TCS Daily

Big Things, Big Thinkers

By James Pinkerton - August 23, 2002 12:00 AM

ALBUQUERQUE - What's the NBT - Next Big Thing - in homeland security? In 1945, scientists in these parts built the atomic bomb. Talk about Big Things: "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" ended World War Two. For decades thereafter, Sandia Labs was at the center of nuclear weapons design and production; the deterrent provided by the thousands of Big Things cranked out of here helped win the Cold War. But now, in the wake of September 11, the central challenge has shifted again, to the Terror War. And since that struggle is so amorphous, so likely to be fought on so many fronts, it's unlikely that a NBT is the answer; it's more likely to be MBT - Many Big Things. That's the challenge to America, and that's the challenge to Sandia, which has been at the forefront of tech-war for six decades.

If Big Things require Big Thinkers, one who qualifies is Gerry Yonas. After earning degrees from Cornell and Cal Tech, Yonas headed to Sandia in 1972; he has been here, for the most part, ever since, taking time out for other top defense-related jobs. He was the first Chief Scientist, for example, for the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization in the '80s.

In 1999, Yonas established the Advanced Concepts Group (ACG) at Sandia to pursue what he puckishly calls "dotology" - the science of connecting the dots. That is, he and his team are striving to see linkages between various disciplines, all with an eye toward weaving a new connective, protective tapestry for America in the decades to come. And so the ACG has convened disparate groups of experts, ranging from defense planners to science-fiction writers, to come to his windowless suite of offices for conferences. The most recent such session, called "Thinkfest," was held earlier this month.

The various experts came in all shapes and sizes; some thinkfesters had backgrounds in materials science, others in history, others in comparative languages. Most had massive practical experience as well. One retired infantryman, for example, was a veteran of America's conflicts in the past three decades; now his focus is urban warfare, of the kind that has flummoxed traditional armies, from Stalingrad to Algiers to Mogadishu to Jenin.

What role can technology play? I asked him. Some techno-issues are counterintuitive, he answered. That is, while in general, high-tech is good - the better to preserve 360 degree "situational awareness" - there can be too much of a good thing. It's a serious concern, for instance, if infantry soldiers spend too much time looking down at their computers and other gizmos, when what they really need to be doing is eyeballing their physical environs. In the short run, he added, better training is needed to address this potentially fatal "look-down" issue; in the long run, what's needed are better tools, such as "wearable computers" that put a computer-generated display directly in front of the soldier's eye--maybe even directly in the eye. And that's the sort of problem he's working on. Small world: I wrote about one company making wearable computers, Xybernaut, in this space on March 18.

Yonas began the Thinkfest conference by asking what issues should fall into the realm of "national security." As I looked around the room, at all the smart and interesting people gathered around me, my eye wandered to a sign on the wall: the "rules" for discussion at ACG. They were, "Show up and choose to be present"; "Pay attention to what has heart and meaning"; "Tell the truth without blame or judgment"; "Be open to outcomes - not attached to outcomes." If that level of commitment to free and frank discussion were to be preserved for this whole session, I mused, this fest will be fun as well as fruitful. And indeed, those four precepts were good guides, because the conversations and presentations ran far and wide over the next two days.

For openers, what is national security? To some extent, it's like the old joke about pornography: you know it when you see it. But when American lives, as well as billions of dollars, are at stake, more rigor is needed.

In addition to the obvious threat posed by weapons of mass destruction - as one Thinkfester put it, "What will the world be like when there are 20-50 countries with nuclear weapons?"--other threats were mulled as well. For instance, is the economic paralysis of Japan a national security issue? Yes, many argued, if it undermines that country as a strong linchpin of American strategic credibility in Asia. The problem wouldn't be that Japan would break away from its alliances; instead, a palsied Japan would be unable to contribute to hypothetical multinational enterprises, as in, say, a reconstruction operation in the Middle East or even the Korean peninsula. Indeed the White House National Security Council currently has a working group studying one of Japan's chronic problems, which is the crushing overhang of non-performing loans made by its big banks to troubled companies.

What of other seemingly non-military issues that could nonetheless have a huge military impact somewhere down the road? What about, for example, the prevalence of sex-selection abortion in China and India? These procedures leave the boy-girl ratio dramatically skewed in favor of males. What's going to happen when those millions of boys grow into young men and can't find women? Will they seek to import women from other places? Will they seek to export themselves to other countries? Will a higher percentage turn to homosexual activity, changing the cultural and political structure of their homelands? Nobody can be sure of the answer, of course - although it has been well-documented that the higher the proportion of young men in a society, the higher the propensity to both internal and external violence - but the question is particularly worth asking about countries with significant nuclear arsenals.

Yet if the demographics of youth are a concern, so are the demographics of aging. The "graying" of the world is a grave potential concern in Europe, where falling birthrates among the native-stock population lead to higher levels of immigration to make up for the shortfall in the workforce. Since many of those new immigrants are from Muslim countries, this influx raises the prospect of a significant change in the politics of key allies. How will Americans feel if a NATO country is represented or ruled by someone of Arab extraction? Will our nuclear alliance be as strong and secure then?

Other issues arose, too. Everyone agrees that technology is critical to our national security. As one 'fester declared, the superpowers of the future will be those countries that excel at "info, nano, bio, and cogno warfare." But what will be sources of that technology? Where will Americans get their human capital? Education has long been a national security concern; the big gusher of federal aid to education - for better or for worse, depending on one's point of view - was the 1958 National Defense Education Act. As its title suggests, the legislation, enacted in the wake of the Sputnik Scare, was billed as vital to the Cold War effort.

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education picked up that dire national security theme, declaring, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might have viewed it as an act of war." The schools have improved in the two decades since, but not enough.

Thus in January 2001, the US Commission on National Security, better known as the Hart-Rudman Commission, described better education as one of its principal recommendations. The Commission earned points for prescience by calling for a Department of Homeland Security eight months ahead of 9-11, a year-and-a-half before President Bush. So its education emphasis, echoed by many 'festers, deserves serious consideration. On the other hand, as one participant put it, maybe the test of a national security issue is whether or not it should be properly taken up by the National Security Council. No doubt some power-happy, turf-grabby NSCer would like to have a say in domestic education policy, but do we really want the NSC taking time away from anti-terror to consider curricula for fourth graders?

Meanwhile, the future will likely twist in ways we can sketch out, but not precisely. If one speculative theme was pervasive among 'festers, it was the belief that the robust biotech field would be a font of marvels, for worse as well as for better. As one participant noted, hacking has evolved - or mutated, or metastasized - a long way in past decades. In the '60s, hackers were "phone phreaks" who contented themselves with cadging free calls from Ma Bell. Then they hacked their way into computers, networks, and now the Internet. Will terrorists find a way to make common cause with the hackerati, in the US or elsewhere? China, for example, routinely hacks into American computers. And India could be even more of a threat, hacker superpower, based on the huge number of software brains assembled in Bangalore. And the next step could be biotech, in which people hack their way into the human genome, that of themselves and others.

So what to do? That wasn't the purpose of this particular session at Sandia. After all, problem-identifying must precede problem-solving. And even then, of course, there are no guarantees. But the success of the United States government in protecting itself from terror for the past 11 months is surely not just a matter of good luck: Uncle Sam must be doing something right.

Meanwhile, outfits such as Yonas' ACG are approaching threats in the future - be it an NBT or a whole bunch of MBT's - in a systematic way. The fruits of their work might not be visible for a while, but of course, the bitter fruits of the terrorists might not be visible for a while either. But most likely, as President Bush has said, the terror war will continue for decades to come. And just as important is the risk of terrible events - generated by demography or technology or any other "ology" - that we can foresee but haven't yet figured out how to forestall.

Yonas and ACG might always be obscure, but the enormous potential value of their work should be as clear as the New Mexico sky in August.



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