MAY 10, 2019 – Imagine a bomber calling 911 threatening to blow up a school. A technician does a voice analysis of that phone call and determines the caller is a male in his mid-twenties, high on cocaine, and making the call from a room with a low ceiling. Most importantly, the technician can reconstruct his face from an algorithm analyzing vocal cords. This is not the future, this is today.
U.S. Special Operations Command partnered with Carnegie Mellon University to host the 19th Sovereign Challenge Conference held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, April 30 – May 3. The theme of this year’s conference, “Technological Change and Its Effect on Future of Irregular Warfare,” was discussed and debated by a professors and influencers who are acknowledged experts in the field. The efficacy and ethics of using machine learning and artificial intelligence on the battlefield, especially the determination of responsibility when something goes wrong with the technology.
The conference had more than 120 representatives from countries around the world and kicked off with Air Force Lt. Gen. James Slife, USSOCOM vice commander, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and the Secretary of the Air Force the Honorable Heather Wilson, all addressing the conference at the Senator John Heinz History Center about how technology is moving at a faster and faster pace and society must be wary of its pitfalls.
“Machine learning has transformed the customer service fields where today’s consumers are often unknowingly talking to a robot and still having their needs met. But it’s also led to the development of deep fakes, where machines can replicate audio and video personas of actual people and force our citizens to question what is real and what is fake,” Slife said. “This will require a continued focus on missions like military information support operations, cyberspace operations, and counter-threat financing. This is why our Sovereign Challenge program is so valuable. It provides a forum where we can increase our collective understanding, not only of the problems in front of us, but the tools with which we’ll solve them.”
Mayor Peduto described how Pittsburgh has evolved from a steel, industrial city to a respected technology hub that analyzes how technology will affect its citizens.
“During the second Industrial Revolution, Pittsburgh led in steel and aluminum, and we built every city in this country. We built every bridge. Every skyscraper was being made with Pittsburgh steel,” said Peduto. “And then Pittsburgh died. We died. … The mills were closing. We lost more people in the 1980s than New Orleans lost after Hurricane Katrina. And they never came home. Our unemployment was greater than America’s during the Great Depression.”
The mayor then explained the blue collar city picked itself up and began to rebuild itself by refocusing its economy through medical services and the technology sector.
“We became very good at managing decline because we thought that’s what post industrial cities were supposed to do, manage decline. But something else happened back in 1979. At Carnegie Mellon University, they created a new program, the first of its kind in the world, and it was a Bachelor of Science in robotics. People started to come to Pittsburgh. By the mid 1980s, they had created the first Ph.D. in the world in robotics. More people started to come to Pittsburgh,” said Peduto. “They started in the field of artificial intelligence in the 1970s, and not only through the science side of it, but through the humanities and the psychology of it as well. Herb Simon won a Nobel Prize in it in the 1980s.”
Wilson discussed how artificial intelligence and machine learning on the battlefield are ever increasing with decision cycles becoming shorter and moral decisions are becoming increasingly paramount.
“To be sure, artificial intelligence and machine learning are going to enable new modes of warfare. That gives all of us pause, or at least it should give us pause. Because as people of conscience, we are afraid that machines will teach themselves how to win the game, irrespective of any moral code undermining the limitations on the use of force that our societies have built over centuries,” Wilson said. “Will machines decide what to do based on utility or based on a moral worldview? And how, as leaders of our nations, will we address these kinds of questions? There is a moral imperative here. When it comes to warfare, humans must continue to bond and decide the why and the when, even as technology increasingly becomes part of the how.”
During the three day conference a diverse group of speakers addressed the conference attendees. Among the presenters were best-selling author Max Brooks, whose books include The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, and August Cole, co-author of Ghost Fleet. Brooks challenged the conference to quit thinking in old paradigms.
“We need to get rid of the transgender ban; it demonstrates hate and alienates a generation of recruits who are growing up in an identity politics culture. Seek to recruit the recruiters to find new types of talent from Silicon Valley and the tech center,” continued Brooks. “We (the military) must gain trust in these new technology tribes. Embrace identity politics as a reason to defend the U.S. U.S. adversaries do not respect individuality. We (the military) are not embracing and informing the country of the existential crisis that exists beyond (and in) our borders.”
The conference included a visit to Carnegie Mellon University, a world-renowned institution known for producing industry leaders in the fields of science and engineering.
CMU President, Dr. Farnam Jahanian, welcomed the conference to the university and their engineering department would give lectures and demonstrations on face recognition techniques, profiling humans from their voice and robotics.
“Melding of cyber and the physical world means access to data is growing, but lines are becoming blurred,” said Jahanian. “The professors and students at this university are in the forefront in trying to understand how the physical and cyber will intersect.”
Dr. Rita Singh, associate research professor at CMU’s Language and Technologies Institute, gave a ground breaking presentation on how you can build a human profile just from voice analysis.
“This technology is currently at its early stage of development. The human voice carries much information, it is able to provide insights into, age, physical build (such as weight, height), environment, personality, background, social behavior and facial characteristics,” said Singh. “Human vocal projection is a very complex process. Every individual’s vocal track contains micro-features and they are unique that is like a barcode. The generation of the human face is constructed using the micro-features of the voice and matching them to a collection of data. CMU is not only able to recreate the human face but the entire human body through analyzing the human voice. The reverse is also possible, CMU was able to recreate the voice from Rembrandt’s ‘face’.”
Founder and Director of the CMU Biometrics Center, Dr. Mario Savvides, gave a lecture on facial recognition technology explaining how they focus in on the iris of the eye because each person’s iris is unique to include identical twins.
“The human eye iris does not change as one ages. Every iris is unique. Even identical twins have unique irises. LASIK surgery does not alter or distort the iris; thus, it will not affect the recognition. CMU’s facial recognition technology can capture a human iris from behind a windshield, helmet and even a masked face. As long as the iris can be captured,” said Savvides. “Without telling the algorithm about the gender and ethnicity, the AI software can generate a facial construction.”
USSOCOM Commander, Army Gen. Richard D. Clarke, gave the final speech of the conference and emphasized the need for international partnership and especially when sharing artificial intelligence.
“Almost one-third of the world’s countries are attending this conference, and we have common values and common priorities. An alliance formed by states committed to democracy is a time tested way to defeat hegemonic states. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” Clarke said. “Resisting technological change risks us being left behind. There are challenges integrating AI into warfare. Specific attention in the information domain is warranted – especially where it intersects with our partnerships.”
The Sovereign Challenge program began in 2005 when USSOCOM invited a group of defense attachés from Washington, D.C., to Tampa, Fla. to discuss major issues of concern to their respective nations. Since then, conference participation has focused on accredited military, defense attachés and security-related diplomats from D.C.-based foreign embassies.
Story by Michael Bottoms
U.S. Special Operations Command