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18 October 2006

Searching Starlight

One of the other very key Insights from the Proteus study was the concept of Starlight – the complex and variable effects of time and distance on perceptions of information about events; and the impact of those effects on intelligence problems. To quote the original study:

Perspective is everything. Not until late in the 19th century did science discover that the night sky has depth as well as breadth, that constellations not only are in the eye of the beholder, that they are distant illusions. By the early 20th century, when quantum physics wed astronomy, the illusion became deeper. However we characterize the apparent pattern of the clusters, the light we see in Manassas or Arizona takes about 400 years to reach us from the nearest star in the group. Each night in the sky, there appears an event that is already over. We are seeing the past in the Present.

We can think of no better metaphor than Starlight to characterize the central problem for the Intelligence Community as it looks toward the future. Whether we examined the world of a criminal mastermind, of virulent disease, or a high-technology space race, the pattern of events in that world commonly turned on three characteristics: complexity, venues, and time - all of which can be captured in the metaphor of Starlight.

At the margins of the technology, there comes a tantalizing glimpse at a future day with a better search engine for Starlight itself….

Information covers many dimensions, location and time, and the day will come, one day, some day, when Google will better understand time, and all of its uses and applications, and render your web page in this context, spreading out a page’s multitude of incarnations like an eagle spreads its wings, archiving, comparing...

There have been a number of interesting attempts at this kind of capability in the past, (see any number of responses to the query “temporal search engines” from the open academic and technical press), but none have been successful in the manner of the fabled G. Until that kind of expectation is set, and the capability as a norm has trickled down into the closed recesses of the darkest vaults, the full implications of Starlight will continue to frustrate analysts without the tools to search, visualize, and understand complex relationships between events and behaviors; especially in asynchronous and emergent manifestations.

If this should come to pass, we will have gone a long way towards the objective laid out in the original conceptualization of the problem:

Foresight and uncertainty management become the objects of the intelligence cycle in the future;
the task for the Intelligence Community, therefore, is not merely the cataloging of events, but more the recognition of patterns. As a result, given finite resources, sensors may be less important than new ways to analyze complex data...