The Future of Human-Machine Teaming

“Technology-Inspired Evolution” with Chris Edwards and Kevin Surace


The two speakers for Monday’s GEOINT 2019 discussion on “Technology-Inspired Evolution” will address the promise of technology in two different ways. Chris Edwards, CEO and founder of The Third Floor, Inc., will speak from the perspective of someone who spends his days asking computers to create believable images of things no one has ever seen before. Kevin Surace, tech innovator and futurist, has a vision for how AI will present data bundles to human beings for analysis and decision-making.

Supervising AI

Surace has been known to ask his audiences what they will do in a “jobless future,” one in which AI will free them from mundane, repetitive tasks and empower them to focus on the more interesting, creative, and interpretive aspects of work and life. For the geospatial intelligence community, that future is on the horizon.

“AI can already do certain kinds of image recognition better than people can,” Surace said. “We will be using AI to detect changes [in an image set] that people can’t see. Once you tell the AI what to look for, it can tirelessly go through image after image and generate more relevant output. So, rather than spending time picking through those images, people will be using their skills to look at the AI’s output and ask, ‘Is this something I care about? And if so, what should we do about it?’”

But, before searches can be turned over to algorithms, the programs will need to be taught what to look for.

“AI will need supervised learning,” Surace said. “If you’re trying to detect missile launchers, you’ll have to train the program with a million pictures of missile launchers, and people have to compile the dataset.”

The promise of more useful information is tantalizing, especially if you consider AI’s ability to detect miniscule differences in images.

“AI can detect a difference of a few pixels,” Surace continued. “What else can we find? Tracks [of certain kinds of vehicles] in the grass? If we teach it to look for that kind of change, we can definitely improve our intelligence.”

Hollywood Parallels

Chris Edwards has parlayed his early interest in AI and machine vision—by way of a Smithsonian Associates program when he was in junior high school and later, a job at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch—into a Hollywood tech boutique. His firm’s 3D computer renderings—known as pre-visualizations or “pre-vis” for short—are a vital component for storyboarding and effects planning for blockbuster projects such as Godzilla, Game of Thrones, and multiple Marvel films. In addition, his firm works with augmented reality in projects as varied as commercials, video games, and location-based entertainment, and generates the programming for cranes, dollies, and drones needed on film locations.

Edwards sees certain parallels in the assignments The Third Floor gets from filmmakers to mission assignments in the GEOINT sphere.

“There are similarities in how visualizations are approached and used in the real world,” he said. “Our teams work with a leader—a director or producer—who is equivalent to a general or chief executive in charge of a mission. Their goal is broad, but they need to be informed on all the details. It’s our job to collect that recon and boil it down into data that can be used effectively.”

Edwards said his team members specialize in taking that data and being responsive to the “mission” parameters.

“Our visual artists get key information then inject creativity to make the pre-vis more sophisticated than a standard storyboard,” he continued. “Just like in the military, there are a lot of people whose craft is dependent on the quality and accuracy of the data they receive. It’s what allows them to make better decisions.”

Like the Intelligence Community, Hollywood is also searching for the sweet spot between reliance on humans and machines.
Our message to Hollywood is, you are spending millions of dollars aiming to hit the cultural zeitgeist, which is a moving target,” Edwards said. “It is in your interest to create a film that achieves the balance between the human factors and tech—not just tech—to tell stories and to produce value.”

At GEOINT 2019, Edwards will convey a message similar to Surace’s. “Tech empowers us; it does not rule us. We are facing a time when tech is making things happen ‘automagically.’ By having the computer do major repetitive tasks, people are empowered.”


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