What the Intelligence Community Can Learn from Hollywood

Chris Edwards and Kevin Surace explore how modern visualization tools could be used by the U.S. Intelligence Community—and its adversaries


Chris Edwards

“Game of Thrones” and “Avengers: Infinity War” offer some useful lessons for national security types, and they don’t involve ways to incorporate fire-breathing dragons or Infinity Stones into the battlespace.

Instead, look to how Hollywood has used modern visualization tools to tell its stories and consider how the same capabilities can advance analysis in the intelligence and defense sectors.

Sean Roche, associate deputy director for Digital Innovation at the Central Intelligence Agency; Chris Edwards, founder and CEO at the The Third Floor, a visualization studio based in Los Angeles and London; and Kevin Surace, a frequent speaker on AI issues and CEO and CTO of the Palo Alto, Calif., AI software testing firm Appvance; discussed these possibilities Monday morning at GEOINT 2019.

Roche led off by noting the one thing technology hasn’t given analysts more of: hours in the day.

“Although we have more data and more capability, the amount of time that we have as storytellers to get that story together and tell it has been dramatically compressed and will keep being compressed,” he said.

Surace agreed and said, “We are getting inundated with two or three or four times more data, but with essentially the same staff.”

Edwards then led a presentation on how his firm uses tools such as 3D rendering software and augmented reality interfaces to take an idea for a scene from a director’s sketch—sometimes on an actual napkin—to a rough version with the resolution of a video game to the finished product on a movie or TV screen.

The same capabilities, Edwards emphasized, can serve to visualize and explore complicated national security scenarios.

“I can only imagine the military and government applications of this in the future,” he said.

“We’re all trying to acquire and interpret a diverse range of data, we’re integrating the data into simulations that can optimize the results, and then we’re presenting that in an easy-to-digest fashion, so that many different groups can feed off of that information,” Edwards mused.

Surace warned that the contrary reflex in many government offices is to stick with what worked before.

Kevin Surace

“Avoid risk, hang in there, I’ll get to retirement,” he described the mindset. “The problem is, if you want to advance, you need to take the risk.”

Surace and Roche also noted multiple times that shying away from new tools won’t stop adversaries from adopting them. This led to a discussion on “deepfake” videos, a threat all three speakers agreed needs more attention.

“In one minute, you can make the Nancy Pelosi video of a week or two ago,” Surace said in reference to a video doctored to make Rep. Pelosi (D.-Calif.) appear incoherent. “It was the cheapest, easiest stunt that any of us could do in Final Cut Pro in five minutes.”

The Pelosi video slandering the Speaker of the House was easy enough to flag as fake, but Surace and Edwards both warned that we may need to rely on AI applications to catch better-executed deepfakes.

And that, too, will require getting over the instinctive fear many people—elected officials included—have of AI.

“When you say AI, the first thing they think of is ‘Ex Machina,’ and ‘Her,’ and Hollywood’s vision of us interfacing with robots,” Surace said of dystopian big screen depictions. AI in reality, he continued, isn’t like that.

“It’s a new version of math,” he said. “It’s math that can run extremely well in a large cloud. But it’s just math.”


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