Technological Fluency 2035 – 2050
Howard R. Simkin
This article is the latest addition to the U.S. Army TRADOC G2 Mad Scientist Initiative’s Future of Warfare 2030-2050 project at Small Wars Journal.
“The Future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.”
-- William Gibson, science fiction author who coined the word cyberspace in 1984.
This paper examines the term technological fluency as it applies to future Special Operations Forces (SOF) in the 2030 – 2050 timeframe. It begins with a proposed definition. It then shapes the discussion with the following questions. What does the Future Operating Environment (FOE) tell us? How might SOF Operators acquire such fluency? What are the long term implications for SOF? It concludes with an operational vignette.
Technological fluency is the ability of an organization or individual to employ and adapt technology to meet their needs.
The Future Operating Environment (FOE)
A survey of the two most commonly available, authoritative sources on the FOE points to an ever-increasing rate of technological change, the growth of mega-cities, and the diffusion of cutting-edge technology into the hands of both state and non-state actors. Over the next ten to twenty years, the world will experience dramatic changes in technology, many of which will affect how ARSOF operates. Dr. James Canton, a noted technologist and futurist, observed that the five emerging technologies noted in Figure 1 are driving an exponential growth in AI.This growth rate will approximate that of Moore’s Law, doubling in power while dropping in price every two years. Increasingly capable AI will in turn accelerate the development of each of the five converging technologies. Our adversaries will undoubtedly seek to harness those trends to accomplish their ends.
The SOF of 2030 to 2050 will be comfortable with many technologies now in their early stages of development. They will have grown up with ubiquitous computing, enhanced reality, AI powered virtual agents/assistants, autonomous robotic systems and human augmentation. More than being comfortable with these technologies, the future SOF Operator will expect them to be available. One merely has to look at the current use of smart phones by military personnel – on and off the battlefield to know it is true.
The relentless pace of technological change will assure that acquiring technological fluency will be a lifelong process. As Kevin Kelly observed in his book, The Inevitable, Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, “In this era of ’becoming,’ everyone becomes a newbie. Worse, we will be newbies forever.” This is assured by the fact that most of the important technologies that will dominate our lives in 30 years have yet to be invented. Also, new technologies require endless upgrades. Finally, the current cycle of obsolescence for IT systems is accelerating. Currently a phone app is obsolescent in 30 days. Faced with these facts, no one will have time to master a technology by current means before it changes, becomes obsolescent, or obsolete.
As the Army’s USASOC Strategy 2035 recognizes that current means of education and training require upgrades to meet future demands. In the mid-term of three to seven years, USASOC seeks both to invest in “education initiatives” and “create and implement education models” that will allow ARSOF Operators to excel operationally. In the long term of eight to twenty years ARSOF seeks to “Implement alternative military/civilian career models that are more attuned to the demands of the future operating environment.” This will, of course, require education and training.
One non-traditional approach that is achieving success is the Massively Online Open Course (MOOC). The idea is to create software that tracks the progress of each student and then adapts the content, pace of instruction, and assessment to the individual’s performance. These systems succeed by providing immediate feedback that addresses the student’s misunderstandings and offers additional instruction and materials. They do so outside of the traditional ‘brick and mortar’ schoolhouse or the largely static versions of online learning available within the Department of Defense. SOF should employ this approach to maintain technological fluency of its operators.
ALEKS is a commercial-off-the-shelf product easily accessible to SOF Operators for building and maintaining technological fluency that presents a slightly different approach to learning from the MOOC. It is an online tutoring and assessment program that includes course material in mathematics, chemistry, introductory statistics, and business. Rather than being based on numerical test scores, ALEKS uses the theory of knowledge spaces to develop an understanding of the set of topics a student does or doesn't understand from the answers to its test questions. Based on this assessment, it determines the topics that the student is ready to learn and allows the student to choose from interactive learning modules for these topics.
Another non-traditional approach is the awarding of nanodegrees in various technological areas. SOF could take advantage of these existing nanodegree programs to maintain the technological fluency of the SOF Operators. Online universities like Udacity offer nanodegrees that normally last three months in focused disciplines such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Natural Language Processing, Computer Vision, Deep Learning, and Virtual Reality Developer. Google, Amazon, IBM, Nvidia, Mercedes Benz, and AT&T recognize these degrees and hire those who earn them as soon as they graduate.
In the near future, artificial intelligence enabled avatars in an enhanced reality, principally augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR), setting will provide a means for pursuing education and conducting training. What gives MR and VR their real power is the convergence of a number of accelerating technological trends. These include Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Assistants (VA), point clouds, spatial computing, Nano-transistors, the Internet of Things (IoT), wearable computers, and Terahertz (THz) wireless. Taken together, these trends undergird the effectiveness of VR and MR. The table below briefly describes these technologies and their impacts.
Table 1 - Technologies That Will Enable Technological Fluency
The principal difference between tradition learning and enhanced reality enabled learning lies in the sharing or imparting of experience. Such transformational learning usually occurs because of a personal experience which produces either cognitive dissonance or a previously novel of perspective. Experience has informational, sensory, and emotional components. One component can trigger the others. Patriots who read Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” reacted to informational content with emotion. Participants in mass rallies receive sensory, informational, and emotional input which can lead to a change in behavior.
Virtual Reality (VR) and Mixed Reality (MR) can be effective tools to bring transformational learning about. This is because what a user experiences in VR or MR is stored in that region of the brain which deals with experience, as opposed to learning. This represents a quantum leap in the capability to teach others. Virtual realities artificially create sensory experiences, which can include sight, touch, hearing and smell.” MR “integrates computer-generated images so tightly that users cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is virtual.” This will enable users to acquire a deep, nuanced understanding of the subject matter, the associated technologies and their operational effects.
In the more distant future, human augmentation may provide a means of enhancing cognition more rapidly if not instantaneously. Recently the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been experimenting with a number of cognition augmentation techniques. This includes brain computer interfaces (BCI), advanced human machine interfaces, and other forms of augmented cognition. Augmented cognition will allow SOF Operators to employ technology to gain a decisive advantage in their ability to think and act.
In 2008, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency demonstrated through experiments the use of brain signals to help analysts increase search throughput and support rapid target detection in overhead imagery. Using the brain-enabled triage search method, researchers were able to show at least a 600% increase in search throughput (measured in square kilometers per min) across multiple image analysts and target types. In the future, related advances will extend to the ability to maintain technological fluency.
Long Term Implications
Continual training will also be key to maintaining the SOF Operator’s technological fluency. However, that training will look very different from that of today. Enhanced reality, BCI and other forms of augmented cognition will ensure it. The pace of technological change will require that every SOF Operator be both a quick study and a life-long learner. Curiosity and a willingness to explore the boundaries of knowledge, teamed with advanced learning technology (e.g., Enhanced Reality, Brain Computer Interfaces, and neural implants) will maintain the SOF Operator as the center of all SOF is and does.
This fictional vignette paints a picture of how the future SOF Operators might maintain their technological fluency in the 2035 – 2050 timeframe. Any resemblance of the characters to any persons, living or dead is purely coincidental. The vignette begins as an ODA has just received orders to deploy on a routine training mission. It begins in the team room.
Master Sergeant Julia Barnes entered the team room, followed by the team leader Captain Marcus Jefferson. They were a study in contrasts. Barnes was tall, lithe, and fair of hair and eye whereas Jefferson was short, muscular, and dark. Barnes was terse and practical while Jefferson was open and imaginative. The team had nicknamed them “the salt and pepper twins.” However, they had both earned the respect of their team.
Barnes scanned the room through her issue Raptorview MR glasses, all six of the other available team members were there – either in person or virtually. She felt a certain satisfaction that her ‘personalized counseling’ of two perpetually late team members had finally taken effect. Few things could irritate her more than lateness.
“Good morning,” She said in her usual quiet, authoritative tone.
The chorus of replies ranged from “good morning” to “what’s so good about it?”
Captain Jefferson shook his head as he thought, “Some things never change in a team room.” He held up his hand, “Alright, we need to focus. Our detachment has been given the latest model TALOS suit – the Mark V. We are the guinea pigs.” He smiled, “No matter how much they test these things in the lab or on a computer somebody still has to take them out and use them to see if they really work.”
One of the team members, Sergeant First Class Charlie Leonard put his right index finger in the air, twirled it, and said with mock enthusiasm, “Whoopee!”
“Knock it off Charlie,” Barnes replied good naturedly. As the detachment cut up and unofficial morale officer, Charlie had a certain amount of latitude of expression.
“As I was saying,” Captain Jefferson continued, “we need to get trained up on the new suit as quickly as possible before we go to the testing range. After we test them, we get to take them on our next deployment. Master Sergeant Barnes has prepared some ideas for our spin up, so I’ll turn things over to her.”
Barnes stepped up next to the Captain and said, “Alright. Turn on your MR optics if you haven’t already.” She paused for a second before resuming, “What you see before you is the Mark V TALOS suit. It has a number of distinct advantages over the Mark IV.” She made a gesture which caused the hologram to begin to rotate slowly, “It has improved armor both against ballistics and directed energy. It uses 50 percent less juice to operate. As you can see, the BCI has been upgraded as well.”
Charlie raised his hand, “It looks like the BCI isn’t compatible with my chip. Does that count me out?”
“No.” Barnes frowned, “Go get an upgrade as soon as we are done here. Sweet cheese and crackers, do I need to hold your hand?”
The rest of the team laughed at the exchange. Even when provoked Barnes rarely cursed, a personality tic which was a part of her leadership style.
“Okay you clowns, settle down,” Captain Jefferson said.
Once the laughter died, Barnes continued, “I’ve gotten with the S3 and booked us three days at the Virtual Range. Then we get another week in our operational area.” She made an eye movement which caused her MR glasses to transmit data, “I’m sending the Qcrypt key to jack in.”
One of the avatars, Staff Sergeant Anders Johanssen raised his hand.
“Did you book us any time for language refresher?” Anders smiled, “It’s been a while since I spoke the target dialect. When we’re out of suit, I don’t want to repeat what happened on our last deployment.”
The whole team laughed as they remembered an extremely awkward situation brought about by their language AI not knowing the local dialect. It had been innocent enough. They were in Somalia as part of a humanitarian assistance mission. A local had asked why the team was there. Anders had replied “Adoonka.”
The local’s eyes became wide with terror, he shrieked like a banshee, and fled shouting a warning to one and all to run for their lives.
Once the team got everyone calmed down they realized that the word adoonka, normally translated as ‘to help’ or ‘to assist’ translated ‘to wipe’ out or ‘obliterate’ in the local dialect.
“Yes,” she replied. “You can get a direct cognitive refresher as well as a chance to practice with one of our native speakers in the VRRE. If you need more practice, the DoS language VRRE is available, so is Monterey.”
“Thanks.” Anders grinned.
The other avatar, Sergeant First Class Ivan Petrovich spoke up, “They really have made some upgrades and modifications. I’m going to need some time to bone up on the maintenance requirements.”
“I’ve arranged for you to get the usual tech data direct download, some virtual practice, as well as some hands-on time with the one actual suit we have in the battalion.” Barnes paused, “Take a closer look at the training schedule and you’ll see it.”
Captain Jefferson spoke up, “Okay. We’ve got three days to get used to the suits before we start using them. Then we have another five days of mission prep. Let’s not waste any time.”
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 The FOE depicted in this paper is a synthesis of the National Intelligence Council Global Trends (2035) Paradox of Progress, National Intelligence Council, Washington DC, January 2017 and the Chairman, Joint Chief of Staff, Joint Operating Environment 2035, The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World, Joint Staff J7, Washington, DC, 14 July 2016.
 Taken from a PowerPoint presentation entitled “AI Futures” given by Dr. James Canton at the USASOC Futures Forum, 8 August 2017.
 Ubiquitous computing will come about from the convergence of nanoscale transistors, advanced battery/power technologies, spatial computing, and wearable devices. In essence, the computer as we know it today will cease to exist as a standalone.
 Enhanced reality is a term which encompasses Virtual Reality (VR), Mixed Reality (MR), and Augmented Reality (AR).
 A conversational, computer-generated character that simulates a conversation to deliver voice- or text-based information to a user via a Web, kiosk or mobile interface.
 The most common autonomous robotic system will be the family automobile – a self-driving car.
 Much as US Soldiers in World War II were comfortable with internal combustion engines and electricity, the future SOF Operator will be comfortable with what today seem like advanced technologies.
 Kelley, Kevin. The Inevitable, Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future. New York: Penguin Books (Kindle Edition), 2017, 10.
 USASOC Strategy 2035, February 2016, 7 – 8.
 (Accessed 17 May 2018).
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 (Accessed 17 May 2018).
 (Accessed 17 May 2018).
 This paper does not discuss a third form of computer assisted reality known as Augmented Reality (AR). Augmented Reality consists of visual overlays on existing reality of which an example is Google Glass. AR does not evoke the same emotional response as VR and MR.
 Scoble, Robert, and Shel Israel. The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality & Artificial Intelligence Will Change Everything. United States: Patrick Brewer Press (Kindle Edition), 2017, Location 2916.
 Scoble, Robert, and Shel Israel. The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality & Artificial Intelligence Will Change Everything. United States: Patrick Brewer Press (Kindle Edition), 2017, Location 2890.
 King, Brett. Augmented: Life in the Smart Lane. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish International (Kindle Edition), 2016, Location 995 – 997, 1132 – 1349.
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 Quantum Encryption
 Virtual Reality Reconstructed Environment