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Scientific and Technological Resources for National Defense

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Naval Academy Science and Engineering Conference
U.S. Naval Academy
Annapolis, Md.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Thank you, Admiral.

I am delighted to be here today. Being in Rickover Hall is meaningful inasmuch as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, of which I am a former Chairman, has had a long and strong relationship with the Navy through the Naval Reactors Program.  Rensselaer, as well, has had and continues to have a long and close relationship with the U.S. military.

In fact, some history buffs here may know that John F. Winslow, the fifth president of Rensselaer, built the Monitor — the first ironclad vessel in the U.S. Navy.  More broadly, Rensselaer has produced 54 Naval officers of flag rank, including Admiral (Ret.) James (“Zap”) Zlatoper, former Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet.  And our Institute’s association with the armed services continues today — not just through a strong ROTC program across all services, but also through research, most especially through our recent establishment of the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center, which is designed to detect and analyze subtle relationships, connections, and embedded information within social and cognitive networks.

Technology always has been important to defense. I will talk today about several promising technologies. However I would like you to take away three things that go beyond these technologies, as they exist now.

First, any technology may find surprising applications. Baekeland invented plastic, thinking it might be used for records and billiard balls. A pharmacist trying to cure headaches developed Coca Cola. Another example is provided by Dr. Willard S. Boyle and Dr. George E. Smith who shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics. They developed the charge coupled device (or CCD), a digital sensor, which converts light into electrical signals, and allows images to be gathered and read out in a large number of image points, or pixels. CCD’s are widely used in cameras. But they also are essential to some intra-body imaging in medicine, and they have found important uses in astronomy. 

As author William Gibson said, “The street finds its own uses.” We should always be ready to discover that targeted technologies can bring sometimes-unintended uses and consequences.

Second, technologies may come together in unexpected ways. Highways and restaurants came together to bring us fast food. Computers and the stock market came together to create programmed trading. Electronic ink and wireless distribution came together, and the result is the Kindle. We live in a mash-up culture, where data and applications constantly are being combined to bring value in ways that exercise the imagination.

Third, the job of exploring the best use of a technology is one that is never finished. We live in an age of continuous innovation. Your smart phone has more processing power than was used to send the first men to the Moon. At the same time, according to “The New York Times,” iPhones are becoming the favorite toy of toddlers.

Technology that is a wonder to us today will be taken for granted tomorrow as usability barriers fall, and costs drop. What we are seeing is a broad democratization of technology. What was advanced five years ago, one year ago, or even a few months ago, may no longer bring the strategic advantage for which it was designed.

This should be unsurprising. Across the business world, there are many examples of companies whose technology has been ambushed by the new guys. In fact, Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen provided a number of examples in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma.

Digital photography disrupted chemical photography. Mini steel mills disrupted the large, integrated mills of the past. Minicomputers took the business of mainframes, and then ceded business to PCs.

Industries from the high tech to low tech have fallen to audacious, small competitors. Over and over again, these “insurgents,” as Christensen calls them, have blindsided and overthrown the industry leaders. When this happens in business, jobs and wealth are lost. When it happens in the work that you do, the costs are much more serious.

So the ultimate challenge is not only to harvest the newest technologies and put them to work, but — as gamers like to say — to “level up.” That is, those responsible for our defense must presume, continually, that the game will always become more and more challenging. They must find systematic approaches to respond appropriately.

The range of advances in technology that will impact defense is broad. As the U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Lynn has pointed out, information technology enables almost everything the U.S. military does. When combined with other technologies and approaches, the impacts can be, and are, legion. On the very basic level, we have opportunities presented by new materials. Nanotechnology, for one, is providing us with new ways to make armor that is stronger than Kevlar, cables more resilient than steel, coatings that protect against biological and chemical agents, and materials designed for more efficient and lightweight energy storage.

As an example, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed an energy storage device that easily could be mistaken for a simple sheet of black paper. The nanoengineered battery is lightweight, ultra-thin, completely flexible, and geared toward meeting the trickiest design and energy requirements of tomorrow’s gadgets, implantable medical equipment, and transportation vehicles.

The resemblance to paper is no accident: more than 90 percent of the device is made up of cellulose. The researchers infused this paper with aligned carbon nanotubes, which act as electrodes and allow the storage device to conduct electricity. This device — engineered to function as both a lithium-ion battery and a supercapacitor — can provide the long, steady power output comparable to a conventional battery, as well as a supercapacitor’s quick burst of high energy.

The paper battery can be rolled, twisted, folded, or cut into any number of shapes with no loss of mechanical integrity or efficiency. The paper batteries also can be stacked, like a ream of printer paper, to boost the total power output.

In another approach to energy storage, Rensselaer recently initiated a four-year study aimed at improving the properties and capability of nanostructured ceramics for use as capacitors. The aim here is to create a new alternative for storing energy that is generated and converted by wind turbines and solar panels. With an extremely high power density and the ability to charge and discharge quickly, these nanoengineered capacitors could be a game-changer.

Obviously, such new ways to store energy have great commercial potential. But the transport of fuels to advance areas has always been a major supply challenge for the military. The ability to harness local energy options, such as solar power, and keep it as a ready source, would provide strategic advantage and enable new missions.

I will note that better logistical design is another way to create efficiencies that lower costs and reduce fuel expenses. Even something as basic as commercial trucking can benefit from a fresh look — with emerging tools in operations research, decision support, and behavioral analysis.

Rensselaer Professor Jose Holguin-Veras has innovated and tested an intriguing solution to combat traffic congestion, focusing initially on New York City: simulating and modeling whether financial incentives to in-city businesses will get them to accept deliveries at night. By all accounts, his testing in New York was an incredible success and has paved the way for an entirely new paradigm in freight management. In July, the New York City Department of Transportation bestowed sustainability awards to companies that participated in the research project that he led.  What Professor Holguin-Veras learns in the commercial realm may have implications for bringing new elements-incentives, for example-into other logistical analyses.

Small smart devices offer interesting possibilities. One of our professors, Dr. Tarek Abdoun, has developed a new intelligent wireless sensor that can be lowered into the ground, taking real-time measurements near highways, and providing near instantaneous feedback to central systems for better infrastructure monitoring and management. This sensor is being used in a project with California’s state transit agency, and eventually there will be hundreds of thousands of these sensors in the ground, as well as on buildings, bridges, and in pipe structures—enabling the collection of real-time data during an earthquake.

Of course, sensors sometimes may be more useful if they are mobile. Rensselaer Professor Art Sanderson has worked with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center to develop solar powered undersea robots that include sensors that test and monitor water quality over the long term. Over time, these robots are able to create environmental maps of bodies of water in three dimensions. Such maps can be used to assess chemical spills and to build a foundation of knowledge of these essential ecosystems.

The variety of sensors being built today is extraordinary. There are sensors that detect toxic chemicals, that can provide alerts for failing infrastructure, and, of course, that detect when a door or a window has been opened. All of these have military applications, but the next important applications may come from readily available combinations of sensors.

Those of you who have the latest iPhones probably know there are three dedicated sensors built in. An accelerometer tells the phone that it is upright or sideways, and shifts the image for easy viewing. A proximity sensor detects when you are making a call and have brought the phone up to your ear. It turns off the display to save the battery. The iPhone also saves the battery because another sensor detects ambient light and adjusts the brightness of the display accordingly.  And other smart PDA’s have this feature as well.

But the phone also detects location (through GPS), images (through the camera), and, of course, sounds. What is possible with such an array of sensors can be illustrated by a downloadable app (for Androids, not iPhones) from the University of Southern California. The so-called “Visibility” app allows users to take a picture of the sky and find out how polluted the air is.

The user’s picture can be compared to models of sky luminance to estimate visibility. Since this is directly related to the concentration of harmful "haze aerosols," the user can get an answer. In theory, queries by many users can be put to work to improve climate models.

Sensors detect dozens of phenomena, and we have just begun to imagine how they might come together to provide more useful information. In the Navy, you work with complicated interconnected systems. So, think of good questions, and how sensors and other technologiescan be built and combined to provide even more answers in real time-about systems-yes, but also about people, their capabilities, their interactions, and their intentions.

I will turn now to work that more directly and specifically relates to security and defense. A team of Rensselaer researchers, led by Dr. Xi-Cheng Zhang — director of our Center for Terahertz Research and Head of the Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy — has opened the way for detecting hidden explosives, chemical or biological agents, and illegal drugs from a distance of 20 meters. The new system — using terahertz (THz) wave technology — has great potential for homeland security and military uses because it can “see through” clothing and packaging materials, and can identify the unique THz “fingerprints” of hidden materials.

THz “fingerprints” show exactly which compound or compounds are being hidden, a capability that is expected to have multiple important and still-to-be-discovered uses. In the event of a chemical spill, for instance, remote sensing could identify the composition of the toxic mix. Since sensing is remote, no individuals would be needlessly endangered.

By the way, the Terahertz Center is one of many new centers that have been created at Rensselaer in critical areas — designed to support important collaborations among government, industry, and leading academic institutions. Another center, now in development, is the Center for Cognition, Communication, and Culture.

As we experience every day, we live in a time of social networks, online identities, and mobile technologies that keep us immersed in data and information. These place before us critical opportunities and challenges, which include:

  • Interactivity with/through virtual and augmented reality environments — for individuals and groups.
  • Cognition and learning in blended environments — in fields such as language acquisition and linguistics.
  • Virtual teaming and deep collaboration.
  • Etiquette, cues, nuance, and context for trust and understanding, especially within social media.
  • Best practices for remote learning — linked to augmented reality/ virtual environments.
  • Connecting the dots for security — drawing important clues form massive amounts of online information.
  • Authentication and validation of information.
  • Engaging the forgotten with new technologies.
  • Information hygiene.

Failure to understand and confront the challenges inherent in this list has consequences in potential antisocial behaviors within Web-based communities, vulnerability to cyberwarfare, and the propagation of rumors that shape (and even distort) policy, politics, and social dynamics.

But what we may learn here also brings great opportunities for new kinds of education, for understanding complex group behavior, for synthesizing complex information through human/computer complementary systems, for using augmented reality for better real-time decision-making, and for modeling, simulating, and testing both technological and social solutions to problems and challenges, with fewer costs and side effects.

The Cognition, Communications, and Culture Center will complement the Social and Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC) I mentioned earlier. That center is supported by the U.S. Army, and has been created to take advantage of opportunities emerging from the growth and adoption of Web-based social networks. These networks provide rich traces of data about participants’ activities without requiring personal, direct contact.

Exploring these kinds of social networks, and the technologies and behaviors that govern their dynamics and evolution, are the subject of SCNARC research. The Center’s current work focuses on the fundamental science of networks and its applications — ranging from military to industrial to personal. The Center is led by Professor Bolek Szymanski, Claire & Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor of Computer Science.

One of the expected outcomes from the research at SCNARC is a deep understanding of trust in networks, based on relationships and interactions. Patterns of communication and association, even in the abstract, can be highly revealing. Monitoring and analyses of interactions can provide a good basis for determining whether tips from certain sources are trustworthy, and whether the hints and clues revealed by chatter demand further investigation.

This Center requires and brings together computer scientists, cognitive scientists, social scientists, physicists, web scientists and mathematicians in an unprecedented collaboration to investigate all aspects of the ever-changing, and global, group dynamics of today.

The explosion of data from sensors, social networks, and other sources has created a critical need for new methods to handle it. Vision is the broadest pathway into the human brain, so visualization, which is becoming ever more human-centric and responsive, may be one of the chief new tools for those who are trying to find weak signals that truly matter, or to connect the dots between different information sources.

Visualization involves, quite literally, seeing things in new ways. And thanks to new tools (to detect, analyze, and render), new knowledge, and new interest, visualization is emerging as a promising intellectual frontier. What we discover and develop in this field will help us solve complex problems, deliver rich educational experiences, and expand our understanding of our universe, our planet, and ourselves.

At Rensselaer, we already have an array of resources in visualization. Interestingly, our Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) has special studios that provide opportunities to work at the limits of the senses, with three-dimensional imaging, enhanced by exquisite capability in using sound to create immersive experiences — all at human scale.  It is linked to our powerful supercomputer to provide immense modeling and simulation capability.

Computer Science Professor Barbara Cutler has created virtual rooms in EMPAC in which you can see the effects of incoming sunlight at any time of the day or the year, at any location. She also has projected 6-foot-high, 3D images of the brain, using a unique, multi-camera format: by moving panels around (an aerobic exercise for helpful students), selected slices of the brain can be projected, inch-by-inch and along any plane, and made visible at such a scale that they can be shared and commented upon by an audience, as the brain responds to various stimuli.  Her ultimate goal is to create algorithms that will do all of this digitally, in order to simulate and model almost any ambient light situation, and to study impacts on brain function.

Think of the implications of using such images to collaborate interactively at human scale. In simplest terms, a group of people — some of whom are good at spotting interesting things and others who may be especially talented in determining the meaning of an image--can work together. One person, standing in the studio, points out an anomaly; another explains or interprets; a third asks a question. These conversations can happen more spontaneously and intuitively when the technology is so rich, and so immersive, that it is all but forgotten; the insights come from people within the visualization — working literally “from the inside out.”

Contrast this with the same group of people trying to share images on a laptop, and it is clear that visualization, in immersive environments, has become a powerful new means of communication. Such advanced visualization promises to become a way to project and interpret information in ways that will open new possibilities to us.

In another approach to visualization at Rensselaer, Professor Richard Radke is exploring the use of lasers to create 3-D images that provide direct, useful visual information on things — streets, houses, power lines — that can be surprisingly variable in the real world.

One project includes scanning all the buildings on the Rensselaer campus, creating data sets that allow for understanding the changes brought about by weather or growing foliage, without losing basic information on these places. This sort of visualization, known as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), allows for analysis that can be important to defense operations by, for instance, quickly detecting important changes at a surveilled location. As an unexpected use, LiDAR also was used in the Radiohead music video, “House of Cards.”

Visualization complements another field of technology, the Semantic Web.

Our Web scientists are using the Semantic Web to compile and share scientific data on an unprecedented scale. They are developing new web languages that link data and allow data to interact with other data through context and inference. Their goal is to hasten scientific discovery and innovation by enabling rapid and easy collaboration between scientists, educators, students, policy makers, and even “citizen scientists” around the world via the Web.

The Rensselaer Tetherless World Research Constellation received special notice last spring when the open government Web site, “Data.gov,” celebrated its first anniversary. U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra called the creation of Data.gov “the birth of a community of innovators,” and praised Professor James Hendler “a co-inventor of the Semantic Web,” who, with his fellow professors and students, has been using “Semantic Web” technology as a powerful new approach to analytical research, exploiting the vast amounts of information available from Data.gov.

In its official announcement, the White House said, “In less than eight months, a team of students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed over 40 applications using Data.gov. These applications range from easily searching the roster of visitors to the White House and tracking foreign aid across the world, to shining light on the ratio of debt-to-assets for bankrupt companies.”

At the Data.gov anniversary event, Kundra named Rensselaer Professor James Hendler as “Internet Web Expert” for the Data.gov project. In this role, Hendler is charged with assisting the Data.gov team in identifying new and emerging technologies that will maintain and increase the momentum of the site, and better allow U.S. citizens to understand and interact with the federal government.

I alluded to gaming earlier. Serious games have been a part of military training and strategy development for many years. So, when I speak of “gaming” here, I mean “serious games” that relate to disaster modeling and mitigation. I mean tools for homeland protection and national security. The new tools we have for gaming and simulation promise much in terms of being able to explore what it is possible, and in bringing experiences to military personnel that will ready them for difficult real-life situations, without putting them at risk.

As an example, a team of Rensselaer researchers has been studying the organizational culture of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the United States Coast Guard, as well as each organization’s response to Hurricane Katrina. This work is aimed at developing a dynamic model of organizational processes with the capacity to predict how an organization’s culture will affect its ability to respond to an extreme event.

Our researchers also have worked on software to assist in the rescue of people who are caught in collapsed buildings. Using images captured by robots sent into the rubble, their programs could be used to analyze the data and create models that assess the stability of the wreckage and the risks of different approaches, and then provide guidance to rescuers on how to reach the victims.

Gaming and simulation also provide an intriguing new possibility: the means to explore how people learn and how the brain operates. At Rensselaer, we are beginning to use game technology, sensors, robotics, and immersive virtual environments to do many things — e.g. to learn how to use thought for physical control of robots, and to examine cognition and learning in order to develop pedagogical approaches for accelerating learning, and response to new situations. I believe this is one of the great promises of working at the nexus of science, technology, and the arts.

What we are already learning — at the nexus of social theory, mathematical investigations, sensors, and new materials — is reinforcing the importance of continually looking for insights, being ready for the unexpected, being open to that which contradicts our theories, and testing odd juxtapositions.

Looking across at all these promising innovations — new materials, sensors, robots, decision support, visualization, simulation and modeling, the Semantic Web and more — it would be easy to convince ourselves that help is on the way. It is. But, just as the rosy science fiction scenarios of the past have not created paradise, these advances do not answer all our challenges.

The question before you is, what will you do with the opportunities these technologies suggest — some of which never were imagined by their inventors? And how, after mastering these technologies, might you combine them in more powerful ways? And what will you do to stay well ahead of those who would adopt these technologies in ways that undermine our freedom?

We need to assume that much of what we come up with in new technologies will move as quickly through the world of security as it does through the world of commerce. We see this in cyberspace — in the 2008 launch and invasion of the Conficker computer worm in Microsoft systems worldwide, and more recently in the Stuxnet invasion of SCADA systems. 

So, in addition to ever seeking a further horizon, it is important to create a culture that puts answers to use more quickly than the smaller, potentially more agile groups that oppose us. This is the only way to deal with asymmetric threats.  In a sense, we need to do in defense what is done in business. The most effective businesses use culture as a competitive advantage. It is the effective mixing and remixing of the best ideas, the willingness to try new ideas, the ability to take people who have talent or simply the “clarity of the moment”, and empower them that will keep our side at the forefront.

Within all this, there should be awareness that the work of defense is not simply the defeat of the enemy. It also is building strong sustainable relationships with our friends. The values that we hold should be reflected in how we define and design our security systems. It is no less true now than it was in past conflicts that engaging the hearts and minds of people who are very different from us is vital to reducing tension and achieving peace.

Thank you for your attention. I welcome any questions you might have.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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