Turning synthetic technologies into real impact

Head of Air Labs at BAE Systems Read time: 4 mins
Libby Vallance-Bull explains why synthetic environments may be key to unlocking advantage in future highly unpredictable conflict
Turning synthetic technologies into real impactWe live in interesting times. We face transformative threats, where physical, virtual and psychological weapons are brought to bear against our governments, our people and our national infrastructure. 
At the same time, Covid-19 has changed how we live, how we work and interact, and may spawn national and cultural divisions. All against the backdrop of what the World Economic Forum (WEF) dubbed the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
How do we make sense of it all? How can we organise ourselves to win in such an uncertain, unpredictable world? 
Winning in “hybrid” warfare demands a collaborative endeavour involving government, industry and academia, and one which requires us to collectively digitise.  How will we train, how will we compete, how will we fight? What skills do we need, who or which department holds and will hold what responsibilities? What will our defence and security look like and how will it operate?
And what will the rules be? What we can do now and what we will need to be able to do tomorrow may be significantly different and our behaviours may also be different. Will we insist on a human in the loop when the threat is from a machine, or when the threat is too fast for a human to defend against?
Uncertainties abound but it’s actually this complexity which provides the opportunity for the innovative to succeed.

Culture shift

Any collaborative endeavour should perhaps begin with culture. Where the client-industry relationship becomes one of trusted partner, characterised by knowledge sharing, information exchange, operational process overhaul, and a re-writing of protocols and ideals. Enhancing our digitally enabled free thought and dialogue, which enriches the decision making process, creates operational excellence and ultimately delivers better outcomes.
When we open our thoughts, our imagination and creativity can be empowered. We can begin to explore, and demonstrate the art of possible. Amplify adaptive capability. Pursue human competitive behaviours. Identify complex scenarios and their associated abstract thought processes. All of which ultimately lead to innovative and novel thinking.
How can we apply this to hybrid confrontation? Currently, although operations are either joint force or coalition, they are still based around the physical domains of Air, Land, and Sea, (surface and sub-surface). Yet data recognises no such boundaries.
In a world where advantage will depend on best use of information, it makes little sense to tackle each construct separately. If we fuse the information from the physical, digital and biological spheres, we enrich our picture of the complex landscape, we harvest more data, we predict more effectively and, as a result, increase the probability of success.
What we have then, if we embrace it, is the opportunity to explore and experiment with how machines and humans may integrate and to what extent. To investigate integrated decision making in complex environments and complex information sequences.
Will we be able to tell where the human decision starts and that of the machine stops? Should we be worried about this? I think not. Our role in industry is to make sure the choices provided are competitive enough to preserve that very democracy we trust in to provide such governance.

Building a digital world for experimentation

So let us take a tangible example of where we can support experimentation and capability development. It is possible to bring together multiple layers of data and construct the digital twin of a state. This means incorporating physical terrain, atmospherics, cityscapes, Critical National Infrastructure, transport modes, human sentiment (drawn from social media), emergency services, military, satellite coverage, and much else.
Each physical, digital or biological asset is represented as a data layer, fused in whichever configuration we require or articulate at a regional or localised scale. The information can be presented in an elastic Single Synthetic Environment (SSE) – a single consumable, and intuitive format – which is distributed across government to inform decisions, determine courses of action, and much more.
What do I mean by elastic? I mean an environment that permits expansion or contraction as and when required.  If device, or platform footprint increases, and more data is harvested and requires analysis, additional computing power can be made available. The commercial world of war-gaming, coupled with an evolving SME ecosystem of data integration and existing security tools, enrich and create a holistic approach to the SSE modelling capability.

A new opportunity for change

This federation of technologies into the SSE offers up a platform to play, learn, adapt, and repeat. Fail fast, take appropriate actions, and go again. Agile incubation of DevSecOps underpinned by experimental machine learning, predictive analytics, and fusions of virtual, digital, and physical systems in secure industrial and military collaboration.
It affords the virtual or physical coalescence of multi-disciplined teams with a broad portfolio of skills from psychologists to analysts to strategic industry partners and the consumers of the capability. Facilitating collective knowledge sharing for optimal outcomes and informing of future capability requirements to support industrial investment.
It offers our human-machine a landscape in which it can provide scenarios and feedback to support artificial intelligence and machine learning, experiment without fratricide, and perhaps most importantly, understand how the human-machine hybrid optimises outcomes to inform skillset requirements, and educational needs.
If we are to win this competition of chaos mastery, we must embrace the challenge at scale and together; defence and wider government, specialist SMEs and large defence organisations, academia and more. 
It’s a mammoth task but far from insurmountable. It will prove to be invaluable and one where we will look back and wonder why we didn’t go faster.
About the author
Libby Vallance-Bull is Head of Air Labs at BAE Systems
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Libby Vallance-Bull Head of Air Labs at BAE Systems 13 August 2020