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March 9, 2017

ASU center examines ISIS, the future of Middle East conflict and possible reconciliation, and the National Security Agency

Since its inception, ASU’s Center on the Future of War has led discussions on the emerging role of drones and autonomous weapons, the civilian impact of the conflict in Syria, and the significance of “lone wolf” terrorist attacks in post-9/11 America.

Now in its first year under a new White House administration, the center is shifting its focus to the rise of ISIS, the future of Middle East conflict and possible reconciliation, and the National Security Agency.

Center on the Future of War leaders say these challenges should be at the forefront of everyone’s thinking as the nation enters into a new era of international relations — and potential conflicts.

“There is a broad-based interest in discussing conflict and war within our society,” said ASU professor of practice Daniel Rothenberg, who co-directs the center with CNN senior analyst and ASU faculty member Peter Bergen. “Our students are part of a post-9/11 war generation, having grown up their entire lives with our country involved in ‘the longest war,’ and current political discourse is dominated by accounts of violence and multiple global threats.”

Since its formation in 2014, the center has brought together a team of ASU faculty and policy experts to explore the social, political, economic and cultural implications of the changing nature of war and conflict, addressing these issues by linking more than 100 affiliated faculty at Arizona State University with a team of three dozen national security experts at New America, an interdisciplinary Washington, D.C.-based think tank and civic engagement institutionThe Center on the Future of War operates under the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with support from the School of Politics and Global Studies., according to organizers.

These thinkers, writers and decision-makers seek to attract media coverage and create meaningful public engagement.

“There is such a babble of voices in Washington and everybody has a platform, so it all becomes noise after a while,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and New America Fellow David Wood. He said the center presents thoughts and ideas from a calm, sober and well-informed place.

Wood added the partnership between ASU and New America allows the center to “have one foot in Washington and one in the real world.”

One of the center’s signature events is the annual Future of War Conference held in Washington, which features senior military leaders from each branch, scholars and a number of less traditional voices. That is no small feat, said Benjamin C. Freakley, former commanding general for the U.S. Army.

“It’s remarkable and has created exceptional networks for awareness on this critical topic,” said Freakley, who is also a special adviser to ASU President Michael Crow for leadership initiatives. He said the conference serves as a superb platform in Washington for leaders to get their message out in front of a “broad, sophisticated and involved audience.”

Last year’s event drew more than 400 people, and more than 11,000 viewed it via live stream — a 60 percent increase from the 2015 conference. Tweets about the 2016 conference reached more than 2 million with #FutureofWar the third-highest trending hashtag in Washington, D.C. during the event.

This year’s conference will be on March 21 and features Gen. Mark Milley, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, and Gen. David Goldfein, chief of staff of the Air Force, speaking about the future of their services; Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, discussing links between Silicon Valley and national security; Juan Carlos Pinzon, the Colombian ambassador to the U.S., speaking about the end of decades of civil war; and academics from ASU and elsewhere speaking about social media, moral injury and the possibilities of peace in a turbulent world.

From past and current discussions, center experts have determined that the future of war will be defined by innovations in labs, cyberspace and technological and scientific advantages — as well as broad shifts in global culture, demographics, climate change and competition over resources.

The talk isn’t confined to Washington. The center hosts an annual spring speakers’ series and facilitates classroom visits and guest lectures, giving students and community members an opportunity to participate.

“We try and select people who are interesting thought leaders who are involved with exciting and innovative work,” Rothenberg said. “We want to launch big, interdisciplinary ideas in a number of different spaces at the time, which includes Arizona.”

Wood, who kicked off the spring 2017 lecture series to introduce the term and his book “Moral Injury” to the public lexicon, said his January visit to ASU was memorable. 

“I was quite taken by the students and the questions they asked me,” Wood said. “Those kids were not afraid to challenge me, and it brought a whole new perspective I would have never gotten had I not visited Arizona.”

The center also creates a platform for policy-oriented scholarly research for ASU Future of War Fellows at New America, tapping the talents of ASU students to assist with papers, books and articles. Current projects include an investigation of reconciliation in Iraq based on in-depth fieldwork in multiple communities formerly controlled by ISIS, the impact of gender issues on national security and conflict, a comparative review of domestic genocide laws and emerging military technologies.

Their work also extends to universities around the world, including a project on moral injury linked to the PLuS Alliance connecting ASU, the University of New South Wales and Kings College London.

Student Ryan Schneidewind assisted political scientist, author and New America senior strategist P.W. Singer on his new book, “Cyber Security and Cyber War: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

“The research is interesting because it’s so much bigger than just ASU,” said Schneidewind, a 2016 political science graduate who is seeking his master’s at Georgetown University. “I gained an understanding of what academia was besides just sitting in class.”

Alexa Magee, who conducted research for Rothenberg and Bergen’s book “Drone Wars,” worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia after graduating and is currently a program assistant for the American Red Cross field office in Yangon, Myanmar. She said that she was able to pursue a career in international law as a direct result of her work and research at the center.

“Working with the center helped me hone the research skills needed to write project proposals and gave me a forward-thinking perspective,” Magee said. She added it’s a needed skill when implementing projects that “prepare communities for distressing events and mediate harmful consequences.”

Erin Schulte, a 21-year-old global studies major and Marshall Scholar, said the center not only produces important work, but is minting leaders.

“These are some of the brightest students I have ever had the privilege to know,” Schulte said. “You can tell these are going to be the future leaders in their fields.”


Top photo: Afghanistan. Photo by

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Seen Google camera backpacks and self-driving Uber cars on campus? Here's why.
March 10, 2017

In separate projects, tech firms acquire images, data that have a range of possible uses in fitness, business, civic planning

Arizona State University has been more of a tech hub than ever, with tricked-out cars cruising under the Tempe campus' University Bridge while young men nearby lug gadget-heavy backpacks past Old Main.

In separate projects, Uber and Google have been mapping a school that has become known for jet packs, robot swarms and NASA missions.

Uber’s work involves self-driving cars with sensors and gadgets on the roof of a small SUV that otherwise don’t give any indication of what makes them unique on Tempe roads. The cars have a human behind the wheel.

Google, meanwhile, is expanding its Street View feature, capturing close-up images of all of ASU’s campuses. The feature on Google Earth and Google Maps allows users to zoom in and see accurate depictions of buildings and sidewalks, anything a pedestrian could see walking down the street.      

Each relies on mapping technology that seems poised to expand.

“It is quite an amazing system,” said Stewart Fotheringham, a professor of computational spatial science in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. Fotheringham teaches a class called Geographic Info Technologies (GIS 205), which introduces students to modern geographic information technologies, including cartography, GIS, remote sensing, global positioning systems and statistical analyses.

He explained how the technology works. 

“The video recorders Google people carry around with them record 360 degrees and are linked to the U.S. GPS satellite system, which consists of 24 active satellites about 12,000 miles above the Earth,” Fotheringham said. “Distances to four or more of these satellites give location on the Earth, plus elevation, so when you type an address into Google Earth, it looks up the coordinates of this location in a huge database and retrieves the imagery associated with this location.”

The imagery consists of satellite photographs and pictures taken from planes for Google Earth. Video recordings are taken by people on foot or bike and by cameras mounted to cars for Google Street View.


Andrew Ortiz is one of the field operators who troops around under the weight of a nearly 70-pound pack to get the shots the technology relies on. He and Daniel Quach took turns under the Google Street View Trekkers, a backpack outfitted with a camera system that’s used where vehicles can’t go.

It can be a tough task. “Our tolerance has been building,” he said. “I could probably walk about 2½ miles (before taking a break.)”

Google’s field operators worked around Tempe campus on March 6, starting in the middle of an area and walking out in concentric circles snapping pics with about a dozen cameras on a ball array at the top of their packs. In a mile the array will take about 500 to 600 shots, according to Ortiz.

Before coming to ASU, Google personnel worked with the university to come up with a priority list. They will shoot interiors in certain buildings, like ASU Gammage, but not every building on campus.

Uber cars have rolled past the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Gammage and ASU’s School of Music, affectionately known as the “birthday cake building,” and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering countless times since their program introducing the vehicles to the Valley began in February.

Driverless cars need far more detailed digital maps than cameras and radar alone can provide, and Uber is recording every curb, stop sign and building to ensure their system works effectively. The cars include a pair of engineers in the front seats as safety drivers, according to a report in the tech-focused publication The Verge.  

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has hailed Uber’s self-driving pilot, releasing a statement saying his state’s participation “is paving the way for new technology and new businesses.”

The emerging mapping technology has a range of uses and applications.

“It's used by Realtors and house buyers, in in-car navigation systems, and by planners,” Fotheringham said.

Google, for example, takes a constellation of images that anyone could access from GPS satellites, then applies 360 camera technology and manages the the logistics of capturing video imagery on every road and street it can access, Fotheringham said.

Google’s data sets are turning out to be useful, as well, said Trisalyn Nelson, director of the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

“Google Maps was developed originally so people could figure out where to go, and find their roots, and maybe check out an area before they arrive, but because these data sets are wall-to-wall — you have continuous data that maps a whole area with a lot of detail — we’re starting to see new, unintended uses,” Nelson said.

One example is fitness apps. Strava is a website and mobile app used to track athletic activity via GPS. If you’re biking, it tells you how far you rode, how quickly you got there and other similar information.

The people who run Strava realized they had their hands on a huge amount of data on where people were riding bikes. They repackaged it as Strava Metro and now sell the data to cities. More than 70 cities and organizations use Strava Metro to improve bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

“Getting data on where people ride their bikes in traditional forms is quite hard, because you have to stand at a corner to count people,” Nelson said. “Now we have this data that’s continuous through time, it’s continuous through space, and we can use it for urban planning to figure out where we should put in bike lanes. So this is a really good example of how new map technology starts off with one purpose — for tracking my fitness — and now we can use it to better understand cycling infrastructure.”

The expansion should be rapid, with tech and auto companies planning to share mapping data and trucking companies installing scanning systems. Next year, Volkswagen, which Uber uses in its self-driving vehicle pilot fleet, and BMW will install front-facing camera systems to detect obstacles. The systems will also passively map and send the data back. With millions of vehicles recording and relaying mapping data, there will be a geometric progression of data acquisition.

Unintended uses of mapping data will continue to balloon, Nelson said.

“We’re excited in our school about it, because on the one hand we do a lot of geographic information science, so we are the people who develop new technology to analyze map data,” she said. “On the other hand, we have all these people who are planning cities — the urban planning community — who are finding huge opportunities to use these new kinds of data sets to better understand what’s happening in a city, to inventory what’s there, to look at how it’s changing over time, to simulate future environments. Having access to these kinds of data opens up a lot of potential.”

It’s also opening up a new career field. A recent Forbes list of the top 10 growing jobs included two that fell in the category of working with maps and another technology. Computer science, statistics and geography are all taught at the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

“We’ve seen this huge explosion in jobs for people who can work with maps, because maps are no longer something you draw,” Nelson said. “There are a lot of jobs associated with digital mapping technologies. In order to be really awesome, you need to combine it with something else. … These are very smart areas for ASU students to look for degrees.”


Top photo: As part of Google's mapping project, field operator Daniel Quach treks along the western part of the Tempe campus carrying the nearly 70-pound pack on March 6. He and Andrew Ortiz used the pack to help create pedestrian maps of all the ASU campuses last week. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now