a status quo on manpower stifle the massive innovation that AI offers us.

This post represents the views of the author and not the views of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

AFRICOM headquarters in Africa…why not?

AFRICOM HQ building, from https://www.dabangasudan.org

The US military in Europe is in a bit of a shakeup. After years of tolerating Germany’s low military investment, President Trump announced that 12,000 troops would move out of Germany, many of them moving to Poland, which has been investing in its military. Because of the “Orange Man Bad” complex, somehow the fact that this saves us money over the long term, is part of continued investment in a country that will be purchasing more US energy resources, and places troops closer to Russia as a deterrent seems to be lost in the media. It’s a smart move economically and strategically.

The shift of forces includes moving the US European Command headquarters to Belgium and the US Africa Command headquarters to…somewhere. But not Africa, according to a few news sources. When AFRICOM stood up, placing it in Stuttgart initially made sense, since many of the staff members came from the EUCOM staff. But AFRICOM’s lack of presence in Africa isn’t smart long term. The US should be more invested in Africa, and moving AFRICOM to Africa would help that investment.

Where in Africa? The best spots are Nigeria, Morocco, Ethiopia or Liberia. Nigeria is a long-term powerhouse in Africa. Not only will it become one of the world’s most populous nations, but it has a positive view of the US and has a democratic government. Morocco was the first nation in the world to recognize the US and we’ve maintained friendly relations for most of our countries history. Ethiopia is another democratic powerhouse in Africa. Liberia, while not as developed as the other three, is still a good choice given its close history with the US.

There is some concern about “militarizing” Africa, but I contend that’s a poor argument. Did we militarize Europe by stationing troops there, or did we stop a continued trend of larger and larger wars that seemed to erupt between European powers? We’ve had a longer peace since the US stationed troops in Europe. Other nations are directly moving into Africa, and while some seem altruistic (like France), others are not aligned with the US (Russia and China). We can’t counter these large investments with minimal footprints.

There are plenty of good options for AFRICOM to be in Africa. Africa is only going to get more important in coming years. We’re either all in on Africa, or we cede that ground to China.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Spliternet? Spare me.

No, seriously, its not

There has been plenty of discussion about Microsoft’s attempted acquisition of TikTok and the recent executive order that barred working with TikTok, WeChat and other Chinese social media apps. But amid all of this came an interesting article in the BBC accusing the United States of “splitting the internet.” Yup, really.

“It’s shocking,” says Alan Woodward, a security expert based at the University of Surrey. “This is the Balkanisation of the internet happening in front of our eyes.

“The US government has for a long time criticised other countries for controlling access to the internet… and now we see the Americans doing the same thing.”

Dr. Alan Woodward

The article does backtrack a bit and brings up legitimate security concerns posed by China. It sparked my curiosity in Pompeo’s speech, which hasn’t really made the news. So I found the transcript, and Pompeo had outlined five lines of effort for a Clean Internet:

First, Clean Carrier. We are working to ensure that untrusted Chinese telecom companies don’t provide international telecommunications services between the United States and foreign destinations.

Second, we call Clean Store. We want to see untrusted Chinese apps removed from U.S. app stores.

Third, Clean Apps. We’re working to prevent Huawei and other untrusted vendors from pre-installing or making available for download the most popular U.S. apps. We don’t want companies to be complicit in Huawei’s human rights abuses or the CCP’s surveillance apparatus.

Fourth, Clean Cloud. We’re protecting Americans’ most sensitive personal information and our businesses’ most valuable intellectual property – including COVID vaccine research – from being accessed on cloud-based systems run by companies such as Alibaba, Baidu, China Mobile, China Telecom, and Tencent.

Fifth and finally, Clean Cable. We’re working to ensure that the CCP can’t compromise information carried by the undersea cables that connect our country and others to the global internet.

Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State, in a speech on August 5, 2020.

This list doesn’t resemble censorship. Nowhere in the list does the U.S. censor information from other countries, prevent people from being critical of the United States, or otherwise interfere with other countries operations. It narrowly targets tech Chinese companies with known issues while leaving an open door to every other nation. It highlights some significant problems like stealing of COVID vaccine research that not enough people are tracking.

There is this libertarian view that a free and open internet means government’s should have no role whatsoever in the internet. There are plenty of flaws with this idea. The largest flaw is that this view fails to act when an entity like the Chinese Communist Party seeks to dismantle the Internet and subvert it for its own good. The BBC would perhaps brush this off as “market forces,” and to be sure, the UK has stood on the sidelines while China filters Hong Kong’s internet and even the internet at UK universities.

Perhaps better said in the movie Team America: World Police: “Freedom isn’t free.”

You can, and should, limit government involvement and allow the market to drive innovation, but when an obviously dark force threatens to break the freedom of information on the internet, you must act to stop it.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Was I right on Russia?

Russian consulate in Svalbard, which looks like my kid built it out of Legos. From The Barents Observer.

Russia continues to make big news that stays under the wave tops of COVID-19 news. I’ve written about Russia many times in the past, and made a few predictions:

I’ve also said that Russia would never give up footholds in Ukraine and Georgia. So, how is that playing out? Sadly, I’m not far off.

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is facing a spread of COVID-19 in its country. Who has lined up to help? Russia, of course. They’ve done this while trying to find ways to boost Turkmenistan’s economy, all while Turkmenistan gets closer to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which is Russia’s stand-in for the USSR.

Belarus

Belarus recently arrested a number of Russians that it accuses of inciting riots ahead of its 8 August election. Not surprisingly, Russia asked those people be released. There was in fact a large rise in the democratic movement that seeks to unseat the 5-term Belarussian President Lukashenko. With a soon-to-be contested election and shared border with Russia, what could go wrong?

Svalbard

Russia has started the messaging train once again for Svalbard, this time demanding that Norway comply with Russian demands on Svalbard. Which they still call Spitsbergen, just to make the Norwegians angry.

Georgia

Russia continues to manufacture a “border crisis” in Georgia. It’s slowly stopping any aid from reaching the breakaway sections while not removing troops in accordance with the cease fire.

Russia isn’t pulling any “crazy Ivan” moves. It knows that the US and Europe just don’t care enough (with the exception of Norway in Svalbard) about Georgia, Belarus and Turkmenistan. If Americans can barely find these places on a map, they certainly won’t care enough to risk their sons and daughters in the military to save them. In truth, if we want to stop this, we have to ask ourselves if we’re willing to go to war with Russia to save some territory in Georgia. And because the Russians think we won’t, they aren’t likely to stop taking that territory.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Why ships burn

USS BONHOMME RICHARD on fire in San Diego, from Wikipedia

Starting on Sunday, there was fairly non-stop news about the USS BONHOMME RICHARD (LHD-6) on fire in San Diego. The fire was extensive, burning from the middle of the 844 foot long ship, burning in 11 of her 14 decks all around the ship. It’s caused significant damage, and there are already talks it may not be salvageable. To put a dollar amount on it, she cost about 750 million to make in 1998, but today it would cost more like $3.3 billion to build a replacement vessel.

Most people’s first question is, how in the heck can a fire rage through a ship like that? The answer is complicated. First, BONHOMME RICHARD was in a maintenance availability period. She had a large number of shipyard workers fixing a variety of systems onboard. Imagine if you hired contractors to replace your roof, drywall and paint two rooms, replace your kitchen sink, and rewire half your house all at the same time. My first ship was in a maintenance period, and I didn’t recognize the rooms I was in while walking around. It’s a confusing, crazy, dirty mess to try and fix complex systems.

Extra complexity means nothing is normal, with firefighting as no exception. Firefighting equipment gets moved around to support maintenance, and on an 844 foot ship, that might mean extensive portions where there isn’t much equipment. Holes get cut in decks, requiring extra ventilation equipment and rerouting of normal movement paths, which makes getting to and from places hard. All that extra equipment is an inviting target for a fire. Even small fires take way more time and effort to find, fight, isolate and eventually put out.

Fighting fires on a ship is scary business. I’ve gone through our basic firefighting trainers. They are difficult. Contrary to the movies, a firefight is almost pitch black due to the smoke. So imagine you’ve got on 40 pounds of extra gear, breathing through a mask, walking in pitch black conditions, dragging a hose with you while the guy behind you with an infrared sensor guides you towards hot spots that you can’t see. That’s the reality of firefighting. A friend of mine fought a large fire on a submarine and nearly drown when the deck gave out below him and dumped him in a large pool of water, the same water he had been spraying on the fire. He’s really in shape, and even he struggled to get out.

I’m not surprised BONHOMME RICHARD caught fire and that it was bad. What I want to know is whether it’ll cause changes in the future. The shipyard has always been a dirty place, and shipyard workers aren’t normally known for cleanliness. Navy Sailors, unfortunately, get used to this and develop just as bad of habits, which the senior enlisted try desperately to fix. When I visited Japan, I was shocked at just how clean the shipyard was. While you can’t always keep an area clean, going days and weeks without cleanup significantly increases the chance for fires, accidents and all sorts of problems. If this fire forces the Navy to work with shipyards to clean up their act, it would be something useful in an otherwise tragic circumstance.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Did you catch Trump’s Farsi Tweet?

Screen capture of President Trump’s Farsi tweet

I’ve been helping a new Public Affairs Officer get setup at her new job. We had a chance to talk about what influence’s people, specifically in news media, and specifically about the importance of understanding and communicating to your audience in a way that they understand. I brought up how during our BALTOPS exercise, one of the most popular items was an interview my boss had with a local news organization that was translated into Russian. It spiked traffic and I was shocked at how well received it was.

This Public Affairs officer called me this week with a short request, and then asked “Hey, did you see Trump’s tweet in a foreign language?”

Me: “Nope.”

Her: “Yeah, he tweeted about the Iranian executions in their language.”

Sure enough, a quick Google revealed that she was correct. President Trump tweeted in Farsi (the most common language in Iran) about his opposition to the execution of Iranian protesters. It’s quickly become one of the most popular Farsi posts. Ironically, Trump had previously tweeted in Farsi in January which became the most popular Farsi tweet ever. And just as interesting, I had not heard of this tweet. Granted, I’m not a Twitter user, but normally that sort of thing makes the news.

Tweeting in Farsi is hard. It’s not an easy language to use, and not easy to convert English into Farsi. President Trump is showing a pretty good understanding of how to make his tweets viral with a foreign audience he wants to influence. And yet…no mention of this, at all, in the media. Not even to make fun of it.

It’s the lack of coverage on these things that makes it too easy to believe the media is horribly biased.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

Why your Navy can’t telework (even if you wanted it to)

From Breitbart Media

It seems plenty of people want the entire United States to telework and stay at home until a COVID-19 vaccine is created. To be fair to those people, many jobs that we once thought weren’t telework capable are suddenly finding a way to overcome those barriers. But for government workers, especially those in the Navy, telework doesn’t remain a viable option, and we need to stop lying about its viability.

Let’s start with what should be an obvious point: many military members work with classified information. Information gets classified for a variety of reasons: it keeps ship movements safe, protects how sensitive intelligence is made, or where we’ve made breakthroughs in military technology. We spend a lot of taxpayer money to build systems with advantages over our enemies, and protecting the information from our enemies so we can maintain that advantage is important. Or put another way, we throw away taxpayer dollars when we give up classified information.

To protect this information, we make people work in secure facilities. More sensitive information merits more secure facilities. These facilities don’t include your living room couch. Or your home office. Or the Dunkin’ Donuts coffee shop. Worse still, we have some mobile technology, but its normally reserved for higher ranking members in the military.

So we’re put in a quandary. Navy leadership at the high level can work from home to some degree. The Sailors doing the work cannot. This inevitably leads to the desire to “talk around” information, or find ways of getting work done that put our information at risk. Remember to keep in mind this information costs money, so putting it at unnecessary risk is the equivalent of throwing money away to our enemies.

A second less obvious point is that the Navy has a lot of equipment that we don’t just lock up and store. Ships require maintenance. Submarine nuclear reactors always have someone at a panel. Without Sailors onboard, these vessels cease to be useful. We can’t drive them into a warehouse, turn on the dehumidifier, shut and lock the door and wait for a vaccine.

So your government, especially your Navy, can’t telework forever. We put information and systems, which are expensive, at risk. Just like the rest of America, we need to get back to work.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.