The Quantum Technology Ecosystem – Explained

If you think you understand quantum mechanics,
you don’t understand quantum mechanics

Richard Feynman

IBM Quantum Computer

Tens of billions of public and private capital are being invested in Quantum technologies. Countries across the world have realized that quantum technologies can be a major disruptor of existing businesses and change the balance of military power. So much so, that they have collectively invested ~$24 billion in in quantum research and applications.

At the same time, a week doesn’t go by without another story about a quantum technology milestone or another quantum company getting funded. Quantum has moved out of the lab and is now the focus of commercial companies and investors. In 2021 venture capital funds invested over $2 billion in 90+ Quantum technology companies. Over a $1 billion of it going to Quantum computing companies. In the last six months quantum computing companies IonQ, D-Wave and Rigetti went public at valuations close to a billion and half dollars. Pretty amazing for computers that won’t be any better than existing systems for at least another decade – or more.  So why the excitement about quantum?

The Quantum Market Opportunity

While most of the IPOs have been in Quantum Computing, Quantum technologies are used in three very different and distinct markets: Quantum Computing, Quantum Communications and Quantum Sensing and Metrology.

All of three of these markets have the potential for being disruptive. In time Quantum computing could obsolete existing cryptography systems, but viable commercial applications are still speculative. Quantum communications could allow secure networking but are not a viable near-term business. Quantum sensors could create new types of medical devices, as well as new classes of military applications, but are still far from a scalable business.

It’s a pretty safe bet that 1) the largest commercial applications of quantum technologies won’t be the ones these companies currently think they’re going to be, and 2) defense applications using quantum technologies will come first. 3) if and when they do show up they’ll destroy existing businesses and create new ones.

We’ll describe each of these market segments in detail. But first a description of some quantum concepts.

Key Quantum Concepts

Skip this section if all you want to know is that 1) quantum works, 2) yes, it is magic.

Quantum  – The word “Quantum” refers to quantum mechanics which explains the behavior and properties of atomic or subatomic particles, such as electrons, neutrinos, and photons.

Superposition – quantum particles exist in many possible states at the same time. So a particle is described as a “superposition” of all those possible states. They fluctuate until observed and measured. Superposition underpins a number of potential quantum computing applications.

Entanglement – is what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Two or more quantum objects can be linked so that measurement of one dictates the outcomes for the other, regardless of how far apart they are. Entanglement underpins a number of potential quantum communications applications.

Observation – Superposition and entanglement only exist as long as quantum particles are not observed or measured. If you observe the quantum state you can get information, but it results in the collapse of the quantum system.

Qubit – is short for a quantum bit. It is a quantum computing element that leverages the principle of superposition to encode information via one of four methods: spin, trapped atoms and ions, photons, or superconducting circuits.

Quantum Computers – Background

Quantum computers are a really cool idea. They harness the unique behavior of quantum physics—such as superposition, entanglement, and quantum interference—and apply it to computing.

In a classical computer transistors can represent two states – either a 0 or 1. Instead of transistors Quantum computers use quantum bits (called qubits.) Qubits exist in superposition – both in 0 and 1 state simultaneously.

Classic computers use transistors as the physical building blocks of logic. In quantum computers they may use trapped ions, superconducting loops, quantum dots or vacancies in a diamond. The jury is still out.

In a classic computer 2-14 transistors make up the seven basic logic gates (AND, OR, NAND, etc.) In a quantum computer building a single logical Qubit require a minimum of 9 but more likely 100’s or thousands of physical Qubits (to make up for error correction, stability, decoherence and fault tolerance.)

In a classical computer compute-power increases linearly with the number of transistors and clock speed. In a Quantum computer compute-power increases exponentially with the addition of each logical qubit.

But qubits have high error rates and need to be ultracold. In contrast classical computers have very low error rates and operate at room temperature.

Finally, classical computers are great for general purpose computing. But quantum computers can theoretically solve some complex algorithms/ problems exponentially faster than a classical computer. And with a sufficient number of logical Qubits they can become a Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computer (CRQC).  And this is where Quantum computers become very interesting and relevant for both commercial and national security. (More below.)

Types of Quantum Computers

Quantum computers could potentially do things at speeds current computers cannot. Think of the difference of how fast you can count on your fingers versus how fast today’s computers can count. That’s the same order of magnitude speed-up a quantum computer could have over today’s computers for certain applications.

Quantum computers fall into four categories:

  1. Quantum Emulator/Simulator
  2. Quantum Annealer
  3. NISQ – Noisy Intermediate Scale Quantum
  4. Universal Quantum Computer – which can be a Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computer (CRQC)

When you remove all the marketing hype, the only type that matters is #4 – a Universal Quantum Computer. And we’re at least a decade or more away from having those.

Quantum Emulator/Simulator
These are classical computers that you can buy today that simulate quantum algorithms. They make it easy to test and debug a quantum algorithm that someday may be able to run on a Universal Quantum Computer. Since they don’t use any quantum hardware they are no faster than standard computers.

Quantum Annealer is a special purpose quantum computer designed to only run combinatorial optimization problems, not general-purpose computing, or cryptography problems. D-Wave has defined and owned this space. While they have more physical Qubits than any other current system they are not organized as gate-based logical qubits. Currently this is a nascent commercial technology in search of a future viable market.

Noisy Intermediate-Scale Quantum (NISQ) computers. Think of these as prototypes of a Universal Quantum Computer – with several orders of magnitude fewer bits. (They currently have 50-100 qubits, limited gate depths, and short coherence times.) As they are short several orders of magnitude of Qubits, NISQ computers cannot perform any useful computation, however they are a necessary phase in the learning, especially to drive total system and software learning in parallel to the hardware development. Think of them as the training wheels for future universal quantum computers.

Universal Quantum Computers / Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computers (CRQC)
This is the ultimate goal. If you could build a universal quantum computer with fault tolerance (i.e. millions of error corrected physical qubits resulting in thousands of logical Qubits), you could run quantum algorithms in cryptography, search and optimization, quantum systems simulations, and linear equations solvers. (See here for a list of hundreds quantum algorithms.) These all would dramatically outperform classical computation on large complex problems that grow exponentially as more variables are considered. Classical computers can’t attack these problems in reasonable times without so many approximations that the result is useless. We simply run out of time and transistors with classical computing on these problems. These special algorithms are what make quantum computers potentially valuable. For example, Grover’s algorithm solves the problem for the unstructured search of data. Further, quantum computers are very good at minimization / optimizations…think optimizing complex supply chains, energy states to form complex molecules, financial models, etc.

However, while all of these algorithms might have commercial potential one day, no one has yet to come up with a use for them that would radically transform any business or military application. Except for one – and that one keeps people awake at night.

It’s Shor’s algorithm for integer factorization – an algorithm that underlies much of existing public cryptography systems.

The security of today’s public key cryptography systems rests on the assumption that breaking into those with a thousand or more digits is practically impossible. It requires factoring into large prime numbers (e.g., RSA) or elliptic curve (e.g., ECDSA, ECDH) or finite fields (DSA) that can’t be done with any type of classic computer regardless of how large. Shor’s factorization algorithm can crack these codes if run on a Universal Quantum Computer. Uh-oh!

Impact of a Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computer (CRQC) Skip this section if you don’t care about cryptography.

Not only would a Universal Quantum Computer running Shor’s algorithm make today’s public key algorithms (used for asymmetric key exchanges and digital signatures) useless, someone can implement a “harvest-now-and-decrypt-later” attack to record encrypted documents now with intent to decrypt them in the future. That means everything you send encrypted today will be able to be read retrospectively. Many applications – from ATMs to emails – would be vulnerable—unless we replace those algorithms with those that are “quantum-safe”.

When Will Current Cryptographic Systems Be Vulnerable?

The good news is that we’re nowhere near having any viable Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computer, now or in the next few years. However, you can estimate when this will happen by calculating how many logical Qubits are needed to run Shor’s Algorthim and how long it will it take to break these crypto systems. There are lots of people tracking these numbers (see here and here). Their estimate is that using 8,194 logical qubits using 22.27 million physical qubits, it would take a quantum computer 20 minutes to break RSA-2048. The best estimate is that this might be possible in 8 to 20 years.

Post-Quantum / Quantum-Resistant Codes

That means if you want to protect the content you’re sending now, you need to migrate to new Post-Quantum /Quantum-Resistant Codes. But there are three things to consider in doing so:

  1. shelf-life time: the number of years the information must be protected by cyber-systems
  2. migration time: the number of years needed to properly and safely migrate the system to a quantum-safe solution
  3. threat timeline: the number of years before threat actors will be able to break the quantum-vulnerable systems

These new cryptographic systems would secure against both quantum and conventional computers and can interoperate with existing communication protocols and networks. The symmetric key algorithms of the Commercial National Security Algorithm (CNSA) Suite were selected to be secure for national security systems usage even if a CRQC is developed.

Cryptographic schemes that commercial industry believes are quantum-safe include lattice-based cryptography, hash trees, multivariate equations, and super-singular isogeny elliptic curves.

Estimates of when you can actually buy a fully error-corrected quantum computers vary from “never” to somewhere between 8 to 20 years from now. (Some optimists believe even earlier.)

Quantum Communication

Quantum communications quantum computers. A quantum network’s value comes from its ability to distribute entanglement. These communication devices manipulate the quantum properties of photons/particles of light to build Quantum Networks.

This market includes secure quantum key distribution, clock synchronization, random number generation and networking of quantum military sensors, computers, and other systems.

Quantum Cryptography/Quantum Key Distribution
Quantum Cryptography/Quantum Key Distribution can distribute keys between authorized partners connected by a quantum channel and a classical authenticated channel. It can be implemented via fiber optics or free space transmission. China transmitted entangled photons (at one pair of entangled particles per second) over 1,200 km in a satellite link, using the Micius satellite.

The Good: it can detect the presence of an eavesdropper, a feature not provided in standard cryptography. The Bad: Quantum Key Distribution can’t be implemented in software or as a service on a network and cannot be easily integrated into existing network equipment. It lacks flexibility for upgrades or security patches. Securing and validating Quantum Key Distribution is hard and it’s only one part of a cryptographic system.

The view from the National Security Agency (NSA) is that quantum-resistant (or post-quantum) cryptography is a more cost effective and easily maintained solution than quantum key distribution. NSA does not support the usage of QKD or QC to protect communications in National Security Systems. (See here.) They do not anticipate certifying or approving any Quantum Cryptography/Quantum Key Distribution security products for usage by National Security System customers unless these limitations are overcome. However, if you’re a commercial company these systems may be worth exploring.

Quantum Random Number Generators (GRGs)
Commercial Quantum Random Number Generators that use quantum effects (entanglement) to generate nondeterministic randomness are available today. (Government agencies can already make quality random numbers and don’t need these devices.)

Random number generators will remain secure even when a Cryptographically Relevant Quantum Computer is built.

Quantum Sensing and Metrology

Quantum sensors  Quantum computers.

This segment consists of Quantum Sensing (quantum magnetometers, gravimeters, …), Quantum Timing (precise time measurement and distribution), and Quantum Imaging (quantum radar, low-SNR imaging, …) Each of these areas can create entirely new commercial products or entire new industries e.g. new classes of medical devices and military systems, e.g. anti-submarine warfare, detecting stealth aircraft, finding hidden tunnels and weapons of mass destruction. Some of these are achievable in the near term.

Quantum Timing
First-generation quantum timing devices already exist as microwave atomic clocks. They are used in GPS satellites to triangulate accurate positioning. The Internet and computer networks use network time servers and the NTP protocol to receive the atomic clock time from either the GPS system or a radio transmission.

The next generation of quantum clocks are even more accurate and use laser-cooled single ions confined together in an electromagnetic ion trap. This increased accuracy is not only important for scientists attempting to measure dark matter and gravitational waves, but miniaturized/ more accurate atomic clocks will allow precision navigation in GPS- degraded/denied areas, e.g. in commercial and military aircraft, in tunnels and caves, etc.

Quantum Imaging
Quantum imaging is one of the most interesting and near-term applications. First generation magnetometers such as superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs) already exist. New quantum sensor types of imaging devices use entangled light, accelerometers, magnetometers, electrometers, gravity sensors. These allow measurements of frequency, acceleration, rotation rates, electric and magnetic fields, photons, or temperature with levels of extreme sensitivity and accuracy.

These new sensors use a variety of quantum effects: electronic, magnetic, or vibrational states or spin qubits, neutral atoms, or trapped ions. Or they use quantum coherence to measure a physical quantity. Or use quantum entanglement to improve the sensitivity or precision of a measurement, beyond what is possible classically.

Quantum Imaging applications can have immediate uses in archeology,  and profound military applications. For example, submarine detection using quantum magnetometers or satellite gravimeters could make the ocean transparent. It would compromise the survivability of sea-based nuclear deterrent by detecting and tracking subs deep underwater.

Quantum sensors and quantum radar from companies like Rydberg can be game changers.

Gravimeters or quantum magnetometers could also detect concealed tunnels, bunkers, and nuclear materials. Magnetic resonance imaging could remotely ID chemical and biological agents. Quantum radar or LIDAR would enable extreme detection of electromagnetic emissions, enhancing ELINT and electronic warfare capabilities. It can use fewer emissions to get the same detection result, for better detection accuracy at the same power levels – even detecting stealth aircraft.

Finally, Ghost imaging uses the quantum properties of light to detect distant objects using very weak illumination beams that are difficult for the imaged target to detect. It can increase the accuracy and lessen the amount of radiation exposed to a patient during x-rays. It can see through smoke and clouds. Quantum illumination is similar to ghost imaging but could provide an even greater sensitivity.

National and Commercial Efforts
Countries across the world are making major investments ~$24 billion in 2021 – in quantum research and applications.

Lessons Learned

  • Quantum technologies are emerging and disruptive to companies and defense
  • Quantum technologies cover Quantum Computing, Quantum Communications and Quantum Sensing and Metrology
    • Quantum computing could obsolete existing cryptography systems
    • Quantum communication could allow secure cryptography key distribution and networking of quantum sensors and computers
    • Quantum sensors could make the ocean transparent for Anti-submarine warfare, create unjammable A2/AD, detect stealth aircraft, find hidden tunnels and weapons of mass destruction, etc.
  • A few of these technologies are available now, some in the next 5 years and a few are a decade or more out
  • Tens of billions of public and private capital dollars are being invested in them
  • Defense applications will come first
  • The largest commercial applications won’t be the ones we currently think they’re going to be
    • when they do show up they’ll destroy existing businesses and create new ones

The Semiconductor Ecosystem – Explained

The last year has seen a ton written about the semiconductor industry: chip shortages, the CHIPS Act, our dependence on Taiwan and TSMC, China, etc.

But despite all this talk about chips and semiconductors, few understand how the industry is structured. I’ve found the best way to understand something complicated is to diagram it out, step by step. So here’s a quick pictorial tutorial on how the industry works.

The Semiconductor Ecosystem

We’re seeing the digital transformation of everything. Semiconductors – chips that process digital information — are in almost everything: computers, cars, home appliances, medical equipment, etc. Semiconductor companies will sell $600 billion worth of chips this year.

Looking at the figure below, the industry seems pretty simple. Companies in the semiconductor ecosystem make chips (the triangle on the left) and sell them to companies and government agencies (on the right). Those companies and government agencies then design the chips into systems and devices (e.g. iPhones, PCs, airplanes, cloud computing, etc.), and sell them to consumers, businesses, and governments. The revenue of products that contain chips is worth tens of trillions of dollars.

Yet, given how large it is, the industry remains a mystery to most.  If you do think of the semiconductor industry at all, you may picture workers in bunny suits in a fab clean room (the chip factory) holding a 12” wafer. Yet it is a business that manipulates materials an atom at a time and its factories cost 10s of billions of dollars to build.  (By the way, that wafer has two trillion transistors on it.)

If you were able to look inside the simple triangle representing the semiconductor industry, instead of a single company making chips, you would find an industry with hundreds of companies, all dependent on each other. Taken as a whole it’s pretty overwhelming, so let’s describe one part of the ecosystem at a time.  (Warning –  this is a simplified view of a very complex industry.)

Semiconductor Industry Segments

The semiconductor industry has seven different types of companies. Each of these distinct industry segments feeds its resources up the value chain to the next until finally a chip factory (a “Fab”) has all the designs, equipment, and materials necessary to manufacture a chip. Taken from the bottom up these semiconductor industry segments are:

  1. Chip Intellectual Property (IP) Cores
  2. Electronic Design Automation (EDA) Tools
  3. Specialized Materials
  4. Wafer Fab Equipment (WFE)
  5. “Fabless” Chip Companies
  6. Integrated Device Manufacturers (IDMs)
  7. Chip Foundries
  8. Outsourced Semiconductor Assembly and Test (OSAT)

The following sections below provide more detail about each of these eight semiconductor industry segments.

Chip Intellectual Property (IP) Cores

  • The design of a chip may be owned by a single company, or…
  • Some companies license their chip designs – as software building blocks, called IP Cores – for wide use
  • There are over 150 companies that sell chip IP Cores
  • For example, Apple licenses IP Cores from ARM as a building block of their microprocessors in their iPhones and Computers

Electronic Design Automation (EDA) Tools

  • Engineers design chips (adding their own designs on top of any IP cores they’ve bought) using specialized Electronic Design Automation (EDA) software
  • The industry is dominated by three U.S. vendors – Cadence, Mentor (now part of Siemens) and Synopsys
  • It takes a large engineering team using these EDA tools 2-3 years to design a complex logic chip like a microprocessor used inside a phone, computer or server. (See the figure of the design process below.)

  • Today, as logic chips continue to become more complex, all Electronic Design Automation companies are beginning to insert Artificial Intelligence aids to automate and speed up the process

Specialized Materials and Chemicals

So far our chip is still in software. But to turn it into something tangible we’re going to have to physically produce it in a chip factory called a “fab.” The factories that make chips need to buy specialized materials and chemicals:

  • Silicon wafers – and to make those they need crystal growing furnaces
  • Over 100 Gases are used – bulk gases (oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, argon, helium), and other exotic/toxic gases (fluorine, nitrogen trifluoride, arsine, phosphine, boron trifluoride, diborane, silane, and the list goes on…)
  • Fluids (photoresists, top coats, CMP slurries)
  • Photomasks
  • Wafer handling equipment, dicing
  • RF Generators

Wafer Fab Equipment (WFE) Make the Chips

  • These machines physically manufacture the chips
  • Five companies dominate the industry – Applied Materials, KLA, LAM, Tokyo Electron and ASML
  • These are some of the most complicated (and expensive) machines on Earth. They take a slice of an ingot of silicon and manipulate its atoms on and below its surface
  • We’ll explain how these machines are used a bit later on

 “Fabless” Chip Companies

  • Systems companies (Apple, Qualcomm, Nvidia, Amazon, Facebook, etc.) that previously used off-the-shelf chips now design their own chips.
  • They create chip designs (using IP Cores and their own designs) and send the designs to “foundries” that have “fabs” that manufacture them
  • They may use the chips exclusively in their own devices e.g. Apple, Google, Amazon ….
  • Or they may sell the chips to everyone e.g. AMD, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Broadcom…
  • They do not own Wafer Fab Equipment or use specialized materials or chemicals
  • They do use Chip IP and Electronic Design Software to design the chips

Integrated Device Manufacturers (IDMs)

  • Integrated Device Manufacturers (IDMs) design, manufacture (in their own fabs), and sell their own chips
    • They do not make chips for other companies (this is changing rapidly – see here.)
    • There are three categories of IDMs– Memory (e.g. Micron, SK Hynix), Logic (e.g. Intel), Analog (TI, Analog Devices)
  • They have their own “fabs” but may also use foundries
    • They use Chip IP and Electronic Design Software to design their chips
    • They buy Wafer Fab Equipment and use specialized materials and chemicals
  • The average cost of taping out a new leading-edge chip (3nm) is now $500 million

 Chip Foundries

  • Foundries make chips for others in their “fabs”
  • They buy and integrate equipment from a variety of manufacturers
    • Wafer Fab Equipment and specialized materials and chemicals
  • They design unique processes using this equipment to make the chips
  • But they don’t design chips
  • TSMC in Taiwan is the leader in logic, Samsung is second
  • Other fabs specialize in making chips for analog, power, rf, displays, secure military, etc.
  • It costs $20 billon to build a new generation chip (3nm) fabrication plant


  • Fabs are short for fabrication plants – the factory that makes chips
  • Integrated Device Manufacturers (IDMs) and Foundries both have fabs. The only difference is whether they make chips for others to use or sell or make them for themselves to sell.
  • Think of a Fab as analogous to a book printing plant (see figure below)
  1. Just as an author writes a book using a word processor, an engineer designs a chip using electronic design automation tools
  2. An author contracts with a publisher who specializes in their genre and then sends the text to a printing plant. An engineer selects a fab appropriate for their type of chip (memory, logic, RF, analog)
  3. The printing plant buys paper and ink. A fab buys raw materials; silicon, chemicals, gases
  4. The printing plant buys printing machinery, presses, binders, trimmers. The fab buys wafer fab equipment, etchers, deposition, lithography, testers, packaging
  5. The printing process for a book uses offset lithography, filming, stripping, blueprints, plate making, binding and trimming. Chips are manufactured in a complicated process manipulating atoms using etchers, deposition, lithography. Think of it as an atomic level offset printing. The wafers are then cut up and the chips are packaged
  6. The plant turns out millions of copies of the same book. The plant turns out millions of copies of the same chip

While this sounds simple, it’s not. Chips are probably the most complicated products ever manufactured.  The diagram below is a simplified version of the 1000+ steps it takes to make a chip.

Outsourced Semiconductor Assembly and Test (OSAT)

  • Companies that package and test chips made by foundries and IDMs
  • OSAT companies take the wafer made by foundries, dice (cut) them up into individual chips, test them and then package them and ship them to the customer


Fab Issues

  • As chips have become denser (with trillions of transistors on a single wafer) the cost of building fabs have skyrocketed – now >$10 billion for one chip factory
  • One reason is that the cost of the equipment needed to make the chips has skyrocketed
    • Just one advanced lithography machine from ASML, a Dutch company, costs $150 million
    • There are ~500+ machines in a fab (not all as expensive as ASML)
    • The fab building is incredibly complex. The clean room where the chips are made is just the tip of the iceberg of a complex set of plumbing feeding gases, power, liquids all at the right time and temperature into the wafer fab equipment
  • The multi-billion-dollar cost of staying at the leading edge has meant most companies have dropped out. In 2001 there were 17 companies making the most advanced chips.  Today there are only two – Samsung in Korea and TSMC in Taiwan.
    • Given that China believes Taiwan is a province of China this could be problematic for the West.

What’s Next – Technology

It’s getting much harder to build chips that are denser, faster, and use less power, so what’s next?

  • Instead of making a single processor do all the work, logic chip designers have put multiple specialized processors inside of a chip
  • Memory chips are now made denser by stacking them 100+ layers high
  • As chips are getting more complex to design, which means larger design teams, and longer time to market, Electronic Design Automation companies are embedding artificial intelligence to automate parts of the design process
  • Wafer equipment manufacturers are designing new equipment to help fabs make chips with lower power, better performance, optimum area-to-cost, and faster time to market

What’s Next – Business

The business model of Integrated Device Manufacturers (IDMs) like Intel is rapidly changing. In the past there was a huge competitive advantage in being vertically integrated i.e. having your own design tools and fabs. Today, it’s a disadvantage.

  • Foundries have economies of scale and standardization. Rather than having to invent it all themselves, they can utilize the entire stack of innovation in the ecosystem. And just focus on manufacturing
  • AMD has proven that it’s possible to shift from an IDM to a fabless foundry model. Intel is trying. They are going to use TSMC as a foundry for their own chips as well as set up their own foundry

What’s Next – Geopolitics

Controlling advanced chip manufacturing in the 21st century may well prove to be like controlling the oil supply in the 20th. The country that controls this manufacturing can throttle the military and economic power of others.

  • Ensuring a steady supply of chips has become a national priority. (China’s largest import by $’s are semiconductors – larger than oil)
  • Today, both the U.S. and China are rapidly trying to decouple their semiconductor ecosystems from each other; China is pouring $100+ billion of government incentives in building Chinese fabs, while simultaneously trying to create indigenous supplies of wafer fab equipment and electronic design automation software
  • Over the last few decades the U.S. moved most of its fabs to Asia. Today we are incentivizing bringing fabs and chip production back to the U.S.

An industry that previously was only of interest to technologists is now one of the largest pieces in great power competition.

Save the Date! the 5th Lean Innovation Educators Summit

SAVE THE DATE for the 5th Lean Innovation Educators Summit on The Role of Educators and the University in Building Sustainable and Innovative Ecosystems 
February 3rd, 2022 from 1 to 4pm EST, 10 to 1pm PST 

Join me, Jerry Engel, Pete Newell, and Steve Weinstein as well as educators from universities around the world for this upcoming event.  

The Summit brings together leading entrepreneurship educators who are putting Lean Innovation to work in their classrooms, accelerators, and students’ ventures. This is the fifth edition of this semi-annual gathering, a supportive peer community of educators, and we’ll meet to discuss how we adapt to meet the challenges of the current tumultuous environment. The upcoming session will focus on the role of the university, and other important organizations in our ecosystems, in supporting our critical mission of preparing the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators. 

The role of entrepreneurs and the ecosystem that supports them is even more important as the pace of change accelerates. The challenges of the pandemic and global warming highlight the importance of capturing value from technology and the innovators who create novel and effective solutions.  How do we as entrepreneurship and innovation educators best prepare the next generation?  What is the role of the university in helping us do this?

Our key note speaker is Dr. Richard Lyons of UC Berkeley – the University’s first ever Chief Innovation Officer. After ten years as Dean of the Berkeley Haas School of Business, Rich brings a fresh and broad perspective. Stimulated by Professor Lyon’s keynote, we’ll get to the heart of the Summit, our peer to peer discussions. In these moderated sessions we’ll discuss best practices with colleagues from around the world. We’ll then share the results of the breakout sessions with everyone.

This session is free but limited to Innovation educators. You can register for the event here and learn more on our website: We look forward to gathering as a community to continue shaping the future of Lean Innovation Education.

Panelists and moderators include:  

Ivy Schultz – Columbia University
Victoria Larke – University of Toronto
Ali Hawks – BMNT
Julie Collins – Georgia Tech
Babu DasGupta – University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee
Bob Dorf – Columbia University
Michael Marasco – Northwestern University
Sabra Horne – BMNT
Phil Weilerstein – Venture Well
Tyrome Smith – Common Mission Project
Thomas O’Neal – University of Central Florida
Paul Fox – La Salle University
Philip Bouchard – TrustedPeer Entrepreneurship
Jim Hornthal – UC Berkeley
Todd Morrill – UC Berkeley
Todd Basche – BMNT
Dave Chapman – University College London
Stephanie Marrus – University of California – San Francisco
Sid Saleh – Colorado School of Mines
Joe Smith – Department of Defense
Jim Chung – George Washington University


See you February 3rd, 2022 from 1 to 4pm EST, 10 to 1pm PST.
Register here

What’s Plan B? – The Small, the Agile, and the Many

This post previously appeared in the Proceedings of the Naval Institute.

One of the most audacious and bold manifestos for the future of Naval innovation has just been posted by the Rear Admiral who heads up the Office of Naval Research. It may be the hedge we need to deter China in the South China Sea.

While You Were Out
In the two decades since 9/11, while the U.S. was fighting Al-Qaeda and ISIS, China built new weapons and developed new operational concepts to negate U.S. military strengths. They’ve built ICBMs with conventional warheads to hit our aircraft carriers. They converted reefs in international waters into airbases, creating unsinkable aircraft carriers that extend the range of their aircraft and are armed with surface to air missiles make it dangerous to approach China’s mainland and Taiwan.

To evade our own fleet air defense systems, they’ve armed their missiles with maneuvering warheads, and to reduce our reaction time they have missiles that travel at hypersonic speed.

The sum of these Chinese offset strategies means that in the South China Sea the U.S. can no longer deter a war because we can longer guarantee we can win one.

This does not bode well for our treaty allies, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. Control of the South China Sea would allow China to control fishing operations and oil and gas exploration; to politically coerce other countries bordering in the region; to enforce an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea; or to enforce a blockade around Taiwan or invade it.

What To Do About It?
Today the Navy has aircraft carriers, submarines, surface combatants, aircraft, and sensors under the sea and in space. Our plan to counter to China can be summed up as, more of the same but better and more tightly integrated.

This might be the right strategy. However, what if we’re wrong? What if our assumptions about the survivability of these naval platforms and the ability of our marines to operate, were based on incorrect assumption about our investments in material, operational concepts and mental models?

If so, it might be prudent for the Navy to have a hedge strategy. Think of a hedge as a “just in case” strategy. It turns out the Navy had one in WWII. And it won the war in the Pacific.

War Plan Orange
In the 1930s U.S. war planners thought about a future war with Japan. The result was “War Plan Orange” centered on the idea that ultimately, American battleships would engage the Japanese fleet in a gunnery battle, which the U.S. would win.

Unfortunately for us Japan didn’t adhere to our war plan. They were bolder and more imaginative than we were. Instead of battleships, they used aircraft carriers to attack us. The U.S. woke up on Dec. 7, 1941, with most of our battleships sitting on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The core precept of War Plan Orange went to the bottom with it.

But the portfolio of options available to Admiral Nimitz and President Roosevelt were not limited to battleships. They had a hedge strategy in place in case the battleships were not the solution. The hedges? Aircraft carriers and submarines.

While the U.S. Navy’s primary investment pre-WW2 was in battleships, the Navy had also made a substantial alternative investment – in aircraft carriers and submarines. The Navy launched the first aircraft carrier in 1920. For the next two decades they ran fleet exercises with them. At the beginning of the war the U.S. Navy had seven aircraft carriers (CVs) and one aircraft escort vessel (AVG). By the end of the war the U.S. had built 111 carriers. (24 fleet carriers, 9 light carriers and 78 escort carriers.) 12 were sunk.

As it turned out, it was carriers, subs, and the Marines who won the Pacific conflict.

Our Current Plan
Fast forward to today. For the last 80 years the carriers in a Carrier Strike Group and submarines remain the preeminent formation for U.S. naval warfare.

China has been watching us operate and fight in this formation for decades. But what if carrier strike groups can no longer win a fight? What if the U.S. is underestimating China’s capabilities, intents, imagination, and operating concepts? What if they can disable or destroy our strike groups (via cyber, conventionally armed ICBMs, cruise missiles, hypersonics, drones, submarines, etc.)? If that’s a possibility, then what is the Navy’s 21st-century hedge? What is its Plan B?

Says Who?
Here’s where this conversation gets interesting. While I have an opinion, think tanks have an opinion, and civilians in the Pentagon have an opinion, RAdm Lorin Selby, the Chief of the Office of Naval Research (ONR), has more than just “an opinion.” ONR is the Navy’s science and technology systems command. Its job is to see over the horizon and think about what’s possible. Selby was previously deputy commander of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) and commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Centers (NSWC). As the chief engineer of the Navy, he was the master of engineering the large and the complex.

What follows is my paraphrasing RADM Selby’s thinking about a hedge strategy the Navy needs and how they should get there.

A hedge strategy is built on the premise that you invest in different things, not more or better versions of the same.

If you look at the Navy force structure today and its plan for the next decade, at first glance you might say they have a diversified portfolio and a plan for more. The Navy has aircraft carriers, submarines, surface combatants, and many types of aircraft. And they plan for a distributed fleet architecture, including 321 to 372 manned ships and 77 to 140 large, unmanned vehicles.

But there is an equally accurate statement that this is not a diversified portfolio because all these assets share many of the same characteristics:

  • They are all large compared to their predecessors
  • They are all expensive – to the point where the Navy can’t afford the number of platforms our force structure assessments suggest they need
  • They are all multi-mission and therefore complex
  • The system-to-system interactions to create these complex integrations drive up cost and manufacturing lead times
  • Long manufacturing lead times mean they have no surge capacity
  • They are acquired on a requirements model that lags operational identification of need by years…sometimes decades when you fold in the construction span times for some of these complex capabilities like carriers or submarines
  • They are difficult to modernize – The ability to update the systems aboard these platforms, even the software systems, still takes years to accomplish

If the primary asset of the U.S. fleet now and in the future is the large and the complex, then surely there must be a hedge, a Plan B somewhere? (Like the pre-WW2 aircraft carriers.)  In fact, there isn’t. The Navy has demos of alternatives, but there is no force structure built on a different set of principles that would complicate China’s plans and create doubt in our adversaries of whether they could prevail in a conflict.

The Hedge Strategy – Create “the small, the agile, and the many”
In a world where the large and the complex are either too expensive to generate en masse or potentially too vulnerable to put at risk, “the small, the agile, and the many” has the potential to define the future of Navy formations.

We need formations composed of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of unmanned vehicles above, below, and on the ocean surface. We need to build collaborating, autonomous formations…NOT a collection of platforms.

This novel formation is going to be highly dependent on artificial intelligence and new software that enables cross-platform collaboration and human machine teaming.

To do this we need a different world view. One that is no longer tied to large 20th-century industrial systems, but to a 21st-century software-centric agile world.

The Selby Manifesto:

  • Digitally adept naval forces will outcompete forces organized around principle of industrial optimization. “Data is the new oil and software is the new steel”
  • The systems engineering process we have built over the last 150 years is not optimal for software-based systems.
    • Instead, iterative design approaches dominate software design
  • The Navy has world-class engineering and acquisition processes to deal with hardware
    • but applying the same process and principles to digital systems is a mistake
  • The design principles that drive software companies are fundamentally different than those that drive industrial organizations.
  • Applying industrial-era principles to digital era technologies is a recipe for failure
  • The Navy has access to amazing capabilities that already exist. And part of our challenge will be to integrate those capabilities together in novel ways that allow new modes of operation and more effectiveness against operational priorities
  • There’s an absolute need to foster a collaborative partnership with academia and businesses – big businesses, small businesses, and startups
  • This has serious implication of how the Navy and Marine Corps needs to change. What do we need to change when it comes to engineering and operating concepts?

How To Get “The Small, The Agile, and The Many” Tested and In The Water?
Today, “the small, the agile and the many” have been run in war games, exercises, simulations, and small demonstrations, but not built at scale in a formation of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of unmanned vehicles above, below and on the ocean’s surface. We need to prove whether these systems can fight alongside our existing assets (or independently if required).

ONR plans to rapidly prove that this idea works, and that the Navy can build it. Or they will disprove the theory. Either way the Navy needs to know quickly whether they have a hedge. Time is not on our side in the South China Sea.

ONR’s plan is to move boldly. They’re building this new “small, the agile, and the many”formation on digital principles and they’re training a new class of program managers – digital leaders – to guide the journey through the complex software and data.

They are going to partner with industry using rapid, simple, and accountable acquisition processes, using it to get through the gauntlet of discussions to contract in short time periods so we can get to work. And these processes are going to excite new partners and allies.

They’re going to use all the ideas already on the shelves, whether government shelves or commercial shelves, and focus on what can be integrated and then what must be invented.

All the while they’ve been talking to commanders in fleets around the world. And taking a page from digital engineering practices, instead of generating a list of requirements, they’re building to the operational need by asking “what is the real problem?” They are actively listening, using Lean and design thinking to hear and understand the problems, to build a minimal viable product – a prototype solution – and get it into the water. Then asking, did that solve the problem…no? Why not? Okay, we are going to go fix it and come back in a few months, not years.

The goal is to demonstrate this novel naval formation virtually, digitally, and then physically with feedback from in water experiments. Ultimately the goal is getting agile prototyping out to sea and doing it faster than ever before.

In the end the goal is to effectively evaluate the idea of the small, the agile, and the many. How to iterate at scale and at speed. How to take things that meet operational needs and make them part of the force structure, deploying them in novel naval formations, learning their operational capabilities, not just their technical merits. If we’re successful, then we can help guarantee the rest of century.

What Can Go Wrong?
During the Cold War the U.S. prided itself on developing offset strategies, technical or operational concepts that leapfrogged the Soviet Union. Today China has done that to us. They’ve surprised us with multiple offset strategies, and more are likely to come. The fact is that China is innovating faster than the Department of Defense, they’ve gotten inside our DoD OODA loop.

But China is not innovating faster than our nation as a whole. Innovation in our commercial ecosystem — in AI, machine learning, autonomy, commercial access to space, cyber, biotech, semiconductors (all technologies the DoD and Navy need) — continues to solve the toughest problems at speed and scale, attracting the best and the brightest with private capital that dwarfs the entire DoD R&E (research and engineering) budget.

RADM Selby’s plan of testing the hedge of “the small, the agile, and the many” using tools and technologies of the 21st century is exactly the right direction for the Navy.

However, in peacetime bold, radical ideas are not welcomed. They disrupt the status quo. They challenge existing reporting structures, and in a world of finite budgets, money has to be taken from existing programs and primes or programs even have to be killed to make the new happen. Even when positioned as a hedge, existing vendors, existing Navy and DoD organizations, existing political power centers, will all see “the small, the agile, and the many” as a threat. It challenges careers, dollars, and mindsets. Many will do their best to impede, kill or co-opt this idea.

We are outmatched in the South China Sea. And the odds are getting longer each year. In a war with China we won’t have years to rebuild our Navy.

A crisis is an opportunity to clear out the old to make way for the new. If senior leadership of the Navy, DoD, executive branch, and Congress truly believe we need to win this fight, that this is a crisis, then ONR and “the small, the agile, and the many” needs a direct report to the Secretary of the Navy and the budget and authority to make this happen.

The Navy and the country need a hedge. Let’s get started now.

Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition  – Wrap Up

This article first appeared in West Point’s Modern War Institute.

We just had our final session of our Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition class. Joe FelterRaj Shah and I designed the class to give our students insights on how commercial technology (AI, machine learning, autonomy, cyber, quantum, semiconductors, access to space, biotech, hypersonics, and others) will shape how we employ all the elements of national power (our influence and footprint on the world stage).

(Catch up with the class by reading our intro to the class, and summaries of Classes 1234, 5 6, 7 and 8.)

This class has four parts that were like most lecture classes in international policy:

  • Weekly Readings – 5-10 articles/week
  • 20+ guest speakers on technology and its impact on national power – prior secretaries of defense and state, current and prior National Security council members, four-star generals who lead service branches
  • Lectures/Class discussion
  • Midterm individual project – a 2,000-word policy memo that describes how a U.S. competitor is using a specific technology to counter U.S. interests and a proposal how the U.S. should respond

The fifth part of the class was unique.

  • A quarter-long, team-based final project. Students developed hypotheses of how commercial technologies can be used in new and creative ways to help the U.S. wield its instruments of national power. And then they got out of the classroom and interviewed 20+ beneficiaries, policy makers, and other key stakeholders testing their hypotheses and proposed solutions.

At the end of the quarter, each of the teams gave a final “Lessons Learned” presentation with a follow-up a 3,000 to 5,000-word team-written paper.

By the end the class all the teams realized that the problem they had selected had morphed into something bigger, deeper and much more interesting.

Team Army Venture Capital

Original problem statement: the U.S. needs to reevaluate and improve its public venture capital relationship with companies with dual-use technologies.

Final problem statement: the DoD needs to reevaluate and improve its funding strategies and partnerships with dual-use mid-stage private companies.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

We knew that these students could write a great research paper. As we pointed out to them, while you can be the smartest person in the building, it’s unlikely that 1) all the facts are in the building, 2) you’re smarter than the collective intelligence sitting outside the building.

Team Conflicted Capital

Original problem statement: Chinese investment in US startups with critical technologies poses a threat to US military capabilities, but the lack of transparency in venture capital makes it challenging to track them.

Final problem statement: Chinese adversarial venture capital investments in U.S. dual-use startups continue to threaten US military capabilities across critical technologies, but the scope of the problem is relatively small. VCs and entrepreneurs can play a role in addressing the challenge by shunning known sources of adversarial capital.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

By week 2 of the class students formed teams around a specific technology challenge facing a US government agency and worked throughout the course to develop their own proposals to help the U.S. compete more effectively through new operational concepts, organizations, and/or strategies.

Team Aurora

Original Problem Statement: How can the U.S. employ its cyber capabilities to provide the populace of China with unrestricted Internet access to bolster civil society against CCP crackdowns, in order to pressure the PRC, spread American liberal values, and uphold U.S. freedom of action in the information domain?

Final Problem Statement: How does the USG leverage a soft-power information campaign to support Hong Kong residents’ right to self-determination and democratic governance without placing individuals at undue risk (of prosecution as foreign agents under the National Security Law)?

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

We wanted to give our students hands-on experience on how to deeply understand a problem at the intersection of our country’s diplomacy, information, its military capabilities, economic strength, finance, intelligence, and law enforcement and dual-use technology. First by having them develop hypotheses about the problem; next by getting out of the classroom and talking to relevant stakeholders across government, industry, and academia to validate their assumptions; and finally by taking what they learned to propose and prototype solutions to these problems.

Team ShortCircuit

Original Problem Statement: U.S. semiconductor procurement is heavily dependent on TSMC, which creates a substantial vulnerability in the event a PRC invasion of Taiwan, or other kinetic disruptions in the Indo-Pacific.

Final Problem Statement: How should the U.S. Government augment the domestic semiconductor workforce through education and innovation initiatives to increase its semiconductor sector competitiveness?

If you can’t see the presentation click here. 

We want our students to build the reflexes and skills to deeply understand a problem by gathering first-hand information and validating that the problem they are solving is the real problem, not a symptom of something else. Then, students began rapidly building minimal viable solutions (policy, software, hardware …) as a way to test and validate their understanding of both the problem and what it would take to solve it.

Team Drone

Original Problem Statement: Drones can be used as a surprise element in an amphibious assault to overwhelm defenses. In a potential Taiwan Strait Crisis, there is a need for a low-cost and survivable counter-drone system to defend Taiwan.

Final Problem Statement: Taiwan needs a robust and survivable command and control system to effectively and quickly bring the right asset to the right place at the right time during an invasion.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

One other goal of the class was testing a teaching team hypothesis – that we could turn a lecture class into one that gave back more in output than we put in. That by tasking the students to 1) use what they learned from the lectures and 2) then test their assumptions outside the classroom, the external input they received would be a force multiplier. It would make the lecture material real, tangible and actionable. And we and they would end up with something quite valuable.

Team Apollo

Original Problem Statement: The Space Force must leverage commercial innovation and establish a trained, experienced acquisition workforce that will deliver innovation impact that the Space Force requires.

Final Problem Statement: The United States Space Force lacks the supply chain and rapid launch capabilities needed to respond to contingencies in space. The private sector possesses these capabilities, but is not being adequately leveraged or incentivized.

If you can’t see the presentation click here. 

We knew we were asking a lot from our students. We were integrating a lecture class with a heavy reading list with the best practices of hypothesis testing from Lean Launchpad/Hacking for Defense/I-Corps. But I’ve yet to bet wrong in pushing students past what they think is reasonable. Most rise way above the occasion.

Given this was the first time we taught integrated lectures and projects our student reviews ranged from the “we must have paid them to write this” to “did they take the same class as everyone else?” (Actually it was, let’s fix the valid issues they raised.)

A few student quotes:

“This is a MUST TAKE [caps theirs]. The professors and teaching team are second to none, and the guest speakers are truly amazing. This course is challenging, but you truly get out of it what you put into it, and you will learn so much crucial and interesting material.”

“THIS IS A FANTASTIC COURSE! [caps theirs]. The material was excellent, the instruction from legendary professions was top notch and the reading material was timely, interesting, and relevant. Anyone who is interested in geopolitics and technology innovation needs to take this course. Not only that, but each week features a different guest speaker that is usually from the highest levels of US government and is THE expert in the subject for that week’s course. Really amazing experience getting to listen to and have Q&A with such incredible people.”

Team Catena

Original Problem Statement: China’s cryptocurrency ban presents the U.S. with an opportunity to influence blockchain development, attract technical talent, and leverage digital asset technology.

Final Problem Statement: CCP’s economic coercion makes countries such as Australia dependent on China’s economy and vulnerable to the party’s will. The U.S. must analyze which key Australian industries are most threatened and determine viable alternative trading partners.

If you can’t see the presentation click here.

A few more student quotes:

“This is hands-down one of the best courses I’ve taken at Stanford. From the moment I walked into the door, I was stunned by both the caliber of people you’re sharing oxygen with in that room, and how welcoming and accessible they are. Despite it being the first offering of this course, everything was well-organized, and our team was always supported with a wealth of resources and access we needed to get our policy deliverables to, alongside a healthy dose of near-constant feedback and encouragement from the teaching team. Readings were engaging and insightful, and the guest list we had was simply unbelievable- Mattis, McFaul, Rice, Pottinger, among several others in the White House, Pentagon, and beyond. There’s a real feeling that everyone who worked on this course wants you to grow as a student but also teach them what you’re learning.

Beware Steve Blank- he can be harsh and aggressive but exemplifies the ‘rude but life-saving doctor’ trope. I’ve learned more from responding to a single Blank cold-question in lecture than from three entire quarters of applied math at Stanford. Be sure to get started early on your teamwork and talk to the lecturers as much as you can- this really is a ‘you get as much as you give’ course, and the highest returns are to be had by being tenacious, loud, and unabashed in your questioning.
And, for God’s sake, don’t draw cartoons on your final presentation- the JCOS might be watching.

“DO NOT TAKE THIS COURSE! This class is a complete waste of time.“

“This was the worst class I took at Stanford “

While the positive feedback accolades for the class were rewarding, several comments identified areas we can improve:

  • Letting the students know upfront the workload and unique format of the class
  • Better organization and timing
    • Readings: be much clearer on which ones are mandatory vs optional
    • Clarify details, flows and objectives for each class
    • Tie speakers to projects / student presentations
  • Make weekly office hours mandatory to ensure all students receive regular professor/student interaction, feedback and guidance from week 1

All of our students put in extraordinary amount of work. Our students, a mix between international policy and engineering, will go off to senior roles in State, Defense, policy and to the companies building new disruptive technologies. They will be the ones to determine what the world-order will look like for the rest of the century and beyond. Will it be a rules-based order where states cooperate to pursue a shared vision for a free and open region and where the sovereignty of all countries large and small is protected under international law? Or will it be an autocratic and dystopian future coerced and imposed by a neo-totalitarian regime?

This class changed the trajectory of many of our students. A number expressed newfound interest in exploring career options in the field of national security. Several will be taking advantage of opportunities provided by the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation to further pursue their contribution to national security.

Lessons Learned

  • We could turn a lecture class into one that gave back more in output than we put in.
  • Tasking the students to test their assumptions outside the classroom, the external input they received was a force multiplier
    • It made the lecture material real, tangible and actionable
  • Pushing students past what they think is reasonable results in extraordinary output. Most rise way above the occasion
  • The output of the class convinced us that the work of students like these could materially add to the safety and security of the free world
  • It is a national security imperative to create greater opportunities for our best and brightest to engage and address challenges at the nexus of technology, innovation and national security

Note: Inspired by our experience with this course, we decided to increase the focus of Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation on developing and empowering the extraordinary and largely untapped potential of students across the university and beyond.

Year End Review – What You Might Have Missed

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Charles Dickens

What a year for all us. The quote above sums it up for me.

I thought I’d share an end of year summary of the best of the 2021 posts.  Enjoy.

Innovation in Large Organizations

  • The difference between creating new things versus executing existing ones in two sentences. Here
  • Why innovation heroes are the sign of a dysfunctional organization. The title says it all. Here.


  • Sometimes we get trapped inside our own heads. I know I did. Here’s how to get unstuck. Here
  • We all don’t see the world the same way. And I don’t mean politics. Some of us literally can’t see what you can.  Here.


  • Why are you waiting for permission to get smarter? You don’t need permission. Here.
  • Ever wonder how a class you took gets designed? There’s a lot under the hood. Here’s how.

National Security

  • U.S. national security problems are multiplying faster than our traditional institutions can solve. So we decided to create something different – The Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.  Here.

Happy Holidays.

On to a better year.


I Can’t See You but I’m Not Blind

If I ask you to think of an elephant do you see an elephant in your head when you close your eyes?

I don’t. Regardless of how descriptive the imagery, story or text I can’t create any pictures in my head at all. 2% of people can’t do this either. This inability to visualize is called aphantasia.

I never knew this absence of mental imagery was even a thing until my daughter pointed out that she and I were missing something my wife and other daughter had. Ask us to visualize a rainbow or a sunset and we just see nothing. We can’t create pictures in our head of objects, people, places or experiences. Where others can visualize these things, we can’t. Not for people, memories, or images past or future. When people say visualize this in your mind’s eye I just thought that was a turn of phrase. It now dawns on me that other people were really seeing something in their heads.

If you want to see what aphantasia is like look at the picture of the Apple. Now close your eyes and try to imagine the apple, seeing it mentally in your mind’s eye. If you don’t see anything, you might have aphantasia.

For a more detailed test check out the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire.

(I’m also realizing that that when people describe that they can hear the sound of their voice in their head (a train of thought), that it wasn’t just a metaphor. But my thoughts are silent.)

My reaction to learning that most people can create visual images was “huh.”  I lived my entire life thinking the word “visualize” meant “think about what this means,” not actually being able to “see” it. Reading that other people actually see images in their head was like learning there was another sense that most people had that I was missing. I was bemused that I had lived my whole life with the equivalent of seeing the world in black and white and finding out that other people see the world in colors. (The one exception to this is that I often wakeup remembering visual images from my dreams.)

Handicap or Asset?

My inability to visualize doesn’t seem to have handicapped my imagination or creativity. I am constantly thinking about new things – I just don’t see them as pictures (or hear them.)

I’m not sure what it is I can’t do that others can. Perhaps I can blame my failure in sports on it? Or my inability to sing or dance? It likely explains why when my wife asks me what someone was wearing or what their house looked like, I come up empty. Or more telling, why I can’t visualize the descriptive language in poetry or in a novel.

What’s interesting is that lacking what most everyone else seems to be able to do may explain how I think, communicate and process information. Perhaps this explains how I go about the creative process. When I want to describe an event that happened, I don’t bring up the visual imagery of what the places or people looked like. Instead my stories are of what I remember about the facts/data/conversations around the event.

It might also explain why pattern recognition and abstract thought (the ability to think about principles, and ideas that are not physically present) come easier to me. Possibly because I’m not distracted by visual pictures associated with the data that others see. I just see raw data.

To work out complicated ideas, I often diagram ideas and concepts (but don’t draw pictures of things.) I break ideas and concepts down into simpler steps by drawing each part. This helps me simplify ideas so I can first explain it to myself and then to others.  I then translate the diagram into words.

At times the result has been transformative for more than just me.

The way I’m wired has given me (and likely other founders and those in other fields) an edge. So, how can others with aphantasia consciously harness that? And for those who do see pictures in your heads is there anything you can learn from those of us who don’t?

(I wonder if I could have benefited from a modified classroom curriculum if this had been discovered this early. Or if I could have been taught how to visualize. But what would have been have lost?)

Pluses and Minuses

When I first heard about aphantasia I wondered if those of us with it would tend to excel in certain fields and avoid others. I was surprised to find out that someone already ran a study that showed that people with low or no visual imagery are more likely to work in scientific and mathematical industries. And having hyperphantasia (people with the opposite condition – having an extremely vivid mental imagery) predisposes people to work in the arts. It makes me wonder if the response and recovery from trauma/PTSD has some correlation with those with the ability to visualize those memories versus those who don’t. (Here’s a great future study area for the Veterans Administration.)

We’re Just at the Beginning of Understanding

This latest recognition of aphantasia as a neurological difference is only a decade or so old (although references in the literature go back to the 1890’s.) My bet is that as science continues to explore neurodiversity (brain differences among people), we’ll gain a wider understanding that people experience, interact with, and interpret the world in many different ways.  And how that leads to different strengths in comprehension, pattern recognition and problem-solving. We’ll likely discover more connections.

I’m curious if there’s anyone else who can’t see pictures in their head.

Let me know.

The Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford

penitus cogitare, cito agere – think deeply, act quickly

75 years ago, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) helped kickstart innovation in Silicon Valley with a series of grants to Fred Terman, Dean of Stanford’s Engineering school. Terman used the money to set up the Stanford Electronics Research Lab. He staffed it with his lab managers who built the first electronic warfare and electronic intelligence systems in WWII. This lab pushed the envelope of basic and applied research in microwave devices and electronics and within a few short years made Stanford a leader in these fields. The lab became ground zero for the wave of Stanford’s entrepreneurship and innovation in the 1950’s and 60’s and helped form what would later be called Silicon Valley.

75 years later, ONR just laid down a bet again, one we believe will be equally transformative. They’re the first sponsors of the new Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford that Joe Felter, Raj Shah, and I have started.

Gordian What?

A Gordian Knot is a metaphor for an intractable problem. Today, the United States is facing several seemingly intractable national security problems simultaneously.

We intend to help solve them in Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. Our motto of penitus cogitare, cito agere, think deeply, act quickly, embraces our unique intersection of deep problem understanding, combined with rapid solutions. The Center combines six unique strengths of Stanford and its location in Silicon Valley.

  1. The insights and expertise of Stanford international and national security policy leaders
  2. The technology insights and expertise of Stanford Engineering
  3. Exceptional students willing to help the country win the Great Power Competition
  4. Silicon Valley’s deep technology ecosystem
  5. Our experience in rapid problem understanding, rapid iteration and deployment of solutions with speed and urgency
  6. Access to risk capital at scale

Our focus will match our motto. We’re going to coordinate resources at Stanford and peer universities, and across Silicon Valley’s innovation ecosystem to:

  • Scale national security innovation education
  • Train national security innovators
  • Offer insight, integration, and policy outreach
  • Provide a continual output of minimal viable products that can act as catalysts for solutions to the toughest problems

Why Now? Why Us?

Over the last decade we’ve created a series of classes in entrepreneurship, rapid innovation, and national security: Lean LaunchPad; National Science Foundation I-Corps; Hacking for Defense; Hacking for Diplomacy; Technology, Innovation and Modern War last year; and this year Technology, Innovation and Great Power Competition. These classes have been widely adopted, across the U.S. and globally.

Simultaneously, each of us was actively engaged in helping different branches of the government understand, react, and deliver solutions in a rapidly changing and challenging environment. It’s become clear to us that for the first time in three decades, the U.S. is now engaged in a Great Power Competition. And we’re behind. Our national power (our influence and footprint on the world stage) is being challenged and effectively negated by autocratic regimes like China and Russia.

GKC joins a select group of national security think tanks

At Stanford, the Gordian Knot Center will sit in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies run by Mike McFaul, ex ambassador to Russia. And Mike has graciously agreed to be our Principal Investigator along with Riitta Katila in the Management Science and Engineering Department (MS&E) in the Engineering School. MS&E is where disruptive technology meets national security, and has a long history of brilliant contributions from Bill Perry, Sig Hecker and Elisabeth Pate-Cornell and others. (Stanford’s other policy institute is the Hoover Institution, run by Condoleezza Rice, ex secretary of state). All are world-class leaders in understanding international problems, policies, and institutions. Other U.S. foreign affairs and national security think tanks include:

We intend to focus the new Center on solving problems across the spectrum of activities that create and sustain national power. National power is the combination of a country’s diplomacy (soft power and alliances), information, military and economic strength as well as its finance, intelligence, and law enforcement – or DIME-FIL. Our projects will be those at the intersection of DIME-FIL with the onslaught of commercial technologies (AI, machine learning, autonomy, biotech, cyber, semiconductors, commercial access to space, et al.). And we’re going to hit the ground running by moving our two national security classes — Hacking for Defense, and Technology Innovation and Great Power Competition (which this year is now a required course in the International Policy program) — into the Center.

We hope our unique charter, “think deeply, act quickly” can complement the extraordinary work these other institutions provide.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR)

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has been planning, fostering, and encouraging scientific research—and reimagining naval power—since 1946. The grants it made to Stanford that year were the first to any university.

Today, the Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps is looking to find ways to accelerate technology development and delivery to our naval forces. There is broad consensus that the current pace of technology development and adoption is unsatisfactory, and that without significant reform, we will lose the competition with China in the South China Sea for maritime superiority.

Rear Admiral Selby, Chief of Naval Research, has recognized that it’s no longer “business as usual.” That ONR delivering sustaining innovations for the existing fleet and marine forces is no longer good enough to deter war or keep us in the fight. And that ONR once again needs to lead with disruptive technologies, new operational concepts, new types of program management and mindsets. He’s on a mission to provide the Navy and U.S. Marine Corps with just that. When we approached him about the idea of the Gordian Knot Center he reminded us, that not only did ONR sponsor Stanford in 1946, they’ve been sponsoring our Hacking for Defense class since 2016!  Now they’ve become our charter sponsor for the Gordian Knot Center.

We hope to earn it – for him, ONR, and the country.

Steve, Joe and Raj

Lessons Learned

The Center combines six unique strengths of Stanford and its location in Silicon Valley

  • The insights and expertise of Stanford international and national security policy leaders
  • The technology insights and expertise of Stanford Engineering
  • Exceptional students willing to help the country win the Great Power Competition
  • Silicon Valley’s deep technology ecosystem
  • Our experience in rapid problem understanding, rapid iteration and deployment of solutions with speed and urgency
  • Access to risk capital at scale

Our focus will match our motto. We’re going to coordinate resources at Stanford and peer universities and across Silicon Valley’s innovation ecosystem to:

  • Scale national security innovation education
  • Train national security innovators
  • Offer insight, integration, and policy outreach
  • Provide a continual output of minimal viable products that can act as catalysts for solutions to the toughest problems

Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition – Class 8 – Cyber

This article first appeared in West Point’s Modern War Institute.

We just completed the eighth week of our new national security class at Stanford – Technology, Innovation and Great Power CompetitionJoe FelterRaj Shah and I designed the class to cover how technology will shape the character and employment of all instruments of national power.

In class 1, we learned that national power is the sum of all the resources available to a state to pursue its national objectives and interests. This power is wielded through a combination of a country’s diplomacy, information, its military capabilities, economic strength, finance, intelligence, and law enforcement. These instruments of national power employed in a “whole of government approach” to advance a state’s interests are known by the acronym DIME-FIL.

Class 2 focused on China, the U.S.’s primary great power competitor. China is using all elements of its national power, e.g. information/ intelligence, its military might and economic strength as well as exploiting Western finance and technology. China’s goal is to challenge and overturn the U.S.-led liberal international order and replace it with its own neo-totalitarian model where China emerges as the dominant regional and global power.

The third class focused on Russia, which since 2014 has asserted itself as a competing great power. We learned how Russia pursues security and economic interests in parallel with its ideological aims.

The fourth class shifted our focus to the impact commercial technologies have on the instruments of national power (DIME-FIL). The first technology we examined was semiconductors, and the U.S. dependence on TSMC in Taiwan, for its most advanced logic chips. This is problematic as China claims Taiwan is a province of China.

In the fifth class we examined the impact that AI and Machine Learning will continue to have on the capabilities and employment of DIME-FIL. We heard from the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC), the focal point of the DOD AI strategy; and from the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) – a DoD organization that contracts with commercial companies to solve national security problems.

In class six we discussed unmanned systems and autonomy and how the advent of these weapons will change operational concepts and the face of war.

Class seven looked at the Second Space Age, how our military and civilian economy rely on assets in space, and how space is now a contested environment, with China and Russia capable of disabling/destroying our satellites

Today’s class: Cyber

Catch up with the class by reading our intro to the class, and summaries of Classes 123, 4, 5 6 and 7


Required readings

Case Study for Class

Competition in Cyber Space

Cyber Attacks / Cyber Warfare

IP & Protected Personal Information Theft

Political Interference

Reading Assignment Questions

Pick one of the below questions and answer in approximately 100 words, based on the required readings. Please note that this assignment will be graded and count towards course participation. 

  1. What is the U.S. Cyber Command’s doctrinal approach to competing in the cyber domain? Do you agree with the current doctrine? Why or why not? Would you do anything differently?
  2. Of the different types of cyber threats presented in this week’s readings (cyberattacks, PPI and IP theft, and political interference), which do you think presents the greatest threat to U.S. interests and why? What should the U.S do to address that threat? Be specific if your recommendations are for the government or private sector.

Class 8 – Guest Speaker

Dr. Michael Sulmeyer is a Senior Adviser, USCYBERCOM (Cyber Command). He was the former Senior Director for Cyber at the National Security Council. The former Cyber Project Director at the Harvard Kennedy School-Belfer Center. He was a past Director, Plans and Operations, for Cyber Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Previously, he worked on arms control and the maintenance of strategic stability between the United States, Russia, and China.

Cyber Command formed in 2010 and is one of the eleven unified combatant commands of the United States Department of Defense. It’s commanded by a four-star general, General Paul Nakasone who is also the director of the National Security Agency and chief of the Central Security Service. It has three main missions: (1) defending the DoD information systems, (2) supporting joint force commanders with cyberspace operations, and (3) defending the nation from significant cyberattacks.

Dr. Sulmeyer has written, “A focus on cyber-deterrence is understandable but misplaced. Deterrence aims to change the calculations of adversaries by persuading them that the risks of an attack outweigh the rewards or that they will be denied the benefits they seek. But in seeking merely to deter enemies, the United States finds itself constantly on the back foot. Instead, the United States should be pursuing a more active cyberpolicy, one aimed not at deterring enemies but at disrupting their capabilities. In cyberwarfare, Washington should recognize that the best defense is a good offense.

In countries where technology companies are willing to cooperate with the U.S. government (or with requests from their own government), a phone call to the right cloud provider or Internet service provider (ISP) could result in getting bad actors kicked off the Internet.

U.S. hackers could pursue a campaign of erasing computers at scale, disabling accounts and credentials used by hackers to attack, and cutting off access to services so it is harder to compromise innocent systems to conduct their attacks.”

Our national defense cyber policy has now moved to “persistent engagement.” Defending forward as close as possible to the origin of adversary activity extends our reach to expose adversaries’ weaknesses, learn their intentions and capabilities, and counter attacks close to their origins. Continuous engagement imposes tactical friction and strategic costs on our adversaries, compelling them to shift resources to defense and reduce attacks. We will pursue attackers across networks and systems to render most malicious cyber and cyber-enabled activity inconsequential while achieving greater freedom of maneuver to counter and contest dangerous adversary activity before it impairs our national power.

Lecture 8

If you can’t see the lecture 8 slides click here.

Lessons Learned

  • Cyber Command’s role is to:
    • defend the DoD information systems
    • support joint force commanders with cyberspace operations, and
    • defend the nation from significant cyberattacks
  • Cyber Command has evolved from a reactive, defensive posture to a proactive posture called “persistent engagement”

Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition – Class 7 – Space

This article first appeared in West Point’s Modern War Institute.

We just completed the seventh week of our new national security class at Stanford – Technology, Innovation and Great Power CompetitionJoe FelterRaj Shah and I designed the class to cover how technology will shape the character and employment of all instruments of national power.

In class 1, we learned that national power is the sum of all the resources available to a state to pursue its national objectives and interests. This power is wielded through a combination of a country’s diplomacy, information, its military capabilities, economic strength, finance, intelligence, and law enforcement. These instruments of national power employed in a “whole of government approach” to advance a state’s interests are known by the acronym DIME-FIL.

Class 2 focused on China, the U.S.’s primary great power competitor. China is using all elements of its national power, e.g. information/ intelligence, its military might and economic strength as well as exploiting Western finance and technology. China’s goal is to challenge and overturn the U.S.-led liberal international order and replace it with its own neo-totalitarian model where China emerges as the dominant regional and global power.

The third class focused on Russia, which since 2014 has asserted itself as a competing great power. We learned how Russia pursues security and economic interests in parallel with its ideological aims.

The fourth class shifted our focus to the impact commercial technologies have on the instruments of national power (DIME-FIL). The first technology we examined was semiconductors, and the U.S. dependence on TSMC in Taiwan, for its most advanced logic chips.

In the fifth class we examined the impact that AI and Machine Learning will continue to have on the capabilities and employment of DIME-FIL.

In class six we discussed unmanned systems and autonomy and how the advent of these weapons will change operational concepts and the face of war.

Today’s class: The Second Space Age: Great Power Competition in Space.

Catch up with the class by reading our intro to the class, and summaries of Classes 123, 4, 5 and 6 

Required readings

The Cold War: Space Race 1.0

Space as a Domain

Age of Great Power Competition: Space Race 2.0

America’s Space Forces

Space Threats & Non-State Actors

Reading Assignment Questions

Pick one of the below questions and answer in approximately 100 words, based on the required readings. 

  1. Describe America’s space assets and the role of the U.S. Space Force in protecting and employing those assets. As the U.S. Space Force continues to develop, what changes in strategy and/or addition to its portfolio of responsibilities would you recommend?
  2. What is the greatest current threat to U.S. interests in space? What recommendations would you have for the U.S. and its partners to mitigate that threat?

Class 7 – Guest Speaker

Our guest speaker was General John Raymond, Chief of Space Operations. He is the first Chief of Space Operations, U.S. Space Force. Space Force has three major commands — Space Operations CommandSpace Systems Command, and Space Training and Readiness Command.

The Space Force was born as a separate service in December 2019. Previously General Raymond led re-establishment of U.S. Space Command as 11th U.S. combatant command, and was for a year the head of both a service (Space Force) and a combatant command (Space Command).

Raymond said a focus for the Space Force is being lean and fast, innovative and unified.

Space was once considered “benign,” largely uninhabited except by the United States and Russia and the Soviet Union. Today it is far more crowded and dangerous. Raymond pointed out that the ability to operate in space is critical not only to protect U.S. security, but also to power the U.S. and global economy, communications, transportation and other essential functions of everyday life.

“Space is clearly a warfighting domain and we’re convinced that if deterrence were to fail, we’re going to have to fight and win the battle for space superiority,” he said.

Lecture 7

If you can’t see the lecture 7 slides click here.

Next Week: Cyber

Lessons Learned

  • Our military depends on our assets in space (satellites) for communication, navigation, situational awareness (via photo, radar and electronic intelligence satellites) warning and targeting
  • Our civilian economy also depends on space assets for GPS and communication
  • Space is now a contested environment with China and Russia capable of disabling/destroying our satellites
    • Using directed energy (lasers), cyber, electronic warfare, ground or space-based kinetic weapons

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