By Julia Lerner

In a discussion hosted by the Newseum Dec. 6, panelists had the opportunity to discuss the impact developing technologies have on defense and diplomacy in the United States.

Moderated by Newseum Chief Technology Officer Mitch Gelman, the panel was part of a series of events hosted by the Newseum on the future of virtual and augmented realities, and immersive technologies. This particular event focused on the impact and problems of virtual and augmented reality when applied to foreign relations in the U.S.

“We’re looking at virtual reality and augmented reality through two primary frames,” said Director of the Office of American Spaces at the U.S. State Department Chris Dunnett. “We’re looking at the [military and combat] training, and the public diplomacy. … We want to know how do we communicate with people elsewhere in the world? … and how can we use this for public diplomacy? How can we apply this technology?”

“Augmented reality is already in our everyday lives,” said panelist Thomas Bowman, Director of the Ground Combat Systems Division in the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center. “It’s such a new field for the army, and we really need to figure out how to use it.”

Others addressed the quickly-evolving landscape for technology and expressed that the military has been slow to catch up.

“We’re living in a time where technology is advancing very quickly,” said Director of Technology and National Security Programs at the Center for a New American Security Paul Scharre, one of the panelists at the event. “We still have a very industrial-age approach to actually getting ahold of these technologies. We buy things in 10, 20, 30 year timelines, and what we have now is not” updated enough to process virtual reality, he said.

“There’s a joke that technology is anything that has been developed after the year you were born,” Scharre said. Toddlers are quick to adapt to touch screens and Pokemon Go, while the “old grunts on the ground” are more sceptical of new technology than ever.

This new technology presents itself as a radical approach to training for those in the military. It allows for new, more immersive training and for smarter weapon technology while in the field. It also lends itself to “situational awareness and precision navigation capabilities, both key to survival on the battlefield,” Bowman said.

“Certain things you can do in training are too dangerous to simulate in real life,” said Dr. Mark Livingston, the Head of Virtual Environments Laboratory in the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. He said the beauty of training in virtual reality is that soldiers can learn and be more prepared for these dangerous scenarios without ever being in harm’s way.

However, Livingston said “just because we can put something in the interface [of new combat technology], doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.”

These new technologies have completely altered the way individuals train for combat, in addition to the changes in diplomatic relationships around the world. One of the problems, though, is leaders and researchers cannot get people to use it.

Members of the military are taking a “conservative approach to new technology,” and are hesitant to adopt these new training methods as opposed to the tried-and-true standard training, Scharre said.

Scharre voiced the “importance of a … close relationship between those developing the technology and those using it,” a sentiment echoed throughout the night by other panelists — they said they all hope to strengthen the communication between the engineers creating the technology and the individuals in the field in an attempt to encourage them to become more comfortable with the changing technology.

In the future, Bowman said he hopes virtual and augmented reality will help “make the jobs of our soldiers easier,” and believes the new technology will help them survive in times of combat.

Featured Photo Credit: Outside The Newseum (Lisa Woolfson/Bloc Photographer).

Julia Lerner is a junior journalism major and can be reached at julia.lerner.96@gmail.com.

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