At first, you’d probably do nothing. You’ve never had a butler. Outside of movies, you’ve probably never seen a butler. You might even feel a little nervous having this person in the room with you, always there, always ready to help.
The parable of the butler isn’t mine, of course. It is a rough paraphrasing of a story told by Michael Crichton in his 1983 book, Electronic Life. Crichton, more famous today for blockbusters like Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, and WestWorld, was writing about computers, specifically personal computers, back then. Crichton correctly predicted that personal computers would become ubiquitous, and the main goal of Electronic Life was to help people become more comfortable with them.
Today’s Army faces much the same problem. The difference, of course, is that the future presents today’s military with a much broader set of options than it did in 1983. Today, it feels like the Army has been given not one but hundreds of butlers. Quantum computing, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, 3D printing, robotics, nanotech, and many more fields are arguably poised to rapidly and completely change both the nature and character of warfare.
The answer begins with Diffusion of Innovations theory. In his now classic book of the same name, Everett Rogers first defined the theory and the five types of adopters. Innovators, who aggressively seek the “next big thing”, are the first to take up a new product or process. Early adopters are the second group. Not quite as adventurous as the innovators, the early adopters are still primarily interested in acquiring new technology. Early majority and late majority adopters sit on either side of the midpoint of a bell-shaped adoption curve and represent the bulk of all possible adopters. Finally come the laggards, who tend to adopt a new innovation late or not at all.
|(Source: BlackRock White Paper)|
For example, the uptake of smartphones (among many other innovations) followed this pattern. In 2005, when the smartphone was first introduced, only 2% of the population (the Innovators) owned one. Three years later, market penetration had only reached 11%, but, from 2009-2014, the smartphone experienced double digit growth each year such that, by 2016, some 81% of all mobile phones were smartphones. This S curve of growth is another aspect predicted by Diffusion of Innovations theory.
Not all innovations succeed, however. In fact, all industries are littered with companies that failed to achieve critical mass in terms of adoption. While there are many reasons that a venture might fail, management consultant Geoffrey Moore, in his influential book, Crossing the Chasm, states that the most difficult leap is between the early adopters and the early majority. Early adopters tend to be enthusiastic and eager to try the next big thing. The early majority is more pragmatic and is looking for a solution to a problem. This difference in perspective accounts for much of the chasm.
|Source: Agile Adoption Across the Enterprise – Still in the Chasm|
But what about the rest of the Army? The part of the Army that isn’t directly involved in innovation? The part that is not routinely exposed to the next big thing? That hasn’t, to get back to the original point, ever had a butler?
Again, Diffusion Of Innovations theory provides a useful guide. Rogers talks about the five stages of the adoption process: Awareness, persuasion, decision, implementation, and continuation. For the rest of the Army, awareness, and, to a lesser extent, persuasion, should be the current goal.
The only way to engender true understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of an innovation is to provide a hands-on experience. Cost alone should not be a significant impediment to exposing the bulk of the Army to the technologies of the future. Autonomous drones are now available for under $1000, entry level 3D printers can be had for as little as $200-$700, virtual reality headsets are available for $300-1000 and build your own robot kits are available for a couple of hundred bucks.
How and where should the Army implement this effort to familiarize the force with the future? Fortunately, the Army has a good place, a good concept, and some prototypes already in place--at the library. The Army library system contains over 170 libraries worldwide. While many people continue to think of libraries as silent spaces full of dusty books, the modern library has been re-imagined as a place not only for knowledge acquisition but also as tech centers for communities.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the “makerspaces” that are increasingly woven into the fabric of modern libraries. Typically offering access to equipment that, while relatively inexpensive, is outside the budget of most households, or to technology that is best first experienced in a hands-on, peer learning environment, makerspaces allow users to try out new technologies and processes at the user’s own pace and according to the user’s own interest.
Imagine being able to go to the post library and check out an autonomous drone for the weekend? Or to sit down and 3D print relief maps of the terrain you were going to cover on your next hike? Understanding the basics of these new technologies will not only make the future force more comfortable with them but also allow soldiers to think more robustly about how to employ these technologies to the Army’s advantage.
While the cost of such a venture would be reasonable, acquiring the funding for any effort on the scale of the whole Army cannot be taken for granted. More challenging, perhaps, would be the process of repurposing the space, training staff, and rolling out the initiative.