TAMPA — Standing in front of an audience of several thousand scientists, data wonks, geospatial intelligence analysts and other big thinkers, Army Gen. Tony Thomas drew some laughs when he talked about the time he felt the urge to toss Google CEO Eric Schmidt out of a car.
It was about two years ago, Thomas told the audience this week at the GEOINT 18 Symposium, held at the Tampa Convention Center. He had just assumed command of U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base and Schmidt was in town for a meeting of the Defense Innovation Board.
Thomas said Schmidt issued SOCom a report card saying the command is failing to utilize deep learning to help solve the problems it faces.
"It was a bold move on his part," Thomas said. "He said, 'You are terrible at deep learning.' He said, 'You live in a world of wicked problems. I bet if I spent a moment, a bit of time under your tent, I could solve every one of your wicked problems … using advanced algorithms and mathematics.'
"He was totally certain he was right, and I was totally certain I was about to bounce him out of the car on Bayshore Avenue."
Schmidt stayed in the car. But for Thomas, it was a learning moment.
As the man responsible for the nation's force of some 80,000 commandos, about 10 percent of whom are deployed across some 90 countries at any given time, Thomas is a voracious consumer of intelligence. But commandos are even more prolific at producing intelligence.
During the year that ended in September, Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Green Berets, Delta Force, Marine Raiders and Air Force commandos collected more than 127 terabytes of information from captured enemy material alone. By comparison, the raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2011 involved just 2.7 terabytes of information.
Thomas told the audience at GEOINT 18 that he wants to learn how industry processes so much data so he can, too. It's a challenge that increased in January, he said, when SOCom was given responsibility for countering weapons of mass destruction.
Hosted by the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, a non-profit educational organization, the annual GEOINT Symposium is the nation's largest gathering of people working in geospatial intelligence — intelligence that involves mapping and imagery.
One of the "wicked problems" commandos are facing now is in Syria, which Thomas called the "most aggressive electronic warfare environment on the planet from our adversaries. They are testing us every day, knocking our communications down, disabling our EC-130s, etc."
The EC-130 Compass Call is an electronic warfare countermeasure aircraft.
To get a look at what the future might hold, Thomas visited the New York Police Department's Fusion Cell two weeks ago, he said. From there, police can monitor the entire city, observe every license plate entering and leaving, and even determine where shots are being fired.
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Even more impressive, the city's 36,000 officers rely on special phones that serve as data interfaces — a tool SOCom has yet to provide its forces and one that makes Thomas "a little envious."
But as Google's Schmidt did with him, Thomas offered NYPD a report card.
While they do a number of things very well, they, too, face the problem of processing all the data they gather — a challenge Thomas asked industry, academia and individual innovators to solve.
For example, he said, police, like troops, fail to fully leverage the potential of the helmet and body cameras as well as the sensors they use for real-time situational awareness. These devices can also help them safe.
There is a flip side of gathering all this data, Thomas said.
After four U.S. soldiers were killed in Niger, their helmet camera video surfaced showing the troops in their final horrific moments.
"We suffered a very dire lesson in the downside of helmet cams recently," Thomas said. "Clearly we are working to rectify that. It should not be used as leverage against us."
Contact Howard Altman at email@example.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman