Kamala Harris – An American Story

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Kamala Harris’s parents, Donald Harris and Shyamala Gopalan grew up under British colonial rule on different sides of the planet. They were each drawn to Berkeley, California and became part of an intellectual circle that shaped the rest of their lives.

In this comprehensive New York Times article, it is easy to see the important forces that shaped Senator Harris’s outlook on life and led to her many successes, culminating in her recent selection as the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate.

Want more? You can read the rest of the piece here.

Dedication to a Cause

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Much ink has been spilled about the future of robots and how they will either help – or hurt – humanity. Some still fear HAL from 2001 A Space Odyssey.

That is why I was drawn to a recent piece, “A Case for Cooperation Between Machines and Humans.” The subtitle is revealing: “A computer scientist argues that the quest for fully automated robots is misguided, perhaps even dangerous. His decades of warnings are gaining more attention.” Here is how it begins:

The Tesla chief Elon Musk and other big-name Silicon Valley executives have long promised a car that can do all the driving without human assistance.

But Ben Shneiderman, a University of Maryland computer scientist who has for decades warned against blindly automating tasks with computers, thinks fully automated cars and the tech industry’s vision for a robotic future is misguided. Even dangerous. Robots should collaborate with humans, he believes, rather than replace them.

Late last year, Dr. Shneiderman embarked on a crusade to convince the artificial intelligence world that it is heading in the wrong direction. In February, he confronted organizers of an industry conference on “Assured Autonomy” in Phoenix, telling them that even the title of their conference was wrong. Instead of trying to create autonomous robots, he said, designers should focus on a new mantra, designing computerized machines that are “reliable, safe and trustworthy.”

There should be the equivalent of a flight data recorder for every robot, Dr. Shneiderman argued.

It is a warning that’s likely to gain more urgency when the world’s economies eventually emerge from the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic and millions who have lost their jobs try to return to work. A growing number of them will find they are competing with or working side by side with machines.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Big Tech and National Security

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There is little question that the United States faces two powerful peer competitors, China and Russia.

There is also no question that we cannot match these powers soldier for soldier or tank for tank. The only way we are likely to prevail is through technological innovation.

The big tech companies – not the traditional defense industry giants – are the ones who can help us achieve that goal. One person, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, is leading this effort.

A revealing article in the New York Times entitled, “‘I Could Solve Most of Your Problems’: Eric Schmidt’s Pentagon Offensive,” begins this way:

In July 2016, Raymond Thomas, a four-star general and head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, hosted a guest: Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google.

General Thomas, who served in the 1991 gulf war and deployed many times to Afghanistan, spent the better part of a day showing Mr. Schmidt around Special Operations Command’s headquarters in Tampa, Fla. They scrutinized prototypes for a robotic exoskeleton suit and joined operational briefings, which Mr. Schmidt wanted to learn more about because he had recently begun advising the military on technology.

After the visit, as they rode in a Chevy Suburban toward an airport, the conversation turned to a form of artificial intelligence.

“You absolutely suck at machine learning,” Mr. Schmidt told General Thomas, the officer recalled. “If I got under your tent for a day, I could solve most of your problems.” General Thomas said he was so offended that he wanted to throw Mr. Schmidt out of the car, but refrained.

Four years later, Mr. Schmidt, 65, has channeled his blunt assessment of the military’s tech failings into a personal campaign to revamp America’s defense forces with more engineers, more software and more A.I. In the process, the tech billionaire, who left Google last year, has reinvented himself as the prime liaison between Silicon Valley and the national security community.

Follow the link to read the full article

Great Power Competition

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The United States has entered an era of great power competition. China and Russia both present a clear and present danger to the security and prosperity of the United States. This competition plays out in multiple ways.

Much ink has been spilled about this competition, some of it good, some shrill, and much in the middle. That is why I was drawn to – and enjoyed – a recent study by CSIS: U.S. Competition with China and Russia: The Crisis-Driven Need to Change U.S. Strategy. Written by Anthony H. Cordesman, one of the sharpest minds regarding American foreign policy, here is how it begins:

The new National Security Strategy (NSS) issued on December 18, 2017, called for the United States to focus on competition with China and Russia in order to focus on the potential military threat they posed to the United States. This call to look beyond the current U.S. emphasis on counterterrorism was all too valid, but its implementation has since focused far too narrowly on the military dimension and on providing each military service all of the U.S. military forces that are needed to fight “worst-case” wars.

This focus on high levels of direct conflict with China and Russia is a fundamental misreading of the challenges the U.S. actually faces from Chinese and Russian competition as well as a misinterpretation of their strategy and capabilities. It ignores the fact that China and Russia recognize that major wars between them and the United States – and particularly any wars that escalate to the use of nuclear weapons – can end in doing so much damage to both sides that they become the equivalent of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD). They understand that the only winner in such conflicts between the great powers would be the one power that could actually find a way to stand aside from such a major nuclear exchange or from a high level of theater warfare between the other two. To quote a passage from Clausewitz’s War Games, “the only way to win is not to play.”

You can read the full report here

Focused Habits

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When things are chaotic and crazy, when the world can feel like it’s falling apart, this is when we need to create structure. Eisenhower famously said that freedom was properly defined as the opportunity for self-discipline, and so it is with disorder—it’s an opportunity to create order.

Maybe right now you’re stuck at home, maybe you’re not working. Your kids might be home with you. Certainly the normal way of doing things has been significantly altered. Well, now is the time to follow the Stoic practices more than ever, to follow the kind of routines that Marcus Aurelius followed every day (like we detail in this video) or the practice that Seneca followed with his evening journaling. Get up early. Be deliberate. Exercise. Set up and stick to a diet. Create limits and order. Clean your house. Attack problems or projects that have piled up.

Marcus said that we must concentrate like a Roman, and there is no time to do that like the present. There is not a lot of good that can come out of a global pandemic, but one positive can be that we use it as an opportunity to get our act together, to adjust and fine tune our habits while we have the time. More importantly, one of the best ways to cure anxiety, to deal with stress, and to become present is to really throw yourself into some means of self-improvement. Don’t allow yourself to be crushed by life as a whole, Marcus said; start with what’s in front of you.

Create some order today. Focus on your habits. You’ll find it does wonders.

Reading Deeply

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There is a saying, “Not all readers are writers, but all writers are readers.” There is a lot to unpack in that short statement.

I read a long, but absolutely fabulous article that gets to the heart of what reading does for all of us, not just writers. Here is how it begins:

Thoughtful Americans are realizing that the pervasive IT-revolution devices upon which we are increasingly dependent are affecting our society and culture in significant but as yet uncertain ways. We are noticing more in part because, as Maryanne Wolf has pointed out, this technology is changing what, how, and why we read, and in turn what, how, and why we write and even think. Harold Innis noted in 1948, as television was on the cusp of revolutionizing American life, that “sudden extensions of communication are reflected in cultural disturbances,” and it’s clear we are stumbling through another such episode. Such disturbances today are manifold, and, as before, their most critical aspects may reside in alterations to both the scope and nature of literacy. As with any tangle between technology and culture, empirical evidence is elusive, but two things, at least, are clear.

For one, the new digital technology is democratizing written language and variously expanding the range of people who use and learn from it. It may also be diffusing culture; music and film of all kinds are cheaply and easily available to almost everyone. In some respects, new digital technologies are decreasing social isolation, even if in other respects they may be increasing it. Taken together, these technologies may also be creating novel neural pathways, especially in developing young brains, that promise greater if different kinds of cognitive capacities, albeit capacities we cannot predict or even imagine with confidence.

But it is also clear that something else has been lost. Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book, The Shallows, begins with the author’s irritation at his own truncated attention span for reading. Something neurophysiological is happening to us, he argued, and we don’t know what it is. That must be the case, because if there is any law of neurophysiology, it is that the brain wires itself continuously in accordance with its every experience. A decade later, Carr’s discomfort is shared by growing legions of frustrated, formerly serious readers.

Follow the link to read this long but truly enriching article:

https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/the-erosion-of-deep-literacy

AI – Our National Security Edge

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Artificial intelligence (AI) may be the most beneficial technological development of the 21st century.  However, it is undoubtedly the most hyped technological development of the past two decades.  This hype has raised expectations for results and, unfortunately, has clouded public understanding of the true nature of AI and its limitations as well as potential.

The highest level U.S. security documents demonstrate a recognition of the power of AI to support U.S. national objectives.

The National Security Strategy notes: “New advances in computing, autonomy, and manufacturing are already transforming the way we fight…From self-driving cars to autonomous weapons, the field of [AI], in particular, is progressing rapidly.”

The National Defense Strategy puts it this way: “The security environment is also affected by rapid technological advancements and the changing character of war…New technologies include artificial intelligence [and] autonomy.”

The U.S. Navy knows it needs AI, but would be well-served if it articulates these needs better so it can harness this critical technology.

I addressed this subject in my U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings article, The Navy Needs AI, It Just Isn’t Certain Why.”  Want more? You can read the full article here

Dedication to a Cause

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Most of us are looking for inspiration during this dreadful pandemic. Here is a story that will make you stop and think. Here is how it begins:

Try the parable of the blind man who gave up political glory for Jesus Christ.

He quickly climbed the rungs of power, became the lieutenant governor of the state of Washington at 35 and had reason to believe that he’d be governor someday, maybe even before he turned 40.

His ascent impressed people all the more because of his disability. At the age of 8, he lost his sight: A rare cancer forced the removal of both of his retinas. He spent the next decades proving to the world — and to himself — that he could nonetheless accomplish just about anything that he set his mind to.

He attended Columbia University. He won a Rhodes scholarship. He graduated from Yale Law. “From Braille to Yale” was how he often described his journey. It made for a great political speech.

Then the man, Cyrus Habib, had an awakening.

“I was in talks with a top literary agent in New York about a book deal, and it was all predicated on my biography, my identity,” he told me recently. He could feel himself being sucked into “a celebrity culture” in American politics that had nothing to do with public service. He could feel himself being swallowed by pride.

“How many ways,” he said, “can you be called a rising star?”

He decided not to find out. Last month Habib, now 38, announced that instead of being on the ballot in November for a second term as lieutenant governor, he would soon leave office to become a Roman Catholic priest.

Want more? You can read the full article here

Big Tech

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Many people, perhaps with some justification, feel that big companies dominate the nation (and the world) in unhelpful ways.

That has been an American inclination since the days of the “robber barons” a century ago. Our attitudes mirror those of our ancestors.

Today, it is fashionable to bash “big anything.” At or near the top of the list has been “Big Pharma,” that was, at least, until we now look to them to find a cure for Covid-19.

Big tech has also taken a beating, with calls to break up tech companies. But big tech does more than manufacture gadgets and software. Here is an article about what Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff did to help. It begins….

Sam Hawgood, the chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco, was getting concerned.

It was March 19, coronavirus cases in California were rising at an alarming rate, and U.C.S.F., one of the Bay Area’s major medical providers, was already running perilously low on personal protective equipment.

The university’s usual suppliers in the United States were short on masks and face shields, and there was no sign that the State of California or the federal government was coming to the rescue. “The supply chain had really dried up,” Mr. Hawgood said.

So Mr. Hawgood called Marc Benioff, the hyperconnected billionaire who is a founder and the chief executive of Salesforce.

In some ways, it was the natural call to make. Mr. Benioff gave the university $100 million to build a children’s hospital in 2010 and remained a major benefactor. But there was no reason to think Mr. Benioff, who runs an enterprise software company, could quickly muster a supply chain for personal protective equipment, especially during a global pandemic.

Nonetheless, that phone call set off a frenzied effort by Mr. Benioff and his team that drew in major companies like FedEx, Walmart, Uber and Alibaba. In a matter of weeks, the team spent more than $25 million to procure more than 50 million pieces of protective equipment. Fifteen million units have already been delivered to hospitals, medical facilities and states, and more are on the way.

Follow the link to read a truly enriching article

Weapons of the Future

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Over the past several months, I have posted blogs regarding the new directions for U.S. National Security embodied in publications such as the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy. Each of these publications notes that the U.S. military must adopt high-technology to ensure the U.S. can deal with increasingly capable peer competitors.

The era of United States technological dominance has ended. Indeed, in many areas, including military technology, this gap has narrowed to parity or near-parity, and potential adversaries have all-but erased what was once the U.S. military’s trump card—superior technology. Nations such as Russia and China, as well as countries to which these nations proliferate weapons, are deploying advanced weapons that demonstrate many of the same technological strengths that have traditionally provided the high-tech basis for U.S. advantage.

One of the most promising emerging military technologies is directed-energy weapons. The U.S. military already uses many directed-energy systems such as laser range finders and targeting systems are deployed on tanks, helicopters, tactical fighters and sniper rifles. These laser systems provide both swifter engagements and greatly enhanced precision by shortening of the sensor-to-shooter cycle.

Now, directed-energy weapons are poised to shorten––often dramatically––the shooter-to-target cycle. Directed-energy weapons provide a means for instantaneous target engagement, with extremely high accuracy and at long ranges.

Want more? You can read the rest of the piece here