The 2022 Naval Academy Michelson Lecture: Delivered in a Time of Strategic Warning


By Edward Timperlake, US Naval Academy, Class of 1969

“Trustworthy AI” was the research topic which was the focus of the presentation by Dr. Jeannette Wing, at the 2022 Michelson Lecture.

She is Executive Vice President for Research at Columbia University. Formerly, she was Corporate Vice President of Research at Microsoft Corporation.

Dr. Wing presented her research focusing on the trustworthiness of artificial intelligence (AI). She discussed the recent growth in deployment of AI systems in critical domains that directly impact human lives and focused on the increasing concerns about whether AI decisions can be trusted to be correct, reliable, fair and safe, especially under adversarial attack.

The evening program announcing the lecture, highlighted the approach:

Recent years have seen an astounding growth in deployment of AI systems in critical domains such as autonomous vehicles, criminal justice, healthcare, hiring, housing, human resource management, law enforcement, and public safety, where decisions taken by AI agents directly impact human lives.

Consequently, there is an increasing concern if these decisions can be trusted to be correct, reliable, fair, and safe, especially under adversarial attacks. 

How then can we deliver on the promise of the benefits of AI but address these scenarios that have life-critical consequences for people and society?  In short, how can we achieve trustworthy AI?

Her talk posed a new research agenda, from a formal-methods perspective, to foster increased trust in AI systems. By so doing, Dr Wing demonstrated both her brilliance and humility, in that she presented her research as essentially a very important open ended “work in progress.” In doing so, she recognized that the Midshipman present will continue building from her foundational mathematical work.

Dr. Wing framed the current challenge for the United States Navy inside the ever advancing information revolution in order to fight and win any combat engagement. She underscored that “Computer science is not computer programming. Thinking like a computer scientist means more than being able to program a computer. It requires thinking at multiple levels of abstraction.”

The Michelson lectures are named in honor of Albert A. Michelson. The Class of 1969, USNA President Steve Comiskey reminded the audience that Albert A. Michelson, began as a Midshipman with USNA Class of 1873, then returned to the Academy as an instructor and became the first American to receive a 1907 Nobel Prize in Physics.

In Newtonian mechanics, quantities such as speed and distance may be transformed from one frame of reference to another, provided that the frames are in uniform motion (i.e. not accelerating). Considering the results of the Michelson-Morley experiment led Einstein to develop the theory of special relativity.

It should be noted that the famous Michelson-Morley measurement of the speed of light took place on the Yard at Annapolis and was as stated a seminal Physics building block for Professor Einstein’s Theories of Relativity. Consequently, his work ultimately empowered President Truman’s wartime leadership to employ the two Atomic weapons that ended the war with Japan. It also became the dawn of nuclear deterrence existing to this day.

However, tragically it was also not lost on those present in this early spring day that for the first time since WW II a vicious war has broken out in Europe. The outcome of Russia vs. Ukraine is yet to be determined. And this war highlights that the danger for strategic miscalculation is significant for the nation and our allies. It should be remembered how important the Navy’s tactical and strategic role was in abating the Cuban Missile crisis which also had the potential to spin out of control between at the time, the Soviet Union and the United States.

Taking the world as it is on defending America now and in the future, the 2022 Michelson Lecture personifies a mix of what makes the U.S. Navy the most advanced fighting force at sea in the world. It is an ability to combine cutting edge technologies with competent combat experience and leadership.

Dr. Wing’s talk brings into focus the most important question on the value and accuracy of information in a fast moving combat environment. Adding the power of AI must be filtered through a win or lose speed of light function of command and control which is simply stated: Is the information presented accurate, timely and useful?

Concurrently, with Dr Wing’s research, four Navy officers, two currently serving and two who just relinquished command are perfect examples of combat officers achieving very influential roles, and  in a very significant  way contributed to today’s fighting Navy, and all are Academy grads.

Former “Supe” Vice Admiral Ted Carter, (ret)  and Rear Admiral Mike Manazir (ret) former N9, along with current “Supe” Vice Admiral Sean Buck and  USN Captain Ben Shupp Dean of the Academy’s Math and Science Department, all bridge the practical with the possible. And the Brigade of Midshipman who are the future are the reason the Michelson Lecture series was generated and continues.

Right now with a hot war in Europe, two Russian military announcements highlight why the fighting Navy has to be ever ready while developing useful war fighting combat systems and con-ops to fight and win around the globe against any adversary:

In a March 14 2019 article, I asked a very direct question; is President Putin diabolically smart or simply a psychopath?  Perhaps he is both, because by his direct action, the world is now a much more dangerous place as the former KGB officer creates a nuclear doomsday scenario backed by real Russian naval capabilities: Russia is said to have built a new 100-megaton underwater nuclear doomsday device, and it has threatened the USwith it and the device goes beyond traditional ideas of nuclear war fighting and poses a direct threat to the future of humanity or life on Earth.

Then in less than a week before the Michelson Lecture Russian military forces announced they fired a hypersonic sub-atmospheric missile against a target in Ukraine.

Both are strategic threats, essentially a stealth fired nuclear armed torpedo, no launch plume  seen by satellite sensors,  and a hypersonic nuclear armed missile are  right now, today, deadly serious strategic game changing weapons.

Fortunately, the U.S. Navy leadership team of the four officers presented above understood  from the time they graduated into the Fleet why the USNA motto is so important; “”Ex Scientia Tridens,” “From Knowledge, Sea power.”

Back-to-back Superintendents highlight how this works for the U.S. Navy. Vice-Admiral Ted Carpenter was an F-14 combat radar intercept officer and Vice-Admiral Sean Buck was a former aviation crew member of the Navy patrol reconnaissance community and both are perfect examples of right person at the right time along with the Dean of the Mathematics and Science Department Captain Ben Shupp who earlier in his career, commanded the Gold Crew of the USS West Virginia

Three candid pictures exemplify why having Fleet combat experience and then return to guide the next generation of Naval Officers is so important. Lt. Manazir’s call sign  “Nasty” and Ted “Slapshot” Carter were honored by having their name painted on the F-14 displayed in the Yard.

Naval Academy F-14 ;Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Admiral Walter E. “Ted” Carter Jr logged many flight hours in this jet in the late 1980’s. His pilot was Mike Manazir.

A candid photo of the Current Superintendent of  USNA Vice Admiral Sean Buck, present at Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance  Group 4.

Then  Cdr Shupp’s Change of Command  for SSBN 736 Gold Crew  yelled one last “Hoo-yah, West Virginia,” a sort-of battle cry that has become popular onboard to which the crew replied back, “Go Mountaineers”

Fighting at the speed of light with information flowing accurately inside a dynamic payload utility function for targets acquisition and then successful target engagement connected to the appropriate payload is the key to solving how to defend against evolving strategic weapons.

A nuclear warhead end of life torpedoes is a very significant ASW challenged and both types of hyper-Sonic missiles from a sub-atmosphere shot to the complexities of IRBM/ICBM missiles with re-entry atmospheric hypersonic glide characteristics are deadly challenges.

As an F-14  RIO Lt “Slapshot” Carter  had to direct and engage multiple bogies using then current  state of the art radar and sensors to direct a missile payload appropriate to kill, while flying faster than the speed of sound.

The Pilot’s name on the F-14 at Annapolis  is Mike Manazir “Nasty” who finished his Naval career as DCNO Warfare Systems (N9.) says it all also.

DCNO Warfare Systems (N9) determines, validates and integrates requirements and resources for manpower, training, sustainment, safety, modernization, and procurement of the Navy’s air, surface, undersea and expeditionary warfare systems (manned and unmanned).

As the resource sponsor, N9 establishes requirements, sets priorities, and oversees overall planning and programming for such domains as expeditionary warfare, surface warfare, undersea warfare, air warfare, and unmanned warfighting systems. This includes associated manpower, support, training and readiness

Thus the lesson learned from the names painted on the Tomcat fuselage personifies the ever increasing combat readiness of Navy tacair. From the F-14 to eventual Midshipman in the audience some soon to fly the F-35, each generation is tasked to bring  world class combat aviation to the fight.

Superintendent Carter should also be acknowledged as father of the Naval Academy state-of-the art “Cyber” academic discipline. Cyber is emerging as one of the key domains of warfare, which a modern sea service must master to be successful in a wide spectrum of operations. Modern warships and systems already deployed with the USN and USMC as well as those coming on line all rely on digital content, communications moving at the speed of light to empower effective C2 capabilities to ensure mission success.

The current Superintendent flew in the anti-submarine and maritime patrol That community is essential for defending both the Fleet and United States.

With the transition to the P-8 and Triton, the Navy is shaping a common culture guiding the transformation of the ASW and ISR side of Naval Air. The acquisition term for the effort is a 21st Century  “family of systems” whereby the P-3 is being “replaced” by the P-8 and the Triton Remotely Piloted Aircraft.

Clearly the combined capability is a replacement of the P-3 in only one sense – executing the anti-submarine warfare function. But the additional ISR and C2 enterprise being put in place to operate the combined P-8 and Triton capability is a much broader capability than the classic P-3.

The P-8/Triton capability is part of 21st century air combat systems: software upgradeable, soon empowered by AI, fleet deployed,  with a multinational coalition emerging peer partnership.

Software upgradeability can eventually included AI computational systems and will provide for a lifetime of combat learning to be reflected in the rewriting of the software code while adding new capabilities over the operational life of the aircraft.

Hence the essential challenge has been perfectly captured by Dr.Wing with her  focus on the trustworthiness of AI.

Over time, fleet knowledge will allow the U.S. Navy and its partners to understand how best to maintain, support and dynamically grow the aircraft combat systems while operating in support of global operations.

On Wednesday March 16 2022, Dr. Jeannette Wing of Columbia University, speaking in the theater of Mahan Hall, challenged Midshipman to focus on advancing the development of trustworthy AI.

It is just another step forward for her world class university which is fostering intellectual growth into the future. It is noteworthy that Columbia University has a long history of creating scientific breakthroughs including the first nuclear fission reaction in the Americas, hence “The Manhattan Project.”

The United States Naval Academy, has had two back to back College “Presidents.” called Superintendents who were selected for their successfully flying many, many missions in the U.S. Navy offensive/defensive combat enterprise.

While national rankings of Colleges ebb and flow, in 2017 the U.S. Naval Academy was ranked the No. 1 public school among national liberal arts colleges, according to the annual U.S. News & World Report, Best Colleges.

It is fitting for American  national security to celebrate the great motto of the USN ‘Boomer” USS West Virginia SSBN-736,  skippered by Commander Shupp who is now in charge of Math and Science at Navy. The West Virginia’s motto represents  but one state but can easily personify  the quest for eternal freedom for all citizens of the United States: Montani Semper Liberi   —“Mountaineers are Always Free”.

All enemies of America who wish us harm should never forget that all our combat forces are an ever improving work in progress.