For three days at GEOINT 2017, speakers talked of advancing technology to transform the way the United States obtains and uses intelligence. Throughout the week, artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation, and big data dominated the discussion.
In his keynote address, Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), said an embrace of cultural changes would be necessary for the Intelligence Community to leverage those technological advances. The change, in many ways, requires bridging a generational gap.
“If we don’t have front-line supervisors who are willing to take a little bit of risk, we’re going to lose some great ideas,” Stewart said. “Some of our people with great ideas will leave our organization, go to industry, and then they’ll come back and sell us those wonderful ideas that they could have developed in-house if we had nurtured them.”
He further emphasized that senior leaders must show the way.
“We find pockets of excellence around this enterprise that are stopped because supervisors aren’t willing to push the envelope and allow those great ideas to be developed.”
Stewart used the story of Kodak to illustrate the crossroads at which the IC stands in a dramatically changing world.
For 120 years, Kodak brought the world its first readily available imagery. The Kodak camera was the standard against which all cameras were gauged, and the company made even more money on film. In 1976, Kodak sold U.S. customers 90 percent of their film and 85 percent of their cameras.
“How many of you [still] own a Kodak camera?” Stewart said, driving home his point. “How many of you buy film?”
In 1975, Kodak built the world’s first digital camera, then shelved it as a threat to its film business. By 2011, stock that once commanded $94.75 a share sold for 54 cents. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
“Today, I believe the Intelligence Community is experiencing a Kodak moment,” Stewart said. “You have the opportunity to embrace the future or be left behind. If Kodak had embraced new technology that it developed itself, we might all be holding Kodak smartphones instead of Apple or Samsung.”
The IC must also adapt to a lengthening list of events that demand data for solutions, as well as to a growing list of sources that proliferate data. “The Internet. Social media. A reporter can be anyone with a smartphone. … It is no longer possible to hide world events,” Stewart said.
He offered more perspective on the scope of changes and corresponding challenges. Nearly half of humanity is online, totaling 3.7 billion connections. And the amount of data collected in the past two years is equivalent in size to 90 percent or more of the data collected throughout the rest of history.
“More than 15 people use social media for the first time every second,” Stewart added. “Seven people use a mobile phone for the first time every second. One million people will use the Internet for the first time today.”
This new reality makes it more difficult for the IC to glean pertinent information from myriad sources, analyze it, synthesize it, and deliver it fast enough for end users to act upon.
Preparing to operate in the changing world might involve a step back in time—but reinvented.
“We’re never ready for the next big thing,” Stewart said. “I’d like to bring back war games, but in an interactive way, not in a table top way.”
War games might be an avenue for testing intelligence contributions in addition to troop movements, he continued.
Stewart also encouraged the audience to write new stories.
“What will your story be?” he asked. “Do you want it to be a great story of the past? Do you want to talk of how successful we were during the Cuban Missile Crisis? … Or do you want to embrace this new environment?”
He concluded with a challenge.
“I challenge you [to] reject complacency, nurture innovation, and create an environment for the technology that will allow the IC to collect, analyze and deliver intelligence to the customer needed to cope with the changes of the 21st century.”