Friday 20 March 2015

SMARTS Update. How the US Military Will Mold Minds With Stories: DARPA’s Narrative Networks.

Last week I reported on narrative software that has reduced the cost of writing a simple sports story to less than 2 cents a word and is  rendering human reporters superfluous. I didn’t point to the darker side of this innovation—-that it might also generate believable propaganda. (But you got there by yourself, didn’t you?)  I promised instead more about DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the brilliant skunk works of the US Military. DARPA has led the development of devices that will permit much more effective propaganda than any news writing software.

DARPA spends more than $2 billion a year on projects that might become militarily useful. Its role, since the Soviets shocked the West by shooting Sputnik into orbit in 1958, is to make sure that the United States military is never surprised again. Studying DARPA is a good way for the rest of us to avoid surprise too. Because forewarned is forearmed, right? 

DARPA’s role is to be smart—-to reach beyond the leading edge of current science; to intelligently transform deep questions into viable technology; to try new things without fear of failure; to do it all very fast. How smart is DARPA? For three years it was led by a woman, Regina Dugan (until she went to Google which has a DARPA all its own). In my view, that makes DARPA damned smart. (See Dugan's TED talk.) Every tech start-up boasts that its shiny new widget will change the world, but DARPA actually has. It helped fund: the first stages of the Internet;stealth technology; semi-autonomous drones. It is working on giving more autonomy to robots so they can “hunt in packs” under the direction of one human controller instead of many. 

DARPA’s reach includes machining living beings. Its Biological Technologies projects include: synthetic biology (making molecules act like living cells); Prophecy (a technology to quickly predict the most likely evolution of any pathogenic virus).  It has worked for years to tie human brains and machines together in order to make humans better, faster, stronger. Under the rubric BCI it has developed means to teach humans to learn twice as fast; shown how injured brains can be augmented to retain new memories; how prosthetic arms can be directed by brain signals; how human brains can be changed through interactions with machines. DARPA often communicates with acronyms, as if groups of letters will hold fear of the future at bay better than mere words. BCI stands for Brain-Computer Interface. These devices have until recently been placed surgically inside animal and human brains. Now, signals can be picked up outside the skull and put to use.

In this work, DARPA proclaims the best of motives. It wants to help wounded “warfighters” who have lost upper limbs to get their lives back, including going back to work. DARPA-funded prosthetic hands have sensors that send signals to the users’ brains that allow them to ‘feel’ again. My father, a physician and surgeon who struggled to help mutilated men in WWII, and too many children paralyzed by polio, would have wept with joy at what has been achieved with BCI.

But then there’s that dark side. Being able to send meaningful signals in and out of human brains is also a way to change them, which can change behavior. These advances led to Narrative Networks. 

I first heard about Narrative Networks in 2012 when I was researching SMARTS. DARPA had solicited proposals. DARPA’s synopsis said it wanted to: “quantify analysis of narratives” as well as understand “the effects narratives have on human psychology and its affiliated neurobiology,” and was looking for the means to sense, model and simulate “these narrative influences.”  Finally, DARPA said: “Proposers to this effort will be expected to revolutionize the study of narratives and narrative influence by advancing narrative analysis and neurosciences so as to create new narrative influence sensors, doubling status quo capacity to forecast narrative influence.” 

This is a good example of how to make the truth incomprehensible by dressing it in bafflegab. Reduced to every day English, it means that DARPA hoped to turn story-telling into a science that can be used to predict reactions and mold behavior. Pity poor Goebbels: he only had Leni Riefenstahl to help him. DARPA wants to create an ideo-technology. It wants story machines.

Last week I checked in at the DARPA website to see how this project is doing.

Narrative Networks is still listed, but I could find no report that said what has been learned and who is participating.

I wrote to Justin Sanchez, the man in charge, just as I had written to the man who used to be in charge, William Casebeer, when I was finishing SMARTS. ( Casebeer, formerly a career intelligence officer with degrees in political science, philosophy, and cognitive science,has moved on to Lockheed Martin where he is Research Area Manager, Human Systems Optimization. His LinkedIn says this means funding and leading interdisciplinary teams to develop new methods and technologies for sensing, assessing and optimizing human performance in multiple national security and other domains. This sounded like a Bourne Supremacy gig to me.) Casebeer had not replied earlier.

Sanchez did not reply now.

So I emailed my questions to the Director of Media Relations, Jared Adams. 

Adams replied saying solicitations were no longer being taken with regard to Narrative Networks. He referred me to the DARPA website.

I wrote back and explained I had already read it but could not find a report on who got contracts, to do what, for how much, or anything about what has been learned.

I got another reply saying that Narrative Networks is “closing out…If you are interested in additional information about N2, please refer to the program page on our website.”

Just a suggestion, but DARPA might consider buying narrative software for its Media Relations.

As I am a human reporter,and my brain is wetware rather than software,I did not leave it at that.

Next week, I’ll tell you what I found out.