Fiction Intelligence with Peter W Singer

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This is a podcast episode titled, Fiction Intelligence with Peter W Singer. The summary for this episode is: <p>In this episode of the Janes podcast Terry Pattar and prolific author Peter W Singer discuss how stories can carry across real-world lessons in intelligence and how fictional scenarios can help in exploring future operating environments.</p>
Identifying key future trends
02:39 MIN
The benefits of useful fiction
01:59 MIN
How fiction influences government investigations
03:07 MIN

Terry Pattar: Hello, and welcome to this episode of the Janes Podcast. I'm Terry Pattar, I lead the Janes intelligence unit and on this episode, I am joined by a special guest, Peter W. Singer who has agreed to come on and talk to us about his work in particular, in thinking about the future and how intelligence is developing. I can't do justice fully to Peter in a quick description, but just for the highlights, Peter is a prolific author has written several books which are both non- fiction and fiction. So in terms of non- fiction, LikeWar, I think is the most recent one, Peter that you've written in terms of looking at social media and how that's playing out in relation to conflict. And intriguingly, I think most intriguingly, perhaps since we will touch on some of these books as well as we go through the podcast, some of the fiction books you've read in terms of Ghost Fleet, which people may have heard of and more recently Burn- In, which just came out a little while ago, focused on the future, but very much tied into current trends. And we'll unpack that a little bit in terms of how you go about writing those books with August Cole, which I think is a fascinating thing you're involved in. But Peter, thanks for joining us on the podcast. It'd be great to get an idea from you of some of your current work that's goes beyond what I've just mentioned, and some of the background, and maybe a little bit of how you got to where you are at the moment in terms of what you're working on.

Peter W. Singer: First off, thanks for having me, really appreciate the kind intro too. It's funny, my son who's in elementary school asked me, " What job do you do, exactly daddy?" And then I listed out all the different affiliations, so I work at New America, which is a think tank. I also teach at Arizona State, I teach cybersecurity policy. And then I, as you mentioned, write books, and then do consulting for both government and for the private sector. And then finally, August Cole and I have launched a project called Useful Fiction that works with clients in helping them utilize the power of forecasting a narrative. And so in a basis, I have like five different jobs, five different hats to wear. Maybe the way of thinking about it, my wife, this is also strange to say this post COVID, but she despises and I love buffets. When we crosstalk I like to get a little bit of each type of food and she's like, " That's disgusting and horrible." Now I realize the danger of buffets, but the point is like, I think my professional side shows that too, that I like to play in different realms. I like teaching, I like working with business, I like working with government. And then the fiction side is bringing that insight and research over, but using the creative side. So hopefully that doesn't scare people too much, but it's what keeps me interested.

Terry Pattar: Oh, I think it's fascinating. And I think especially, and this is maybe going a little off topic, but especially in the context of a fair number of the things I've read and listened to over the past couple of years. I think about a book like Range by David Epstein, I don't know if you've read it, but where he talks about the value of being involved in so many different fields that they all inform each other and you end up developing skills and expertise by not always just specializing deeply on one area, but actually getting across multiple areas. I think it's great how you bring all those different aspects together in some of your work. And yeah, will great to talk a bit about some of that. We were in touch obviously before this and talking about some of the different projects you're involved in. And for me what's fascinating about all your work is it seems, from my perception anyway, it always relates to thinking about the future and to helping people understand the future, which is the core of what intelligence is about. Maybe wanted to get an understanding from you of how you think things are developing and also how you go about helping people analyze that. So whether it's through your consulting or any of those different aspects you touched on. When you're thinking about the future, how do you go about doing it, I guess is the key question for me?

Peter W. Singer: The thread that's linked up all of my work, again, going back to my first book was on the rise of private military contractors to then a project on robotics, and then cybersecurity, to more recently, this looks at social media or AI has been on a... I think one part of it is trying to identify key trends, so this goes back to that difference between futures work and forecasting, where you're trying to identify the forces that will shape the future as opposed to this specific minute future. But rather these are the key trends, these are the key forces that are going to shape the future and that related to them, we have to better understand them. And then what has, my own approach to it as well has been often looking at forces or trends that I often feel are staring us in the face, but for whatever reason, bureaucratic inertia, organizational culture or whatever it is that we refuse to face. And so that's been the thread that's lashed up my work, in particular where we've brought in the fiction side of this is the conscious realization that the traditional ways of trying to communicate new or complex ideas, or newer complex technologies or forces often aren't working. And we all know that. We write that strategy paper, you build that board brief. You put those bullet points in order, you put all that work into it and it just doesn't strike with the effect that you hope for. It doesn't grab either the leadership's attention, or public attention, or leads to action. And so what we found with our experience with Ghost Fleet is, and this is something that again, all this is backed by the research side, is that narrative can be a very powerful tool for this. With Ghost Fleet, I had done lots of work and you were talking about it, books on military, reading lists and the like, but that project turned out to be the most influential of my career. It was a novel crossed with non- fiction research. That was the book that got us, and the same for August Cole, my partner on it. August had been a Wall Street Journal defense reporter, so he'd had front page stories and the like too, and yet that was the book that got us invited to the White House situation room three different times, testifying to Congress, multiple parliaments. Australia, Nobel Peace Institute, over 100 different briefings to military units and locations that ranged from JSOC, the team that got Bin Laden to the deck of the HMS Queen Elizabeth. And this was not just talk about the novel, but to talk about the real world insights, the real world lessons from it. So for Ghost Fleet, it envisioned the future of war and envisioned certain key cyber security vulnerability, supply chain issues, great power conflict, all these key trends that now in 2021 are self- evident, but when we started that project back in 2013, we were getting a lot of resistance to it. But it was that packaging within narrative that gave it that greater power. We've experienced the same thing most recently with Burn- In. Burn- In, the non- fiction side of it is a focus on what we believe to be the most important technology trend out there that is the least understood. And that's artificial intelligence and automation across society. Not just in war, but how it hits economics, politics, you name it. And it's not just us that thinks that, now we get to the data side. 91% of leaders say AI is the most important game- changing technology that's out there. 17% say, " I get it, I understand how it works. I understand how it's going to be used. I understand it's dilemmas." That is a massive delta. And so we felt the best way to go after that is through a story. So Burn- In is techno thriller, it's a story, but baked into it are over 300 explanations, predictions of everything from, okay, how does AI actually work? What are the plans to use face recognition by the police, by Amazon? What are the dilemmas that are going to play out in warfare, in business for example, algorithmic bias. And so you read the story, but you walk away from it with that kind of understanding. It's sort of, I referenced earlier that I was a parent, it's akin to what I did to my kids this morning. I snuck fruit and veggies into their morning smoothie, except in this case, it's for policymakers who aren't going to read that five- page report on algorithmic bias or that white paper on here's how AI is going to affect our industry, but they will read, and digest, and enjoy that same information, but packaged through a story. And that's sort of to your question of how they've come together, is we do the hardcore research. We bring in the reports, we interview folks, but we share it through a non- traditional means that the data shows hits with greater effect. And that's allowed us to often put our finger on trends or projections that play out in a way that the traditional approaches don't. One of the funny/ scary things that's happened in the last couple of months is, in Burn- In, for example again, it was a novel. It had a scene of a conspiracy theory fueled riot in the middle of Washington, D. C. on the national mall. It had-

Terry Pattar: Yeah, I was going to mention that actually, because I'll admit, I haven't yet finished reading Burn- In, but I loved Ghost Fleet by the way.

Peter W. Singer: Thank you.

Terry Pattar: But as I was reading that at the start of Burn- In, honestly, I was... I read it just recently and I was visualizing in my mind those riots, and I was thinking, wow, this is incredibly prescient.

Peter W. Singer: So I'm just going to give you a couple of scenes without... There's the difference of-

Terry Pattar: I don't want to give anything away either.

Peter W. Singer: No, but that's the bottom line up front, you want to draw people in. There's a scene of a conspiracy theory fueled riot on the national mall in D. C. There's another scene where there was a high militarized wall thrown up around the white house, which turned out to be exactly the location where they put it. And then there's another scene where a water system is hacked, change the chemical levels, which you may have seen just happening in the United States. So people are like... There's sort of this double reaction of one, how is it that you keep predicting this stuff? And we're like, " It's because we do the research." And then there's the other part, which is, " Hey guys, can you just write a romantic comedy next?" We don't like this stuff coming true, but hopefully, that's the difference between science fiction. You're not dreaming it up, you're doing the research. And I would say, the parallel though with intelligence is that sometimes the greatest value of it is when what you project doesn't come true. That is when you provide an insight, a warning that gives people the off ramp. Like you mentioned, Ghost Fleet, there are certain things in Ghost Fleet that will not come true because of Ghost Fleet. The supply chain vulnerability issues that got attention among leadership that got closed off. We did one of the more interesting things that's happened is a number of organizations, both government, U. S. Air Force, U. S. Navy, Congress, but also private sector have reached out to us to do these kinds of packages of useful fiction on their own topics as a way of helping to explain or build an audience for something that they wanted to draw attention to. As an example of that, what hopefully won't happen projection, we did a package for the U. S. Congress where the Congress called the Cyber Solarium Commission in the U. S. It's in charge of building the new U. S. cyber security strategy. And they asked us to do the executive summary of their 180 page report. The report has chock full of good ideas. Their worry though was, how do we draw readers in? How do we get people actually to read our 180- page report and act on it? And so rather than a traditional executive summary, we built this narrative informed by their reports and not dreamy up a scenario of, if you don't listen to this report, this is what might happen, which is a way of putting the audience in that, hey, I better not just read the rest of the report, I better act on it.

Terry Pattar: Wow. I hadn't fully realized actually some of the impact that your work has had, so it's amazing to get that description from you. I think what I really like there is the way you've described the more visceral way that people take in that information when it's presented to them in a narrative as you're producing. Just as a quick aside for anyone who hasn't read the books yet, I think of them as novels with footnotes in the sense that you've created these fictional stories, but which are very much based on, as you said, identifying current trends, but things which really tie into stuff, which actually is realistic, which could happen. And as you pointed out with those examples, in some cases has happened. And so, yeah, it's something that I think people who are involved in any kind of work around national security, et cetera, defense as you said, they might not take in the same information from reading a fairly dry briefing paper, but they might read this in their spare time even, and they'll maybe relate it back to what they do read in their day job. And I think that's the real value of it, yeah, it's incredible. From your perspective, how do you and August start out on the process? Do you identify key trends and think, right, we need to create a narrative around this to help people understand it? Or does it happen I guess more in sense that you come up with an idea for a story, and then you hunt out the technologies, and the trends? Actually, and it's not just technology you focus on, but it's also the geopolitical and economic trends that you also bring out in those stories, but yeah, how does it work? What comes first for you guys?

Peter W. Singer: You hit so much in that and I'm going to work-

Terry Pattar: Sure, go for it.

Peter W. Singer: ...through the comments. One was on the value of this approach. The way to think about it is narrative has three attributes in a way that traditional conveyance, a PowerPoint or whatever doesn't. The first is, our human brains are literally wired to take in story in a more effective manner, to put it... And it's because of evolution. We were using story to communicate ideas when we were back gathered around fires. PowerPoint, it's exactly 30 years old, but the data behind it is that, simply put, when you read a conventional memorandum, a PowerPoint, two parts of your brain light up. When you read a narrative, four parts of your brain light up, so it is a more effective means of conveying newer complex information. You brain is more likely to understand it and more likely to stick. The second value of narrative is emotion. It brings in emotion, and as everyone from a politician to a used car salesman knows, emotion is what drives the sale, what leads to action. And that's not just me, Nobel Prize winning economist, Daniel Kahneman described how it's not facts that persuade and numbers persuade, it's story. This an economist saying this. The third value is connection and distribution. We as humans connect over story, and that means we are not only more likely to read a story. We're more likely to share it with someone else. So the ask that you're making of someone, not just the public, but a CEO, a four- star admiral, I'm using real examples here. There's a difference between saying to them, " I want you to read this briefing note. Can you read this memo?" To, " Hey, here's a short story that you might enjoy." And in turn, they are more likely to share it with someone else, to share it with a peer. So the power of narrative is that your audience then starts to do the work for you. And we experienced this again. I talked about like Ghost Fleet, it was one of our early advocates was the chief of Naval Operations, the most senior leader in the U. S. Navy, his staff in lieu of a traditional briefing note before a long flight, ironically enough to China said, " Hey, sir, you might enjoy this book." And he's like, inaudible, it much prefer this. And then he told how he got off the plane and he wanted to talk to other people about the story, and so he's the one that started sharing it with peers and he became our advocate. That's the same. And now this gets to your question about how you do it, the difference between what we call useful fiction and science fiction is, you have to follow the rules of the real. You have to follow all the rules of non- fiction, of how you would do intelligence analysis and collection. We also call it the no vaporware rule. Every single technology, every single place, every single for example, hack has to already exist or be possible. So you can't write your way out of the story by dreaming up some kind of... It has to be, no, this is something that played out, because as you said, it has to come with footnotes. Bur- In has 27 pages of research footnotes, and that's... So every time there is something that appears, a delivery drone is two characters are talking, footnote to show hey, that's actually the Amazon's patent for it. Or this kind of cyber attack happened, here is how either it already happened in Israel or how it was displayed at a DEF CON Convention. And so that makes it a lot more challenging, certainly from the creative side. Now, how do we do it? It really depends on the starting point. When it's August and I on our own like I mentioned, we choose the topic, we choose the approaches. We wanted to tell a story around the idea of AI and how it might play out in our world over the next 10, 15 years. We also were pushing back against some of the misunderstanding of it and robotics, and in particular, if we go to the security side, the overwhelming focus on killer robots, as opposed to the industrial revolution that robotics is. And related at a certain point, a character, a story emerges, so we have a central character in it that August put it really well as more and more she began to look back at us from the pages. And they build and you layer out. That's different though when it's we're working with an organization. In other situations, the organization has a strategy paper, so whether it's the U. S. Congress. We've got a 180- page report that 40 people have worked on help us turn it into something that will grab people's imagination. We're doing another project with a military that has a 40- page, essentially it's their vision for change over the next 15 years, classic strategy white paper, and they've approached us and said, " We need a useful fiction package to accompany it to allow both our senior leadership and our members, our junior officers to be able to visualize all these things that we're talking about." It for example, had three themes, three chapters in that report, we built a short story that weaving through the story are these three themes. So it's kind of a push- pull. Is it something that you're starting out on your own? Or are you working with someone else to help them visualize it? We've also done another aspect that might be of interest to people on the podcast, where in certain situations we've not done it ourselves, we've mentored members of the organization for them to do it. For example, we had a project with the U. S. Air Force's futures team where they say, " Look, we don't want you to write our future stuff." We help build basically an executive ed training course where we took them through the hows of both forecasting and communication skills. And what was so cool about it is, and it was these Air Force officers not just learning from us, but from experts in forecasting, futures and communications. So we brought in everything from science fiction writers to a Wall Street billionaire, how he makes investment in the future. The former head of U.S. special operations, how they thought about the future. The head of Australian Military Training, how they're training their officers for the future. But then on the communication side, on the world- building side, we brought in the co- writers of HBO Game of Thrones-

Terry Pattar: Interesting.

Peter W. Singer: ...the woman behind the movies, Crazy Rich Asians, Hunger Games, and the team behind the TV series, The Walking Dead. They didn't talk about like what the future is, it wasn't like, " Oh, it's going to be all zombies." They talked about, here's how you build something that is compelling. Here's how you draw your target audience into a world. Here's how you strike their emotion. And so you gave the students, I feel odd saying that because they're mid- career people, but you gave the students an ability, a skillset on, okay, here's how I think about forecasting, but here's also how I think about drawing people into the world that I want to communicate to them.

Terry Pattar: Yeah, that's really fascinating because we are at Janes, we deliver a lot of intelligence training and a big part of that is thinking about the future. And it's based around a lot of techniques, which will be familiar to... you know that yourself and plenty of people in our audience and plenty of people working in defense and military, and it's the things like scenario analysis or war gaming. But a lot of that relies on, I think people having the imagination, for scenario analysis, you've got to be able to build convincing, plausible, compelling scenarios. So there is that creative aspect to it. In that training, is it to help them continue using those kinds of techniques they're familiar with? Or are you hoping that actually they'll broaden out from that and do something even bigger or more imaginative with the way of thinking about the future?

Peter W. Singer: It really depends on the goal of that package or that organization. In some situations, it may be, " Help us visualize the future. We want to understand these trends and what they mean." In other situations, it may be, we are building a case for X, how do we help people visualize, understand X, either why we should do it, or the inverse of that. If we don't do X, we're going to be in a bad situation. That's where there is a slight difference between an intelligence analysis you should not advocate. There's a long professional debate around that, but there is that, but there is also, you can utilize Useful Fiction narrative for the other part of it, which is that persuasion side. And so it really depends on the organization and what their intent and goal is on how they want to deploy this toolkit. But part of what we're after is really a question of, what are the stories that your organization feels it either needs to tell or it's not doing a good job of telling? And I don't mean the scenarios. What are the stories of everything from... And part of that is recognizing, now we get to the rules of this, there's different rules of how to do it well. One is target audience. So when I say, " What are the stories your organization is not telling well?" Some people might say it's... they might start referring to an external audience. Maybe it's a public, maybe it's members of a parliament. We need to persuade them or explain to them of acts this trend or the need for this strategy. Other people might say senior leadership, so it's inside the organization. Senior leadership doesn't understand this trend, or it doesn't understand the value of this project we're proposing. Other times it might be the inverse, it might be senior leadership saying, " It's our membership. It's our junior officers don't understand who we are, what we need to do." So that question of what are the stories that we need to tell more effectively? Then another part of it is as you describe scenarios, there's I think a flaw of intelligence definitely on corporate and military war gaming is fleshed out characters. A flaw in the real world side and the fictionalized side is really flat characters, two dimensional. And by that it's the bad guy, the adversary that does what is expected and pulls at their mustache sneeringly. And that is not an interesting story to read, and that is a flawed if you're trying to imagine the future. You want a adversary that is looking at your vulnerabilities, trying to exploit them, not doing exactly what you expect and what you want to have happen. Oh, by the way, every bad guy in fiction and the real world believes they're the hero of the story. The members of ISIS, the most vile, horrible organizations in all of history, they thought they were the heroes of the story. And so you need to have that built in same thing. When you're looking at your own organization, it doesn't work to perfection. And so, kind of to bring in the non- fiction side, every good story should have a little bit of Clouseau, Etsy and Friction thrown in, right?

Terry Pattar: Right.

Peter W. Singer: A little bit of dirt under the fingernail of the characters. We break it down there's seven rules of how you do this and these are just examples of rules that I think help with both the non- fiction and the fiction side.

Terry Pattar: That's fascinating. Would it be giving too much away or are you able to talk us through those seven rules?

Peter W. Singer: We don't have time to go through them.

Terry Pattar: Let's save that for another one.

Peter W. Singer: Now we get to like, don't give way the milk for free. But I will say, one of the things that's been interesting is that when people have gone through this kind of training, at the start of it, and they're like, " What are you talking about? I'm not creative." We had like a full board Colonel in the Air Force, little after mid- career, looking at a strange, and then at the end of it, he... Sorry, I should be clear, the story that he wanted to tell was the challenges of acquisition related to AI. Now that seems like our striver hours of like, how do you make that interesting? And he was making the case for acquisition reform as to how the Air Force should buy AI in the future. And yet, by the end of it, he had built a incredibly compelling narrative that drew people into a scenario, but the scenario was just an opening to making for the why and how of acquisition reform and to drop you into it. The opening scene of his memo was an acquisition officer at a funeral reflecting on the decisions that he had made two or three years earlier that led to this point. That's two sentences. I just drew you into visually, you may have felt a little bit of an emotional spark and then he moved into, okay, this is the how and the why of these changes in bureaucratic approach. And so I hope, and he was like, " I never imagined that at the end of this is what I could do." But that to me is the wonder, the joy of this as you get the creation, but you also open up an alternative route for influencing a target audience, which for him was fellow acquisition officers, fellow acquisition officers. We need to think differently about how we're going after AI. He made the case, but he made the case by utilizing narrative, but it wasn't dreamy, it was a realistic scenario.

Terry Pattar: I've got so many questions bubbling up in my mind, but there's one that you just touched on there, which I wanted to maybe broaden out from. You described somebody who was perhaps initially resistant to taking on some of the ideas you were pushing in terms of, using narrative to make a point. Is that something you come across a lot in terms of your audience within defense and military, where a lot of people... Because I hear it definitely from people we work with in those types of organizations where they'll say to me, " Oh, I never read fiction, or even read non- fiction." And so, is that something that has happened a lot in terms of the work that you've been involved?

Peter W. Singer: I think there's a couple of things. One, the fact that myself and August have our bonafide days on the non- fiction side allows us to kind of dodge that a little bit. So we're not coming in is dreamy Sci- Fi writers, we're coming in as people that... People have worked with us and/ or seen our non- fiction side. Second, there is a misnomer and that is the difference between generic fiction overall or science fiction and what we're doing, the useful fiction side. So no, it's not dreamed up, it's not made up, we're taking your strategy paper, we're taking this real cyber attack and explaining it in a manner that communicates it so that it's non specialist will understand. So it's that grounded side, so if your critique, your concern is that it's too fictional, it's like, actually, no, we're using the starting point of where you're at. There's also a bit of a sometimes a misnomer of the intent of it where they'll say, " This didn't happen." And you're like, " That's not..." If the intent was to explain how AI works, we're not saying that this made up fictional character, this is exactly what happened. Did you walk away from reading the story, understanding algorithmic bias? Yes or no? Yes. Okay. We accomplished our mission set. It wasn't that on February 25th, 2023, this exactly happened. That was not our goal. The goal was for you to understand, how does AI work or did you walk away from it, understanding that supply chain hacks, a different kind of possibility than people clicking a link? Yes or no? Not this specific hack. Oh, by the way, often the critique of this won't happen is, yeah, because we influenced... That didn't happen because someone fixed what we pointed out.

Terry Pattar: What we highlighted.

Peter W. Singer: So Ghost Fleet sparked three different U. S. government investigations to close off what happened, or there's also, separate from the investigation side, there's a$ 3. 6 billion U. S. Navy ship program literally called Ghost Fleet. So people would be like, but this thing." You're like, " Yeah, there's a reason." But then the final part of it or people like, " Oh, I don't do fiction." My response to it would be, do you write budgets for the future? Do crosstalk for the future? Do you do acquisitions for the future? You're engaging and you're a futurist. We're all futurists, whether we do training, whether we do acquisitions, whether we do budgeting, strategy for an organization where making decisions about the future assumptions about the future. And, oh, by the way, some of the most seemingly non- fiction, avoid it, only look at the engineering are utterly fictional. So I love for example, we've got certain on the military side, weapons, acquisitions programs that they're baked into them as the assumption, we're going to be buying this new version of this jet fighter to the year 2060. And you're like, one, I feel really bad for whatever young officers given the new jet fighter in 2060 that was designed in 1997, but who are we battling against in your 2060 assumption? Is it the Latin American empire or alpha Centauri or same on the geopolitical or economic futures. Just this morning, someone was pontificating about great power rivalry and saying, " Look, yes, China is surging ahead and its economy, but by the year 2060 the..." Sorry, they said, " by the year 2080, the United States economy will be bigger again." That's fiction. And that's where there's another rule of useful fiction that actually is drawn from one of our inspirations, which is Arthur C. Clark. Arthur C. Clark was a amazing scientist. He launches us into the space age, he comes up with the concept of the artificial satellite. But he was even a greater science fiction writer, and he talked about how, once you move more than a generation ahead, you're really moving from the realm of science into magic because it just starts to... It's hard to understand. People live in pre nuclear age talking, how... That sort of... One of the rules of useful fiction is, all real world, no vaporware, but also we stay within timelines that are realistic, where you can project the trend as opposed to, once you move more than a generation out, you're really dancing in the realm of magic, whether it's technologic magic or geopolitical or economic magic.

Terry Pattar: That's really interesting. You mentioned that thinking about assumptions and how people make those and maybe use this process as well to test those assumptions. But how do you and August maybe go about breaking free from just straight line trend analysis? So just looking at the trends and assuming they're going to continue. And tied to that, how do you maybe try to foresee big disruptions? People still like to refer to black swan events, et cetera, but is there any way that you build into your process trying to think about where it could be something that will come along that no one's anticipating right now?

Peter W. Singer: Yeah. We're certainly more drawn towards the white... Oh, sorry, the rhino. I'm forgetting what color we're supposed to... the gray rhino. So there's black swan versus gray rhino. The black swan, people in Australia are always like, " I never get..." But it's the big ugly trend staring you in the face that no one wants to come to grips with. That's what we're more drawn to. But I would say, how do you avoid this? It's actually, again, the same kind of methodologies that you would use in good generic non- fiction research to intelligence analysis is multiple sources, multiple methodologies. So that you are trying to come at it from multiple different angles or to continue our animal parallel, you want multiple hands touching that elephant to truly get the sense of it. So we will pull from everything from tech reports, cyber security, vulnerability reports, or latest lab results. We will pull from, whether it's Janes political analysis to a Chinese military journal. That's your textual side. We will pull from quantitative side. Burn- In is a book about among other things, the effect that AI and automation will have on our security, businesses and society. One of the research aspects we did is built a dataset that pulled in every single job projection report we could find. So everything from McKinsey says, 45% of jobs will be automated over the next 20 years. Oxford University looked at several 102 occupational specialties, they said 47%. What is it? PricewaterhouseCoopers says 38%, OECD said 9%. And then you break it down by overall global, to professional, to region, UK, U. S. you name it. It's an Excel spreadsheet that actually has over 3, 000 data points in it. So by doing that, you get the kind of wisdom of the crowd. I'm less concerned about McKinsey arguing with Oxford whether it's 45% or 47%. But when I lay those out on a spread of what the different experts are saying, I get to see what's playing, so it might be a quantitative side. The final thing lastly, then going back to you asked about fiction and non- fiction, people, you got to talk to people, and diverse people. Different occupational specialties, different backgrounds, different classes, you name it. And those conversations, sometimes it might be searching for ideas. Sometimes it might be searching for things that they know are important, but feel are hard to communicate. How did we get the water systems breach vulnerability prediction when most people weren't paying attention to it? It was two things, one... sorry, three things. One, interviews with water systems engineers of basically frame it as when you're having beers with other people in your field, what do you talk about is like, "Oh, I can't believe we did X. I can't believe this hasn't happened yet." What is something that people don't know that they ought to know? That was an example, and so that's how you get at it. Similarly, you can have that conversation, military people, whatever. The second is you, in that situation, you look for things that have happened accidentally that might be done deliberately because that is actually what inspires real- world hackers. So there've been certain situations where chemical settings, the technical term would be software glitch that happened accidentally and hackers look at that and say, " Ooh, I could cause that glitch." I'm making a joke, it's not really the technical term. And then the third is the vulnerability reports. So you talk to people, and it might be on the early, the idea origination side, but then the other thing that you do, again, whether it's fiction or non- fiction is you stress test it. You run it past people for everything from the overall theme to the little micro details that if you get them wrong, someone in that field won't buy the overall story. So in Ghost Fleet, for example, there's a scene in it that... It's what a dog fight might look like with fifth generation fighter jets. That's never happened in reality, so how do you depict that? We interviewed U. S. Air Force and U. S. Navy pilots and people who've done adversary work and basically we're like, " Okay, if this was the situation, what move would you pull?" And so while most readers just go, " Oh, that's an exciting thing," an F- 15 pilot reads at it and he is like, " Yeah, that's real. That's the move I'd pull." Because the source was an F- 15 pilot. And that's that again, getting that. It's both the overall theme, you might have that kind of read or you might say, " I got to get this terminology right, because if I don't, they're not going to buy the larger."

Terry Pattar: That's fascinating. That's really interesting, that process that you work through to ensure that it is still realistic and that it isn't something that people are going to pick apart and say, " Hang on, this doesn't make sense." Or that it is tied to all of that.

Peter W. Singer: And that's one of the lessons that again carries across between this work. And I would say, again, we teach for more broad is identifying your target audience is important for both what you craft. Again, whether it's a memo or a useful fiction package. Too many people don't build with their target audience in mind. Understand your target audience's knowledge, their emotional triggers, et cetera. But then you also, once you've created it, identify test audience representatives of that target, trusted people to read it and vet it, you red team it. You red team your written product, and that means that the final form will be more realistic, more valuable, we'll strike with the effect that you want.

Terry Pattar: Got it. Yeah, no, that sounds like a really... I was going to say useful, hence the name, but I imagine it's useful across multiple contexts. And I guess if people want to find out more that you and August have a website, useful- fiction. com?

Peter W. Singer: Yes.

Terry Pattar: Is that correct? Yeah. So definitely worth taking a look at that. We talked a little bit about... Obviously, we've talked quite a bit on good and useful fiction. I also wanted to ask you about bad fiction and in the sense of disinformation. And I know that's something that you've been involved in recently, a new initiative to try and educate people, to try and help them defend better against or defend their perceptions, I suppose, better against disinformation. It'd be great to get your thoughts on that a little bit more about how do we, as people cope in a world that is now increasingly seeing us exposed to disinformation?

Peter W. Singer: Wow.

Terry Pattar: Or maybe you can talk a little bit about that initiative crosstalk-

Peter W. Singer: No, absolutely. I'm excited to talk about it because it's just so crucial. This all comes out of a non- fiction book project called LikeWar that I did with Emerson Brooking. And we started that back in, what was it? Like 2012. And we were looking at how the then relatively new technology of social media was... while it was being framed as a great positive and connection point, that it was also being used in conflict zones and being used as increasingly as a weapon. Now, that seems quite obvious now, but go back in time, there's a lot of pushback against it. That's the origin of the work on this larger problem of both deliberate disinformation, but also misinformation, conspiracy theory, you name it. And of course, it is struck with incredible effect across pretty much any issue area that you care about. Whether it is national security, the health of your democracy, public health. The pandemic has inarguably killed more people, tens of thousands more people because of what public health professionals call inaudible infodemic, the swirl of misinformation and disinformation around it. And that's not just Peter Singer saying that, that's what public health professionals have said.

Terry Pattar: I think we've seen that in lots of countries.

Peter W. Singer: Absolutely.

Terry Pattar: It's not confined to one place.

Peter W. Singer: And again, and this is a problem set that just as you... hits every country. It's certainly lashed up within on the disinformation side. Russian information warfare, but oh, by the way, the practitioners are not just Russia, it's at every level. We've seen over 35 different nations elections targeted by this phenomena. But it also plays out at the individual level. Many of us probably experienced the same of our kids being targeted by this kind of information. It certainly has corporate resonance and it's been interesting to see corporations wake up to the fact that the cost of a traditional cybersecurity breach may actually be less than misinformation or disinformation about your company going viral. And so corporations are increasingly being targeted by these campaigns. So big issue, hugely important, going to be even more so in the future. You asked about, how do we approach the future and think through it? There's there's value in utilizing wisdom of the crowds cross with experts exercises. So a couple of months back, I was part of a war game that brought together, but the participants were the top strategists and futurists for a variety of different organizations, Fortune 500 corporations, the CIA, universities. Basically, the person at each of these organizations is in charge of thinking about the future, so let's bring them together. And what does that collection think? And one of the things that was the key conclusions of the next five years is, whatever the topic, whatever the issue, whatever the crisis. Whether it is economic, political war, natural disaster misinformation was going to make it worse and harder to solve. So this issue cuts across everything. Now, the challenge in what do we do about it is almost all of our focus has been on either changing software code or legal code. Software code, Facebook, YouTube, change your algorithms. Content moderate in a different way. Legal code, government break up Facebook, create this new law around what's allowed online or not, et cetera. Most of those are valuable and I've been part of those debates.

Terry Pattar: But on those though, and this is my personal view is I sometimes think, especially when you hear about those kind of comments or those debates being had in the public sphere, that sometimes a lot of the comments around that are a little naive in terms of changing the code will fix it or changing the law will fix it. Actually, there's limited amount of either of those things will change. Is that right? What's your take on it?

Peter W. Singer: It's not just a little, it's a lot naive. Look, I've been part of, and I'm happy to engage in those debates about all the things that the platform companies need to do differently. My voice is out there and critiquing them a lot, sometimes praising them mostly critiquing. Same thing, there are all sorts of levels where governments need to catch up their strategy, and I'm part of that discourse. But as you put it, the hard reality is one, the advocates of these policy changes, whether it's what Facebook ought to do or what the government are going to do have to realize that first they're not going to get everything that they want because of just the sheer nature of how business and politics work. You're not going to get 100% of your policy goal. Second, it's not going to solve everything. Third, you are ignoring the experience of the nations that do better at this. The Estonias, the Finlands, who have not changed what Facebook did, but certainly weather the storm of mis and disinformation better. And the reason is the fourth, because you are ignoring the human agency of both the attacker and the target. The attacker who, when you change the content moderation policy, or when you change this clause in the law will alter their tactics to work around it, and the target, the human, the consumer of the information itself. And so what our focus has been on, we've started a project at New America, the nonprofit that I work at on this key need of digital literacy or what sometimes also referred to as cyber citizenship. It's about not fact checking, telling people what to read or not, but rather about giving people the skills to navigate effectively online too, as one program calls it, to learn to discern between what is a source that's trying to manipulate you or not. What is the signs of a source that's posing as something that it is not. Basically, giving people the skills to be an effective user of the internet, to be an effective citizen in the 21st century. And the idea of it is that if you give people these better skills, and not only makes them more resilient to... the data shows whatever Russian disinformation campaigns, it also protects them against all the other toxic forces that are out there. It makes them less likely to consume and share coronavirus misinformation, or conspiracy theory related to extremism, you name it. So it's sort of net positive across a number of areas. The challenge of it is, it's despite, and it is the irony. This is a wonderful irony of it, the side irony of it. This area, they did a study, Carnegie did a study. They brought together all the reports they could find those on what to do about mis and disinformation. 81 different policy reports and recommendations from over, I think it was 53 different organizations, universities, think tanks. And they scanned through them and say, " Okay, what's the most frequently recommended item." The most frequently recommended policy action is raised digital literacy, it's most frequently recommended item. What is the least operated on, least funded digital literacy? The thing that we need to do the most is the thing that we're doing the least. So what we've started as a program that's basically one that's trying to coalition build around this, so we're bringing together everything from educators to tech policy, to national security types. And I think part of why it's the least acted on is because it crosses these fields. It's both ed policy, and it's tech, and it's national security. One is build coalitions around it, two go after the missing pieces that are preventing it from going to scale. In the U.S. for example, the challenge for digital literacy, some school systems don't have it, so they need funding for it. Other ones have it, but the tool kits that they utilize are not brought together into a single accessible place. So we're working with the Florida school system to create a portal that a teacher can go to and enter in and say, " I'm looking to teach fourth graders about how to navigate the web safely." That's different than a teacher who's working with 17- year- olds. And so they need to be able to find different tools. So we're working to build that for Florida, but right, we get it for Florida, we got 49 more states to go. So that's where we are at right now.

Terry Pattar: Wow.

Peter W. Singer: And as people listening are interested in these topics, please join our coalition, please reach out, because this is the... It's not going to solve the problem, but it certainly will create greater resilience or different way of thinking about it is it gives us a little bit more of an immunity system against these toxic viral forces.

Terry Pattar: Yeah, that's really interesting. And I think that chimes a lot with some of the conversations we've had on this podcast with people such as Cindy Otis in the past, who has been as pushing out a lot of great content on that, her book as well. But we found it as well in the training that we deliver in Open Source Intelligence that, and I remember 10 years ago when we would talk to people then about how to verify their information and their sources, et cetera, it felt like for most people, it was a no brainer. It was like, " Yeah, okay. We understand how to check our resources, check information, verify it, not a problem. We don't need to spend too much time on that." Whereas now it's a much bigger topic of discussion in a workshop or any training course. People want to know much more about, okay, how do we do exactly what you just mentioned and learn to discern? How do we figure out what is accurate here, and who's behind this source, and what they're trying to do, all of those things, which I think in the past just seemed like they were easier to do. Nowadays, even for intelligence professionals, it's tougher, it's getting harder to just sift out the things that they need to ignore and actually focus on the things that are reliable. So, yeah, it's a huge challenge, but I think it's really interesting that you're taking that head on and trying to tackle that. And especially with those younger age groups, because I think that's really where it has to start

Peter W. Singer: It needs to start there, but just as you were hitting, it also applies to adults, and particularly adults within the intelligence, national security, enterprise. Another one of our related projects is looking at the need for these skillsets within, particularly look at the U. S. military, but I think it applies across to others. As you hit it, it's not just about, being able to work, have proper sourcing and likely laid off. It's also the fact that daily members of our organizations engage online and are targeted online. That is the cyber threat to them is not just, oh, you might click that link and compromise our network. It's that, " Oh, it's everything from you might be pulled into this group, this conspiracy theory to you might give up operational security, to..." I spoke with a former head of U. S. military service or retired four- star and asked him, what was one of the surprises of being in that role of leading the entire service. And the first thing he said was, he said, how much time he spent on social media- related incidents. And he wasn't talking about like Russian disinformation, he was talking about a member of his service, to put it bluntly, doing something stupid online that then leadership had to deal with because it was out in the public. And so this related project that we're doing is how the individual training, not just your organization for information warfare, but the individual training can't just be cybersecurity awareness, don't click that link. It also has to understand the whole other side of social media and here too, we've not caught up our training sets for that. And despite the very real and self- evident risks.

Terry Pattar: Yeah, no, that's fascinating. I realized we're running up against time and I feel like we could talk for hours about all of these topics, but I can't let you go without asking you about the copy of Janes Fighting Ships that's on your bookshelf behind you, because obviously that's one of our key publications. It's still very popular, it still appears on the bridge of ships around the world. But yeah, you've got a copy of there from 1939?

Peter W. Singer: Yes I do, right up there. One of my sort of family heirlooms, the story behind it is my grandfather was a U. S. Navy officer before World War II. And he served on one of the U. S. Navy, the old destroyers that were sent across to the UK as part of Lend- Lease. After that mission, the Royal Navy gave him that copy of Janes fighting ships as thank you, and so there's that part of the story that's great and sort of dear to my heart, and I used to leaf through it in his library. That's part of how I got into this field of being interested in it. But the other, I think lesson for those working in the intelligence community is a classic example of open source intelligence inaudible. Back in the day, these were onboard every warship, they used them for identifying and understanding the ship that they were crossing paths with, but it's 1939. It's the last publication that Janes did before World War II, and I hate to tell you they got some things wrong. So there's wonderful sections in it of linking back to our conversation. Basically Nazi Germany and Imperial Japanese disinformation about their warships. So the Bismarck is like whatever listed as like 25, 000 tons, less than it actually was because, they were violating all the Naval arms treaties, but they're telling everybody, " Oh yeah, yeah, it's this size, this warmth, so it gets that wrong. The other great thing is the focal point is the surface warships, the battleships. And the aircraft carrier and then the submarines, the submarines are like in the very end of the chapter. And of course, when the war breaks out, not only do we learn that the Yamato is actually this monster battleship in size, Janes had that wrong. But everyone had it wrong in terms of like, subs are going to be a key role. Or guess what? The aircraft carrier should have been the highlight sections. So it's a personally important to me, but it's also a great example of how we always been wrestling with these topics.

Terry Pattar: Yeah, that's fascinating. It's an amazing snapshot in time at that key period. Yeah. That's fantastic. Peter, thanks for joining us on the podcast. It's been a really, really interesting conversation, and yeah, I look forward to reading more and hearing more from you and staying in touch. I guess people can find out more in terms of reading your books, Burn- In is the most recent fiction book that you and August to put out and they can also go to a useful- fiction. com to find out more about the work you're doing in that area. And, yeah, and I'm sure they'll be able to find out more about you on various social media platforms too and find out more about your work that way. But yeah, this has been fantastic and I hope we can catch up again in the future to again, talk about how things are panning out perhaps and seeing how some of those trends are developing.

Peter W. Singer: Great. Thank you so much for having me and stay well, everybody.


In this episode of the Janes podcast Terry Pattar and prolific author Peter W Singer discuss how stories can carry across real-world lessons in intelligence and how fictional scenarios can help in exploring future operating environments.

Today's Host

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Harry Kemsley

|President of Government & National Security, Janes

Today's Guests

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Peter W Singer

|Strategist at New America