The Significance of Convergent Technology Threats to Geospatial Intelligence

Do advanced technologies symbolize an entirely new threat of interest to the GEOINT enterprise?


By Robert McCreight Ph.D.; Suzanne Sincavage Ph.D.; Tim Stephens; and Kimothy Smith Ph.D.

Today, serious security researchers who devote their energies assessing the realistic threats of 2020 and the immediate decade beyond may well consider the quiet, unrecognized but revolutionary developments in future evolution of modern technology. Such developments include synthetic biology, artificial intelligence (AI), enabled robotics, and complex biochemical compounds to enhance human health. Many of these contain essential elements that are inherently dual-use, possessing enough significant military applications to dramatically affect the strategic balance.

It is one thing to consider the linear growth and extrapolation of unique scientific technologies such as nanoscience, neuroscience, and synthetic biology out another decade. Here, we can soon expect breakthroughs in brain chemistry, uncovered neural pathways to more effective perception and clearer thought, and find cures for persistent diseases via the benefits of synthetic biology. All are of enormous societal and economic value to the human condition.

It is quite another thing to imagine and assess the strategic risks which may accrue globally as covert mixtures and deliberate blends of nanoscience, neuroscience, and synthetic biology evolve into outcomes which may be inimical to our national security and upend our understanding of how geopolitical leverage is measured. Experience has already revealed the dark, malevolent, and nefarious side of dual-use scientific endeavors from which either immediate, gradual, or long-term military applications are attainable and exploitable. We have also discovered that nuclear energy, complex cyber systems, and biochemical engineering contain as much risk of onward weaponization as they are a net benefit to society. It doesn’t take much to imagine that mixed results and research—which we term “convergent technologies”—could trigger ominous developments that lead to unexpected weapons systems, nullify deterrence and defensive measures, trigger a call for new doctrine, and ultimately change the global strategic calculus in a decade. Imagine, for example, deliberate mixes of genomics, AI, and robotics. Defensive doctrine, strategy, and countermeasures are not obvious.

When we remember the 1970s and 1980s in terms of emerging weapons systems and newly revealed threats, we can point to better satellites, lasers, jump-jet technologies, and any number of new systems which redefined our nation’s offensive capabilities or provided a distinct offensive or defensive edge. The advent of military aviation, the tank, the missile, and the atomic bomb all provided in their own way evidence of progressively more sophisticated weaponry that heralded in an entirely new age of geostrategic threats, opportunities, and defense policies.

The chief challenge of the 21st century is to determine whether advanced technologies, especially as they are deliberately engineered to converge apart from, and in addition to, their ongoing linear sophistication, symbolize an entirely new threat of interest to the GEOINT enterprise. Will it be largely benign and beneficial to modern global society and community of nations or instead will convergence inadvertently, or willfully, launch entire groups of sinister future weapons we cannot yet imagine or adequately prepare for. If new, more dangerous, and strategically significant weapons emerge, it makes sense to ask a few basic questions, including: Will future advanced weapons technologies remain in the hands of peaceful nations, or will they be available to all? Will they be restricted or controlled in any way? Will the nonproliferation and tech transfer set of security dilemmas become even more inscrutable, opaque, and impossible to trace for the U.S.? 

For the geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) leadership, assessing and analyzing convergent technology threats (CTT) realistically requires a rigorous analytical process and potential pathway to derive useful GEOINT insights about estimating, ranking, and preparing for possible combinations of future linear and convergent threats. Convergent technology threats embraces all the known and nascent advanced technologies that have both linear and convergent potential. This would include, at a minimum—lasers, nanotech, neurotech, synthetic biology, AI, robotics, genomics, autonomous systems, cybertechnology, stealth tech, hyperspectral tech, and many others with obvious and latent strategic value. Dangerous blends of AI, neurotech, and cybertechnology might result in standoff weapons that redirect, alter, or diminish normal brain functions as is suspected to have occurred at our embassy in Havana, Cuba. Nanotech robotics and AI could be engineered to become covert metabolic time bombs if inserted clandestinely with ordinary vaccination or nasal spray.

The decade beginning in 2020 will likely witness more frequent examples of both linear and convergent advanced dual-use technologies that outline the new frontiers of intelligence and threat assessment activity. If unhindered and unchecked, Convergent technology threats could lead to unforeseen strategic outcomes and revolutionize every aspect of our arsenal or even render some existing systems obsolete. Anticipating these changes and devising approaches to deter, divert, or minimize their worst effects makes sense.

  • This article is part of USGIF’s 2019 State & Future of GEOINT Report. Download the PDF to view the report in its entirety. 

GEOINT Frontiers

The advent of Convergent technology threats in many ways has already become one of the technical dilemmas and strategic goals of U.S. leaders. Convergent technology threats emerges as a prime objective because, as we approach the edge of the arguable fourth offset era, keeping the technological edge and superiority the U.S. has traditionally enjoyed means intense global competition may put our own leadership in that domain at risk. We suggest that government, generally as the sponsor, developer, and overseer of CTT research, must confront a major governance challenge: promoting positive Convergent technology threats outcomes globally while being aware of and neutralizing those deemed negative and harmful. This is a staggering technological dilemma because U.S. security leadership must reckon with the simultaneous linear extrapolation of cutting-edge technology as well as the results of malevolently engineered convergence. As the weapons systems and technologies advance and the dual-use landscape becomes wider and more complex, the factors that define, shape, and support strategic advantage are at stake.

Immediate GEOINT Opportunities

GEOINT leadership and experts face five-dimensional opportunities as the new threat frontier emerges which displays both linear and convergent technology developments. These five dimensions are merely a starting point for gauging the extent to which resources, projects, and personnel should be directed toward an immediate assessment of the Convergent technology threats and their strategic implications. These five areas of initial focus are:

  1. Determining via experts which linear and convergent threats are imminent.
  2. Assessing U.S. capacity to neutralize, respond, or overcome these threats.
  3. Identifying U.S. high potential Convergent technology threats research and development efforts that leverage GPS, remote sensing, and geospatial information sciences for defensive and deterrence purposes.
  4. Devising appropriate doctrine and strategy for the emerging CTT battlespace.
  5. Determining where and when the most strategically urgent CTTs will emerge.

A Path Forward

The locus of strategic responsibility for corrective action is shared equally among interagency players such as private sector science and technology incubators, the U.S. Intelligence Community, and the U.S. Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Energy. Overall leadership, control, and policy focus rests with the federal consortium of security agencies who reckon that Convergent technology threat offers nothing less than a wholesale revolution in global security dynamics. Sharp, focused, comprehensive, and integrated assessments are needed today to understand both immediate and long-term Convergent technology threats. The exact process for conducting these calibrated assessments would likely require a series of in-depth expert reviews, strategic simulations, white papers, expert seminars, and scientific conferences. This may require some preliminary classified agreements with think tanks, universities, and research foundations with an eye toward publishing papers, studies, and seminars to appropriately discuss and analyze the immediate and long-term implications of Convergent technology threats on national security.

Examples include the Commercial GEOINT Activity (CGA) in partnership between the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Borne of a collective vision of NGA and NRO leadership, CGA will position both agencies to take full advantage of legacy and emerging commercial GEOINT capabilities to satisfy mission needs and maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of the overhead architecture. Technology advances are spurring better imagery collection and analysis and fueling worldwide demand for GEOINT. NGA and NRO joint assessment of observable and detectible technology convergence activities involve nefarious and benign mixtures of robotics, genomics, nanotech, and neurotech ventures with an emphasis on sorting out weapons design and configuration research.

NGA and NRO will direct CGA to lead the development and application of a framework to assess the technical capabilities of emerging commercial providers. It will advise each agency on the value proposition related to mission utility and help inform and synchronize NGA and NRO decisions related to the acquisition of commercial imagery capabilities. CGA will help shape U.S. remote sensing policy given emerging commercial capabilities and the new space environment. An example of this would be commercial and government-sponsored research that entails explicit technology convergence involving dual use activities such as robotics, genomics, and nanotech that drives the acquisition of enhanced imagery capabilities to further intensify and modernize NGA/NRO remote sensing, GPS, and GIS platforms and policy. The remote sensing community has spent considerable effort demonstrating many of these applications and has significant potential to provide useful information to analysts. Approaches that apply for the military, civilians, and Intelligence Community considerably overlap and use similar applications in various parts of the globe but for different purposes, for example, grouping by common functions such as reconnaissance (wide area survey) and surveillance (monitoring). Locating objects and events for the military (surface-to-air missile materials) and those used for the civilian community (weather, human/animal, plant, environment, social) produce different target outcomes but use similar applications to accomplish it.

Exploring new phenomenologies to exploit the full potential of new national, commercial, airborne, space, and ground technologies and transitioning their applications to the National System for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG) will address and support NGA in solving hard problems for the Intelligence Community and the military. Sensors of different modalities will be tested by models, simulations, and actual demonstrations to assess their potential contributions. With the focus on dual use convergent technology growth and complex integration, NGA will explore new technical phenomenologies to exploit the future operational evolution of national, commercial, airborne, and ground sensors and instruments aimed at capturing long-term complex problems for the IC and military.

Enhanced GEOINT analytics will enable analysts to quickly process voluminous and heterogeneous data inputs to determine their significance, extract relevant information, and discover subtle patterns and change detection indicators that may be critical to solving pressing intelligence problems. Focusing technology convergence on future, multidimensional dual use threats will enable NGA to generate new GIS products rapidly, and to develop visualization and presentation tools and displays to enhance the analyst and end user’s ability to easily and intuitively understand and interact with spatio-temporal data.

There is an acute risk of hesitation, hyper-analysis, and stalemate if the questions of interagency leadership, funding, and policy direction are left unresolved. Agencies might compete for being the “lead agency” without regard for the damaging effects and negative influences such behavior might inflict on a time-sensitive strategic undertaking.

GEOINT leaders, and the intelligence and defense communities at large, should establish a multiyear plan for addressing Convergent technology threats in terms of their potential to alter global security and usher in strategic surprise. They should outline appropriate steps for the U.S. to adequately and effectively anticipate, prepare, and respond to the array of Convergent technology threats issues and challenges expected and unexpected. Efforts should be launched in FY 2019 to provide for capability milestones five years out. Annual Convergent technology threats assessments (classified and unclassified) may be needed to increase chances for wider public and Congressional support and funding. This recommended multiyear plan would target the decade 2020–2030 for intensive analysis to determine how future Convergent technology threats discoveries and developments would affect the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) and the Intelligence Community budget, and to begin immediately recruiting the necessary talent and scientific expertise to properly assess onward Convergent technology threat breakthroughs and activities.

This should be a truly bipartisan science and technology venture and program equivalent in strategic scope and impact as the Manhattan Project or NASA’s Race to the Moon. Global Convergent technology threat activities are likely to increase during the next decade, and the U.S. should retain the leverage necessary to monitor and ultimately influence its strategic outcomes and effects in the interests of our own security.

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