Defence mechanism: early detection of emerging technologies

- Ottawa, Ontario

Some of the most exciting and valuable technology that has emerged over the past decades—think quantum computing—has unprecedented powers. Quantum systems could provide secure and trusted communications across our planet and beyond. But that power is a two-way street. It could also be used to crack traditional encryption methods and put safe communications at risk.

So how can we detect possible threats to national security that these technologies pose and keep a close eye on where they're going?

In the fast-paced world of research and innovation, articles in scientific publications often contain hints about important emerging technologies. However, these hints can be drowned out by the thunder of new discoveries. For example, there's been a lot of buzz about discoveries such as quantum and neuromorphic computing, drones, wearable technology and virtual and augmented reality. But "signals" that indicate the next big thing that could pose risks to national and international security are often more subtle and behind the scenes. The challenge is to detect these "weak signals" and assess their possible impacts on future security, then use that intelligence to reinforce defence.

"One of the key points in shaping our collective future is early identification and assessment of emerging technologies and their potential applications," says Alain Auger, PhD, Lead of the Science and Technology Foresight and Risk Assessment Unit at Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC). "These can be important to defence areas such as surveillance, detection, training and education, health, autonomy, robotics and decision support."

Fortunately, a strong alliance between DRDC, the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and international partners has met this challenge head on. According to Yvan Gauthier, Head of the NRC's AI Accelerator, these experts have just prototyped an ingenious AI solution that simplifies and improves both weak-signal detection and monitoring of emerging technologies. It also introduces new techniques for predicting the impacts of these technologies and detecting opportunities for innovation.

The AI Accelerator, part of the NRC's Digital Technologies Research Centre, helps Government of Canada departments and agencies harness the power of AI to drive digital transformation. It leverages the unique expertise of the NRC's scientists to address the needs of many government departments and agencies.

Identifying danger signals

For the past decade, the NRC and DRDC have used scientometrics, the science of measuring and analyzing scholarly literature, to identify technology trends in different scientific fields. This means physically tracking the volume and growth of weak signals that appear in scholarly journals over several years. "Results have provided very useful information to DRDC's research program," adds Auger. "For instance, a scientometric study on next-generation computing technologies revealed that DNA-based computing was an emerging trend." The concept of DNA computing first appeared in journals almost 2 decades ago, when some scientists suggested using the 4 nucleotide bases of synthetic DNA: adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine (or ACGT) to encode information, rather than using traditional silicon chips.

He points out that rapid advances in the use of synthetic DNA to encode data could provide revolutionary cryptographic solutions. Synthetic DNA is stable and can last thousands of years under good conditions. One cubic inch of DNA can hold up to one exabyte (one billion gigabytes) of data, cutting down on the need for computer server farms and reducing the e-waste they generate.

Scientometric studies take time and require personnel with specialized skills, but they ensure that DRDC provides credible scientific evidence for the information they offer to decision-makers in Canada and around the world. "We don't rely on commercial reports. Rather, we use scientometrics, which relies exclusively on peer-reviewed scientific papers, so that our findings are backed up by critical information and reliable sources," adds Auger.

With support from the NRC's AI Accelerator, this latest-generation AI solution adds a powerful toolbox to help identify and track the progress of those weak signals. For example, large language AI models can be used to extract relevant keywords and word strings from a large body of scientific literature. AI can also be used to generate and track more advanced indicators of emerging technology than methods used in traditional scientometric studies, enabling deeper analysis.

"We built a prototype that we applied to the domain of hypersonics research and, in our recent article published in the Journal of Infometrics, proved it is robust," says the NRC's Ashkan Ebadi, PhD, Lead Data Scientist on the project. "We're now re-validating and testing that prototype on underwater detection technologies."

Taking action against tomorrow's risks

DRDC's Science and Technology Foresight and Risk Assessment program, together with international allies, the NRC and other Canadian partners, is monitoring more than 200 emerging technologies that will be important for efforts to increase the security and effectiveness of defence forces over the coming years.

Gauthier and Auger both agree that anticipating technological change is essential to Canada's security and resilience. "Innovations that will help us address challenges in areas such as climate security, health and education will emerge from our collective ability to identify emerging technologies and turn them into innovative solutions." And these will help decision-makers fortify their defences.

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