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Pentagon to Public: Any Bright Ideas?

Citizens put on their anti-terrorism thinking caps and businesses are at the drawing board.

November 02, 2001|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It seemed odd that the world's greatest military power was asking ordinary citizens for suggestions. But while the Pentagon's request for ideas on combating terrorism was routine on some levels, it was also a sign of desperate times--and the desperate measures that may be needed to get out of them.

"We've got some very smart people here in the Department of Defense, but we don't have a corner on the market on smart people," said Pentagon spokesman Maj. Mike Halbig. He was referring to the Oct. 23 broad agency announcement requesting "help in combating terrorism, defeating difficult targets, conducting protracted operations in remote areas and developing countermeasures to weapons of mass destruction."

Should we be unnerved to hear the government admit that it doesn't have all the answers? Or comforted that the military is reaching out instead of keeping a stiff upper lip to save face? In either case, this open approach seems to be getting a good response. In its first week, the Pentagon received 4,000 suggestions. Most of them were sent online, but ideas that would be considered classified had to be sent by mail. If the current rate of response continues, the government will have more than 34,000 suggestions when its 60-day response period ends Dec. 23.

The Pentagon issues requests for ideas "all the time," Halbig said, but this one has caught the attention of a public anxious to help the country fight terrorism.

In this broad agency announcement--the term is government-speak for "help"--the Pentagon specifically requested ideas in 38 areas, including portable polygraph instruments for questioning passengers at airports, improved facial recognition systems to pick suspects out of a crowd and voice print and speech recognition technologies in Middle East dialects.

While anyone is free to make suggestions--information on submitting ideas is at http://www.bids.tswg.gov -- the Pentagon says it would prefer they come from individuals and companies that can bring the idea through to development.

Ideas are evaluated in a three-step process by "experts all across the nation," not just military, said Halbig. Ideas that make the first cut will be returned to whomever submitted them for a more detailed, 12-page proposal. If that proposal is accepted, the government will ask for a full proposal and contract. The Department of Defense says that all who submit ideas--whether accepted or rejected--will get a response.

In a sense, the government's call for ideas is like a large-scale workplace suggestion box. On the upside, it shows that the government cares about its citizens and respects their intelligence enough to solicit their ideas, said Mimi Natividad, a consultant with L.A.-based Employers Group, a human resources consulting firm.

These pluses may explain why such techniques are so widely used in the corporate world. Fifty-eight percent of the 5,000 California employers that work with Employers Group say they have policies to take employee suggestions. How many of them are big wooden boxes, Natividad could not say, but probably not many, given that monetary incentives are often at stake.

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One downside to suggestion systems is that there may not be adequate resources to review all the ideas that come in.

"The biggest problem that can be anticipated [with the Pentagon's request] is poor administration," said Natividad. "With the volume of ideas and suggestions [the government] is receiving, do they have adequate staff to handle it?"

Halbig said he doesn't have exact figures on how many people will be reviewing the suggestions but said "there are a significant number."

The Pentagon says it won't be releasing specifics on the suggestions it receives, and those submitting them aren't necessarily talking about their plans.

Steve Ehrlich, vice president of marketing for Nuance, a speech recognition and voice authentication software company in Menlo Park, Calif., said he heard about the Pentagon's request last week.

Although he wouldn't comment on whether Nuance plans to submit a proposal, Ehrlich said, "It's certainly something we're looking at."

Like many of the technologies the government is seeking, Nuance software is being used only by banks and other businesses at this point. But, Ehrlich said, it could also be implemented for security.

The company's voice-print technology--which uses a 45-second sample of a person's voice to create an ID--has a 99.9% accuracy rate, Ehrlich said, and "is up to the task of providing government and travel carriers with the ability to identify particular people in a specific location or in a specific phone call."

Some banks are using the voice authentication technology so customers can get information on their accounts via telephone using their voice for identification, not a password.

Nuance offers systems in 26 languages--but none of the ones the military wants now. If the government asked the company to "incorporate Pashtu, Urdu, Farsi, Arabic dialects and other Middle Eastern languages

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