Commentary | iPhones and Dinosaurs in an Exponential World

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As airplanes fly lazily over a house on approach to Dulles Airport outside Washington, a father holds out an iPhone. The phone identifies each plane, its origin and destination, for his 7-year-old daughter using an app called Plane Finder. This app was written by a small company called pinkfroot and downloaded for $2.99. Whether or not you think identifying planes in flight is a useless thing for a phone to be able to do, in this story you can find the reason why the United States will soon be a second-rate space power, as well as the answer to reversing this decline.

The fruits of Apollo and Corona created an almost magical system of technical wonders that Americans should be extremely proud of. But military and intelligence satellites today are technical marvels in the way that dinosaurs were biological marvels — an outdated design in a world changing beyond recognition. The extinction of our space wonders is only 15 to 20 years away. America’s space infrastructure is increasingly marginalized — by new foreign weapons and a defunct acquisition system, to be sure, but much more by the Internet revolution and the network effect it is creating in everything we do. The network effect will define the next century — and like ripples in the water preceding a coming tsunami, you ain’t seen nothing yet. In the halls of the Pentagon, Langley, Fort Meade and Bolling, decision-makers will increasingly turn to other mediums unless we execute a complete change in how we use space — a change so great that it is unimaginable to most in the space community today.

We are living in an exponential world. Just look at one statistic from a recent Time magazine article: The computing power you can buy for $1,000 is now outperforming Moore’s Law — a trend that seemed impossible to sustain is actually accelerating. Plotting any number of indicators yields a curve that looks the same: the cost of manufacturing transistors, clock speed of microprocessors, price of dynamic RAM, cost of sequencing DNA, cost of wireless data service, number of Internet hosts, number of nanotechnology patents and many more. In just four years, the average computing power of your laptop will surpass the brain power of a mouse, in 12 it will be able to out-process you, and in 2045, a single laptop is expected to have more computer power than all of humankind. Looked at from a different field — economics — cities flourish as centers of innovation because they are places where people congregate and share ideas. What happens when the almost 7 billion humans on the planet share ideas with one another, like 650 million users of Facebook  (which wasn’t well known until about five years ago, by the way)? This is the effect of the network, and it underlies almost everything that is changing our world.

That change is everywhere. One-hundred years from now there may be only 10 spoken languages. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab, will tell you that books are unlikely to survive the next 20 years. Many think the written word will vanish from the planet. Singularians believe that the coming incomprehensibly fast computers will allow mankind to become immortal, allowing your very makeup to be downloaded to a machine before you die.

Our world is now exponential due to the network effect — and therefore our problems are rapidly outstripping our ability to cope with them using traditional monolithic systems. Whether it is the increasing number of terrorists online while the number of people the U.S. National Security Agency has to counter them is constant, the number of Pashtun signals intelligence intercepts versus the CIA’s Pashtun speakers, the number of cellphone videos posted to YouTube after an explosion versus the time it takes to get a single “accredited” sensor to take a static image, or any one of hundreds of other issues bedeviling our government, the network effect is behind what is commonly referred to as our “asymmetric disadvantage.”

The problem with satellites in the current phase of the Internet Age is that they basically all do only a single thing. Despite that fact, they take five to 10 years to build and are then untouchable on-orbit for another 10 to 15. In the 20 years, then, between a system’s technology freeze date and its end of service, computing power has increased over 15,000 times and vast networks of connected individuals on Earth have invented entirely new ways of doing almost everything. Ask yourself who in five years (or even now) will buy a paper map? Listen to music from a CD? Open a Yellow Pages book? Go to a video rental store? Read a paper newspaper? Watch a TV weather report? A mere five years ago these were all critical components of modern life. This trend is accelerating. Satellites being built today will be operating in a world of content, communication and innovation that we can’t possibly understand.

The key to turning asymmetry to our advantage rather than our detriment is to stop fighting the network effect and to harness it. This is where we go back to the iPhone, the Plane Finder app and the young girl, who, by the way, thinks phones that identify airplanes in the sky and automatically score the nutritional value of items in the grocery store by reading their bar code are a perfectly normal part of everyday life.

But how to harness the network effect in space? Here is one good option (there are surely others).

Seemingly overnight, a bit-player computer company called Apple came to own 90 percent of the music business and make up 50 percent of the entire cellphone industry’s profit, dominating such giants as Sony, Nokia and Motorola. How was this possible? Apple harnessed the network effect.

Technology articles focus on the styling of the next iPhone or iPad, but these are merely devices that have and will continue to come and go. The real secret behind Apple’s success is the iTunes store and the model that it represents. Consider the clearest physical instantiation of the model: the iPhone. The iPhone is merely a software-defined interface where everything (the GPS module, the compass, the accelerometers, the touch screen, the microphone, the camera, etc.) is accessible to any developer, anywhere. Apple developed a few key “anchor” applications to turn it into a phone, an email platform and a Web-surfing tool — enough to launch the device. Then the iTunes store, by making new applications extremely easy to post and buy, created a marketplace that leveraged the power of hundreds of thousands of developers all around the world. There are now over 350,000 apps available for the iPhone. Consider some examples to illustrate breadth and context:

  • StarMap shows you the position of every star, planet and constellation in the sky in real time.
  • Wikihood overlays meta data onto any scene at which you point your phone, allowing you to find restaurants, interesting data and places to visit as you walk or drive through an unfamiliar area.
  • Asphalt 6 turns your iPhone or iPad into a steering wheel in a surprisingly realistic race car game.
  • News Feed provides access to just about every major news outlet worldwide.
  • WebMD provides medical advice and treatment.
  • Netflix streams live movies.
  • Price Check scans any barcode and provides the online prices from Amazon.com and its merchants.

Here is the most important part of this story: Not one of these uses for the iPhone was envisioned by the phone’s creators and not one of these application development costs was paid for by Apple.

This means that the amazing transformation of a device with only a few uses to one that does almost everything never could have come from a requirements process. Furthermore, Apple paid for only a handful of capabilities, and got 350,000 (five orders of magnitude) for free. Apple harnessed the network effect — this is the model that should be applied to space (and to almost everything the Department of Defense does).

Imagine a holistic, distributed and open space system that could leverage the power of the network to adapt rapidly and degrade gracefully. Instead of building single large stovepipe systems to cover all requirements of a specific mission area (i.e. missile warning), such a model would start by asking what types of capabilities need to be on orbit to satisfy the set of military and intelligence mission areas. This set may be, for example, a number of infrared sensors, general purpose radio frequency emitters in bands a/b/c, general purpose receivers in bands d/e/f, a number of telescopes, a number of flash detectors, etc. As much as possible, these would be launched on individual smaller spacecraft, and all would be connected to the network — all platforms and sensors would be individually addressable, essentially a giant iPhone in space.

A mission in this model is essentially an application that addresses a set of the available platforms and capabilities. “Anchor” apps are the traditional mission areas (positioning, navigation and timing; communications; missile warning; etc.) but, just like the iPhone, the space constellation would be opened up to a network of space application designers across the national security community who could pick and choose what space capabilities to include in their applications and how to interface them to data sources and capabilities in other mediums. What an explosion of never-dreamed-of capability this could produce! The space medium, with robotic platforms in predictable locations, is perfectly suited to this model of distributed development. Anchor apps could undergo rigid requirements vetting while simultaneously the network could be set loose, innovating a host of unanticipated capabilities unburdened by the laborious requirements process. Just like adding a camera to an iPad, every new sensor/transmitter/etc. launched would become an additional capability available to the network of app designers. Apps would survive and die through a Darwinian process, like in iTunes. Occasionally, an app would come out of nowhere and create a revolutionary new way to leverage space.

Finally, a space system of this type could be significantly more robust as there would be multiple ways to achieve most mission areas. Today, taking out a few satellites can take out coverage over an entire region of the world. In a space system with apps running off data from multiple smaller sensors, if sensors were attacked the answer’s quality might degrade but there would often still be an answer there. The obvious analogy in the iPhone is the positioning apps in the system. These use GPS when available but can provide degraded solutions using cellular tower triangulation when the GPS signal is lost. If the phone loses cellular signals, it can even provide a much-degraded position simply by looking for and measuring the signal strengths of known Wi-Fi networks — better than nothing.

Apollo and the early National Reconnaissance Office were brave ventures into unknown territory — and created wonders. But the world back then was very different. Just five years ago, major newspaper publishers were saying, “Who’s this guy Craig and why should I care about his list?” Yet in a few short years Craigslist undermined over 50 percent of their revenue streams. The business model for spacecraft as we know them is going away — it is just a matter of time. In an age of calculators and computers, one stops building abacuses, no matter how good one is at the art of abacus-making.

Bran Ferren and Steven M. Huybrechts are chief creative officer and vice president, respectively, of Applied Minds Inc., a Glendale, Calif.-based innovation and technology company. Ferren serves on multiple technical and leadership advisory boards, including those of the National Security Agency, the Director of National Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Huybrechts was the director of space programs and policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2004 to 2009.