The Onward March of Technology

DNI Clapper talks technological advances and clearance reform in final GEOINT Symposium keynote


Director of National Intelligence (DNI) The Honorable James R. Clapper celebrated his 75th birthday in March. Another important milestone for the nation’s chief intelligence official, however, is the GEOINT 2016 Symposium—at which he made his final keynote address Tuesday morning.

Clapper, who will depart his post as DNI at the end of the Obama Administration, spent much of his address making self-effacing jokes about his age and Intelligence Community stereotypes. Beneath its jocular surface, however, the DNI’s speech had a very serious message: Technology can be transformational—if the Intelligence Community allows it to be so.

To make his point, Clapper invited the audience to time travel to 1996, the year Congress established the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), the predecessor to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). 1996 was memorable for many reasons—the OJ Simpson trial, the arrest of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, the bombing at the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, and the cloning of Dolly the sheep.

It was also the year world chess champion Gary Kasparov went head-to-head against IBM’s chess-playing supercomputer, Deep Blue. The pair played six matches, of which Deep Blue triumphed in only one.

Twenty years later, in March 2016, man and machine faced off again with a very different result. This time, a team of scientists challenged Google robot AlphaGo to play the ancient Chinese board game Go against master Go player Lee Sodol of South Korea. Sodol was victorious in one of five matches; AlphaGo won the other four.

The difference between Deep Blue and AlphaGo is stark, according to Clapper. The former, he said, was programmed to play. The latter, on the other hand, was programmed to learn. While Deep Blue had a limited repertoire of gameplay, AlphaGo has the capacity to become infinitely more skilled with each match it plays.

“We live in a world in which machines can learn from their own mistakes and can develop … intuition,” Clapper observed. “What does this mean for us lowly humans—particularly those of us in the Intelligence Community—and what can we do to adapt to the onward march of technology so we don’t get left behind?”

It’s a question the Intelligence Community (IC) must answer, Clapper said. And with the Internet of Things becoming more expansive, time is of the essence.

“The Internet of Things … has more than 10.3 billion endpoints [and is] projected to grow to 29.5 billion by 2020, with a market [worth] something like $1.7 trillion,” said Clapper, adding the IC is attempting to establish a community-wide policy on wireless capabilities.

But that’s just the beginning. Ultimately, Clapper indicated, what’s needed isn’t a single policy for leveraging a lone technology. Rather, it’s an IC-wide culture shift from resisting to leveraging technology.

“We can look at the pace of technical innovation as a scary thing—something that could take away from the advantage the U.S. Intelligence Community has now—or see it as something that will utterly revolutionize our lives for the better,” Clapper said.

Because better technology stands to yield better intelligence, the IC must prioritize access to information as much as it does the technology for acquiring information, according to the DNI. He highlighted one item in particular he hopes will be near the top of his successor’s to-do list: clearance reform.

“We have to make SCI (sensitive compartmented information) clearances more ubiquitous at the state and local level … so intelligence sharing benefits first responders,” Clapper said. “That means we need … a much more responsive, much more agile clearance system than we have today.”

Clapper devoted the final words of his keynote not to his own legacy, but rather to that of the IC at large.

“What has been lost in the public debate about how we conduct intelligence is why we even do it in the first place,” he concluded. “What we do at its most basic level is reduce uncertainty for decision-makers.”


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