By Noah Shachtman
Chief Scientists of the Air Force usually spend their time trying to figure out how to build better satellites or make jets go insanely fast. Which makes Dr. Mark Maybury, today’s chief scientist, a bit of an outlier. He’d like to build a set of sensors that peer into people’s souls — and forecast wars before they erupt.
Maybury calls his vision “Social Radar.” And the comparison to traditional sensors is no accident, he tells Danger Room. “The Air Force and the Navy in this and other countries have a history of developing Sonar to see through the water, Radar to see through the air, and IR [infrared] to see through the night. Well, we also want to see into the hearts and the minds of people,” says Maybury, who serves as the top science advisor to the Air Force’s top brass.
But Social Radar won’t be a single sensor to discover your secret yearnings. It’ll be more of a virtual sensor, combining a vast array of technologies and disciplines, all employed to take a society’s pulse and assess its future health. It’s part of a broader Pentagon effort to master the societal and cultural elements of war — and effort that even many in the Defense Department believe is deeply flawed. First step: mine Twitter feeds for indications of upset.
“We’re supposed to provide ISR,” says Maybury, using the military acronym for intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance. “But our constituents [say], ‘Don’t just give me a weather forecast, Air Force, give me an enemy movement forecast.’ What’s that about? That’s human behavior. And so [we need to] understand what motivates individuals, how they behave.”
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