By Carl M. Cannon
May 10, 2002
--Bruce Sterling, science fiction novelist and technology writer.
The federal government often doesn't change the wallpaper until it's so old it's peeling off the walls. Waiting until then may seem to be less expensive, but it's really not.
It's May now, the beginning of fire season out West. At the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, the pilots are readying their fleet of spotting planes. Actually, "fleet" is probably not the right word: Three planes--a King Air B-90, a Super King B-200, and a new Cessna Citation Bravo, the Forest Service's first jet--patrol the skies. The area they cover is truly vast. Not just the huge U.S. forests of Alaska and the Western states, but all of North America. "We've been to fires in Ontario, Canada, and as far south as Guatemala," Woody Smith, an electronics technician in Boise said on May 8 while one of the planes was spotting fires in New Mexico. "We could use a little more help, sure."
Those planes carry infrared cameras that can spot an 8-inch "hotspot" from 14,000 feet. They typically detect 10 to 15 fires while flying their grids--although Smith has spotted as many as 30 in one night. That's the good news. The bad news is that the planes have no satellite uplink and no computer network into which they can download this information. The flight crews relay the information to the fire bosses the same way they have since the Vietnam War: They land the planes near the fires and hand the film to an infrared interpreter. It can take from 30 minutes up to four hours to get the information where it needs to be.
Here's how the U.S. Air Force does a similar task: It launches General Atomics Aeronautical Systems-built Predators or Northrop Grumman-built Global Hawks over the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan at altitudes of up to 60,000 feet, keeps them up for days on end, and transmits the pictures they take via satellite to ships in the Persian Gulf. Both types of planes are drones, meaning they're unmanned. The high-flying Global Hawk jets are equipped with on-board computers, which control--and even land--the planes. The Predators are steered by controllers on the ground, who can direct them to fire weapons at military targets.
On Capitol Hill, the current buzzword for such state-of-the-art hardware and the accompanying computer systems is "transformational" technologies. They surely are. But what should Americans think, then, about that retro fire-fighting gear in Idaho? Why can't Predators fly over the national parks and zap small fires with chemical retardants before they grow into dangerous wildfires? Science fiction writer William Gibson once explained it this way: "The future is here. It's just not equally distributed." Gibson was referring to the "digital divide" between well-off Americans and the underclass, but his point has a broader context, which was brought into clearer focus on September 11, the day the gulf between military technology and, say, the Immigration and Naturalization Service's passe record-keeping system suddenly seemed dangerously wide.
When Sterling uttered his lyrical phrase about wallpaper, he was addressing the National Academy of Sciences' convocation on technology and education. It was the first year of the Clinton administration. The Internet was still a cool thing to invoke. Aware that Washington policy makers were pretty chary of applying high-tech solutions to traditional social ills, Sterling was positively evangelistic about the possibilities of a technological future. The author of Zeitgeist and other books told the assembled wonks that although novelists and futurists tended to weave best-case or worst-case scenarios, in real life there are mainly "sideways-case scenarios." He noted that the Internet began as a Cold War military project but flourished as a tool for scholarly research, commerce, and play.
"It was designed for purposes of military communication in a United States devastated by a Soviet nuclear strike--originally, the Internet was a post-apocalypse command grid," Sterling said. "And look at it now! It's as if some grim fallout shelter had burst open and a full-scale Mardi Gras parade had come out. Ladies and gentlemen, I take such enormous pleasure in this that it's hard to remain properly skeptical. I hope that in some small way I can help you to share my deep joy and pleasure in the potential of networks, my joy and pleasure in the fact that the future is unwritten."
That's one vision. But following Sterling to the dais that day--it was May 10, 1993--was a tall, thin figure with a somewhat darker worldview: William Gibson himself. The leader of a generation of "cyber-punk" writers, Gibson is the originator of the term "cyberspace," which he coined in his acclaimed 1984 novel, Neuromancer. By then, Gibson had given considerable thought to the technology Al Gore once dubbed the "information superhighway." And he knew enough to be concerned.
"Realistically speaking, I look at the proposals being made here and I marvel," Gibson said wryly in response to the computer-in-every-classroom talk that dominated the seminar. "A system that in some cases isn't able to teach basic evolution--a system bedeviled by the religious agendas of textbook censors--now proceeds to throw itself open to a barrage of ultra-high-bandwidth information from a world of Serbian race-hatred, Moslem fundamentalism, and Chinese Mao Zedong thought."
Thus did the world's foremost science fiction writer reveal his skepticism about human nature and his prescience: The sectarian fanatics who attacked the United States eight years later, killing some 3,000 people, communicated with each other through cyberspace, researched potential targets in cyberspace--and continue to spew their hatred through cyberspace. The murderers of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl had a free Hotmail account. The point is that technology itself is not a force for evil or a force for good. "It's just a force," says Gregory Fossedal, chairman of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, "that is determined by the good or evil of human beings who use it."
There is also a parallel conundrum associated with technology: In a free-market democracy with a tradition of individualism (the United States), the very factors that help produce a stunning gusher of innovation--unfettered intellectual freedom, a profit motive, the fact that no one is really in charge--also serve to impede government's ability to deploy such technologies to their maximum efficiency.
After America was attacked, President Bush and the top officials of his government reordered their departments, their priorities, and their very lives for the purpose of stopping terrorism. They reflexively turned to cutting-edge technology to help them. "We think there's a market for these products that are either on the research board or in the back of your mind--or down the road," Office of Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge told the Electronic Industries Alliance on April 23. "Biotech, infotech, you name it. We're going to look to the technology sector."
Ridge is certainly correct to turn to Silicon Valley for help in solving the nation's problems. But as it happens, incorporating technology wisely was already Washington's challenge before September 11. There are numerous technologies that, if deployed by government, would improve the quality of life, preserve natural resources, save money, address seemingly intractable social and economic problems and, in the process, fundamentally alter the nature of the debate on age-old Washington political questions.
Consider the forest fires that those pilots in Boise are supposed to battle with their 1960s technology. In 1988, after a devastating wildfire ravaged one-third of Yellowstone National Park, the nation debated the wisdom of the Park Service's "let it burn" policy. In truth, that policy--whatever its ecological merits--has long been the de facto policy for the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in dealing with most major fires. These agencies simply lack the wherewithal to put out large fires in roadless areas. But the technology to fight them may already exist.
Today, during a big fire, Forest Service crews utilize pictures from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellites to help set their perimeters. But much greater technology is on hand. The oceanic agency's future NPOESS sensors and NASA's existing Hyperion sensors are capable of using hyperspectral imagery-colors not discernable by the human eye. This means these satellites could determine the water content, and thus the flammability level, of the nearby flora. They could measure wind direction and thereby predict where a fire would be in an hour.
In addition, the Defense Department has recently signed contracts with Lockheed Martin and TRW to launch a fleet of satellites that could change everything. It's called the SBIRS High and SBIRS Low programs. (It's pronounced "sibbers," and stands for Space-Based Infrared System). SBIRS Low will consist of some two dozen TRW satellites with amazing capabilities. Their primary mission will be to detect missile launches, but these fast-moving birds could do much more. They could not only identify a fire as soon as it broke out, they could conceivably identify the human who started it.
But they could do all this only if the Air Force agrees to share satellite time, if the Forest Service buys the computers to process all this information, and if it trains its people to use them--and so forth. "That's where you'd need an advocate in the agencies," says Richard Dal Bello, executive director of the Satellite Industry Association. "Is there somebody there who knows enough to get it done? Is there anybody in Congress who cares? That's the human dimension, where the magic we call politics comes in."
Would this be expensive? Yes, but how much does a forest cost? Or a human life? In 1994, nine smoke jumpers and five members of a Colorado "hotshot" crew were killed when a small 50-acre blaze blew up into a 2,400-acre wildfire on a July afternoon on Storm King Mountain. Those firefighters had basically the same equipment (axes, saws, shovels, and parachutes) as the 13 smoke jumpers who died in Montana's infamous Mann Gulch fire--in 1949. Add to the cost of human lives and wildlife and timber this number: $1 billion. That's how much the federal government spent fighting forest fires in 1994 without computers.
So-called "smart cards," which contain chips or microprocessors, have offered a technologically feasible way to keep track of visitors to the United States for more than five years. By including biometric information, smart cards could provide much more security, as fake-proof identity cards, for everything from driver's licenses to passports and visas. Until recently, civil libertarians chaffed at the idea of national identity cards, and state legislatures balked at the cost. That may be about to change. On May 1, two Virginia congressmen, Republican Tom Davis and Democrat James P. Moran, introduced a bill directing states to turn their driver's licenses into smart cards. "We think what happened September 11 makes a compelling case to do it now," Moran said.
There is more where this came from. Existing technology could give Americans smart cars, smart roads, smart energy meters--and much smarter consumer medical devices. David J. Farber, a University of Pennsylvania professor who is an expert in engineering and telecommunications, said one example of a medical advance that is already feasible would be a chip embedded in the arm of a person with Type I diabetes. Such a chip could modulate the flow of insulin into the body far more precisely than today's insulin pumps. It could also record and transmit minute-to-minute data about blood-sugar levels, and dial 911 if a patient fell into insulin shock.
In an interview, Farber suggested that if Congress had more diabetics, federal money for such systems would be plentiful. That's probably not precisely the problem, but he is onto something about technology and Capitol Hill. The most recent edition of Vital Statistics on Congress shows that only one member of either the House or the Senate has an aeronautics background, nine have engineering backgrounds, and 17 have backgrounds in medicine. (Only one senator, Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington state, worked for an Internet company.) By contrast, 218 of the 535 members are lawyers.
It stands to reason, therefore, that policy makers shy away from technologies that give off even a whiff of Big Brother--and few of the new potential technologies are as benign as Farber's diabetes chip. "Satellites and computers have given us the ability to look at things and deduce what's going on in a way that was never possible before," Farber said. "If you looked at all the information available about people--where they spend their money, who they talk to, who they meet, what they're reading, where they are at any given time--you could prevent a lot of crime, and probably terrorism.... But it's not an inexpensive proposition, and most Americans wouldn't enjoy being looked at all the time. A lot of things you could do, we aren't doing, because of the Constitution."
Yet, paradoxically, some of Americans' most cherished freedoms are at a crossroads--and technology may be their salvation. The enduring image of the 2000 presidential election is of beleaguered voting officials peering in confusion at mangled voting cards, the detritus of ancient, low-tech voting machinery that has no more place in modern America than spats and spittoons.
"I mean, that's the right symbol!" said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, recalling those infamous hanging chads. "The average [error] rate in voting in America is 1.6 percent. The average [accuracy] rate for an automatic teller machine is better than 6-sigma, which is 99.9999. It's better than that. Now, is there a hint here? We're not talking about the future. We're talking about bringing government into the 21st century. That's all we're talking about. Just catch up with all the things that occur in the consumer world and occur in the business world today."
Gingrich's current passion is how transformational technologies in general, and nanotechnology in particular, are the key to maintaining American pre-eminence. In speeches and interviews emphasizing the need for Washington to embrace a high-tech future, he's been known to casually suggest a tripling of the education budget. "We are on the verge of creating an extraordinary explosion of new solutions that will dramatically improve our lives, our communities, and the delivery of societal and governmental goods and services," he said at a recent American Enterprise Institute seminar. Yet official Washington often resists technological solutions. This is most problematic when government is the only entity that can viably fund them.
Public education is an example of a program so big only government can really pay for it. But bigness itself is part of the problem. Although reading and comprehension test scores, especially among minority students, have been mired for a generation, the education establishment is too unwieldy to quickly embrace high-tech solutions. One of the most promising technologies emerged from studies into the workings of the brain by Michael Merzenich of the University of California (San Francisco) and Paula Tallal of the Rutgers University neuroscience center in Newark, N.J. After discovering what portions of the brain are responsible for learning, recognition, and memory, Merzenich coupled this research with modern computer technology and launched Scientific Learning. The company, based in Oakland, Calif., has produced a sophisticated learning program that routinely raises student reading and comprehension skills by a full grade level in six weeks. A 6-year-old sits at a computer, puts on headphones, and does five separate exercises (disguised as computer games) for 20 minutes each. There are up to 900 levels for each exercise, which the computer automatically calibrates to the individual student as it runs through the progressions. The repetition would wear out a teacher, but the computer doesn't mind.
The program is beginning to catch on as a teaching tool, but only on a painstakingly slow, district-by-district basis. Will the Education Department bless it? Company CEO Sheryle J. Bolton, citing the accountability provisions passed in this year's so-called No Child Left Behind education bill, hopes so. "We'll see," she said. "But `No Child Left Behind' certainly fits our mission statement."
Paul Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif., says that for technology to slowly work its way up to the national level in this way is now the norm. "There used to be a trickle-down effect in technology," he said. "The government got the best stuff first--the astronauts got what they needed, and then the rest of us got Tang for breakfast. It doesn't work that way anymore. Now a 15-year-old buys a supercomputer before his father--even if his father is a colonel in the Pentagon--gets his hands on it. I'm not kidding. That supercomputer is called Sony PlayStation 2. It's so powerful, if it was made in this country you probably couldn't export it."
John Markoff, who covers Silicon Valley for The New York Times, once dubbed this phenomenon the "inversion" of the computer business. Saffo calls it the "bubble-up effect" and says he noticed it when he and some other futurists toured the Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. It may have the same name as the famous ship of Star Trek, but the carrier is hardly space-age. "We realized," Saffo said, "that with our PalmPilots and laptops we had more computer power in our backpacks than they had on their whole ship."
The reasons for this include cumbersome procurement rules, the amount of money the government is willing to pay--and, mostly, the scale of the worldwide consumer market. The Pentagon might buy a couple hundred thousand supercomputers, but Sony is selling millions. Also, the government's real need is not handheld hardware; it's the development of massive, self-organizing systems that constitute a new science in itself. This discipline is known variously as "complexity science," or "complex adaptive systems," or sometimes just plain old "chaos" theory.
One Santa Fe, N.M., company, BiosGroup, specializes in developing "self-organizing systems" that solve the problem of informational bottlenecks. Even before September 11, this firm had landed several government contracts--DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is particularly interested in applying complexity science--but now, even laypeople in Congress understand how crucial it is. "We had enough information [about the September 11 terrorists]. It was staring us in the face," says James W. Herriot, vice president for science at BiosGroup. "But somehow, nobody connected the dots together. We have billions of parts of information, but not enough human brainpower to sort through it all. There are lots of intelligent people in government, and they know that the system we have is a disaster. It won't be fixed by cutting the INS in half, although that might be politically satisfying. It will be solved by engineering systems according to this new science."
Still another factor relates to government's failure to embrace state-of-the-art technology: the tricky nature of making decisions in the fishbowl of an open democracy. "It's not that government is uniquely unwise, it's that they're more accountable for failure," says Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings. "If a business tries something and it doesn't work, they go on. If government does it, they get exposed and ridiculed--voted out of office. The stakes are different in government."
Dyson found this out the hard way after she served as the first chairman of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It is a nonprofit set up to bring order to the granting of Web addresses, but it received continual criticism from every direction. Asked how it would be possible to get government to be less risk-averse, Dyson turned the question back onto her questioner--onto the media. "For one thing, you guys have to stop jumping on them," she said. "Politics should be less vicious, and there needs to be more understanding that we need courage and experiment and innovation in government as well as in the private sector." Gary Chapman, coordinator of the 21st Century Project at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, echoes this point. He also maintains that government has problems that private-sector executives can't begin to imagine.
"The chief problem that government has is the same problem the phone companies have: They can't deploy systems that break, or which at least have a high degree of risk of breaking," Chapman said. "Not only do government systems typically have to work tolerably well, they have to serve everyone equitably and they have to be semitransparent in terms of their development, budgets, and accountability."
These two points underscore the reality that there is no exact private-sector equivalent to midterm elections and the Electoral College. Take the corporate average fuel economy standards, known as CAFE. Automakers' light trucks are now required to average 20.7 miles per gallon, while their passenger cars must average 27.5 mpg. Those standards haven't been raised in a decade, because of the clout of the Big Three automakers and their unions based in the battleground state of Michigan. In the wake of September 11, there were calls, even from conservatives, for stepped-up energy conservation, which the administration skirted by embracing fuel-cell research, a promising but far-off antidote. Refusing to raise CAFE standards was a purely political decision. It was not a science-based decision--for the simple reason that the technology to vastly increase conservation is already here. It was on display three months ago at the Detroit auto show. There, Honda unveiled its Civic Hybrid, a car that averages 50 mpg.
Sometimes the problem isn't politics. It's a lack of imagination. DNA forensics is a glaring example, and a classic case of Bruce Sterling's sideways-case scenarios. In 1975, an Oxford-trained English biochemist named Alec Jeffreys attempted to clone a mammalian single-copy gene. He failed, but he did manage to devise a method of detecting single-copy genes. By September 1984, still pursuing biomedical research, Jeffreys, then at the University of Leicester, successfully tested a system of probing for genetic sequences in human DNA. The implications were immediately obvious. "It was clear that these hyper-variable DNA patterns offered the promise of a truly individual-specific identification system," he wrote.
Cops on both sides of the Atlantic began using DNA evidence in the prosecution of rape and murder suspects. But with little federal guidance, law enforcement authorities in the United States had no standardized rules for collecting such evidence. Requirements varied from state to state, as did the willingness to use DNA evidence as a tool for proving the innocence of some jailed defendants. Some courts and prosecutors have been so hostile to using DNA to help defendants that private do-gooders have filled the breach. In Kentucky, a retired Presbyterian minister raised $5,000 for a DNA test of a convicted rapist named William Thomas Gregory, who'd always proclaimed his innocence. Gregory was telling the truth. Two years ago, the test confirmed his innocence and he was released--the first Kentucky inmate to be freed by DNA evidence. The Innocence Project, started in 1992 by defense lawyers Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld, has been instrumental in freeing more than 100 inmates. In Virginia, authorities are proud of their state-of-the-art Biotech Two forensics laboratory in Richmond, but it took a large donation from crime novelist Patricia Cornwell to build it.
Virginia has the best DNA database in the country because a 1990 law required DNA samples from every felon admitted into the state's penal system. In most places, backlogs are the rule. New York City has more DNA evidence sitting, untested, in "rape kits" in police stations' evidence rooms than in its lab--meaning that untold numbers of rapists and killers are roaming the streets for want of a single lab test. National Organization for Women President Kim Gandy terms this situation a "national disgrace," and she's not alone. In its fiscal 2003 budget, the Bush administration asked Congress for a 100 percent increase in federal funds to help local police departments reduce this backlog. Several lawmakers, led by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., want more. On March 13, Nadler proposed increasing the current $50 million a year earmarked for this purpose over the next two years to $250 million.
This would be a good start, as is the FBI's national database, CODIS. But what a technologically savvy federal government would have done is construct a new lab with a dedicated supercomputer that would clear up old cases, reconcile claims of innocence with the evidence, and match up new DNA evidence from current rape cases in real time.
If Congress had a sense of irony, it could name such a facility the Buckland-Pitchfork DNA Laboratory, after the two Britons whose stories rival any plot a science fiction writer could weave. Rodney Buckland was the feeble-minded 17-year-old freed for rape and murder after Alec Jeffreys's lab established that DNA from semen on two 15-year-old girls was not his. Colin Pitchfork, a local flasher, was the one who was nabbed after English detectives required 5,000 men in three villages to submit to DNA tests.
There are all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure, why cops in the United States couldn't round up 5,000 men for DNA testing. There are also legitimate reasons, aside from technophobia, why juries don't automatically believe the government's forensic experts. It has been left to the nation's front-line prosecutors to tackle this skepticism head-on. One of them, San Diego County Deputy District Attorney George "Woody" Clarke, has come up with an admonition that could be posted in procurement offices and appropriating committees across Washington.
"Anything done by humans is subject to error," he says. "The technology itself is never wrong."
By Carl M. Cannon
May 10, 2002