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Many years ago, in December 1993 to be approximate, I noticed a space-related poster on the wall of Eric Klien’s office in the headquarters of the Atlantis Project. We chatted for a bit about the possibilities for colonies in space. Later, Eric mentioned that this conversation was one of the formative moments in his conception of the Lifeboat Foundation.

Another friend, filmmaker Meg McLain has noticed that orbital hotels and space cruise liners are all vapor ware. Indeed, we’ve had few better depictions of realistic “how it would feel” space resorts since 1968’s Kubrick classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Remember the Pan Am flight to orbit, the huge hotel and mall complex, and the transfer to a lunar shuttle? To this day I know people who bought reservation certificates for whenever Pan Am would begin to fly to the Moon.

In 2004, after the X Prize victory, Richard Branson announced that Virgin Galactic would be flying tourists by 2007. So far, none.

A little later, Bigelow announced a fifty million dollar prize if only tourists could be launched to orbit by January 2010. I expect the prize money won’t be claimed in time.

Why? Could it be that the government is standing in the way? And if tourism in space can’t be “permitted” what of a lifeboat colony?

Meg has set out to make a documentary film about how the human race has arrived four decades after the Moon landing and still no tourist stuff. Two decades after Kitty Hawk, a person could fly across the country; three decades, across any ocean.

Where are the missing resorts?

Here is the link to her film project:


When there is a catastrophic loss of an aircraft in any circumstances, there are inevitably a host of questions raised about the safety and security of the aviation operation. The loss of Air France flight 447 off the coast of Brazil with little evidence upon which to work inevitably raises the level of speculation surrounding the fate of the flight. Large-scale incidents such as this create an enormous cloud of data, which has to be investigated in order to discover the pattern of events, which led to the loss (not helped when some of it may be two miles under the ocean surface). So far French authorities have been quick to rule out terrorism it has however, emerged that a bomb hoax against an Air France flight had been made the previous week flying a different route from Argentina. This currently does not seem to be linked and no terrorist group has claimed responsibility. Much of the speculation regarding the fate of the aircraft has focused on the effects of bad weather or a glitch in the fly-by-wire systemthat could have caused the plane to dive uncontrollably. There is however another theory, which while currently unlikely, if true would change the global aviation security situation overnight. A Hacked-Jet.

Given the plethora of software modern jets rely on it seems reasonable to assume that these systems could be compromised by code designed to trigger catastrophic systemic events within the aircraft’s navigation or other critical electronic systems. Just as aircraft have a physical presence they increasingly have a virtual footprint and this changes their vulnerability. A systemic software corruption may account for the mysterious absence of a Mayday call — the communications system may have been offline. Designing airport and aviation security to keep lethal code off civilian aircraft would in the short-term, be beyond any government civil security regime. A malicious code attack of this kind against any civilian airliner would, therefore be catastrophic not only for the airline industry but also for the wider global economy until security caught up with this new threat. The technical ability to conduct an attack of this kind remains highly specialized (for now) but the knowledge to conduct attacks in this mold would be as deadly as WMD and easier to spread through our networked world. Electronic systems on aircraft are designed for safety not security, they therefore do not account for malicious internal actions.

While this may seem the stuff of fiction in January 2008 this broad topic was discussed due to the planned arrival of the Boeing 787, which is designed to be more ‘wired’ –offering greater passenger connectivity. Air Safety regulations have not been designed to accommodate the idea of an attack against on-board electronic systems and the FAA proposed special conditions , which were subsequently commented upon by the Air Line Pilots Association and Airbus. There is some interesting back and forth in the proposed special conditions, which are after all only to apply to the Boeing 787. In one section, Airbus rightly pointed out that making it a safety condition that the internal design of civilian aircraft should ‘prevent all inadvertent or malicious changes to [the electronic system]’ would be impossible during the life cycle of the aircraft because ‘security threats evolve very rapidly’.Boeing responded to these reports in an AP article stating that there were sufficient safeguards to shut out the Internet from internal aircraft systems a conclusion the FAA broadly agreed with - Wired Magazine covered much of the ground. During the press surrounding this the security writer Bruce Schneier commented that, “The odds of this being perfect are zero. It’s possible Boeing can make their connection to the Internet secure. If they do, it will be the first time in the history of mankind anyone’s done that.” Of course securing the airborne aircraft isn’t the only concern when maintenance and diagnostic systems constantly refresh while the aircraft is on the ground. Malicious action could infect any part of this process. While a combination of factors probably led to the tragic loss of flight AF447 the current uncertainty serves to highlight a potential game-changing aviation security scenario that no airline or government is equipped to face.

Comments on Hack-Jet:

(Note — these are thoughts on the idea of using software hacks to down commercial airliners and are not specifically directed at events surrounding the loss of AF447).

From the author of Daemon Daniel Suarez:

It would seem like the height of folly not to have physical overrides in place for the pilot — although, I realize that modern aircraft (especially designs like the B-2 bomber) require so many minute flight surface corrections every second to stay aloft, that no human could manage it. Perhaps that’s what’s going on with upcoming models like the 787. And I don’t know about the Airbus A330.

I did think it was highly suspicious that the plane seems to have been lost above St. Peter & Paul’s Rocks. By the strangest of coincidences, I had been examining that rock closely in Google Earth a few weeks ago for a scene in the sequel (which was later cut). It’s basically a few huge rocks with a series of antennas and a control hut — with nothing around it for nearly 400 miles.

Assuming the theoretical attacker didn’t make the exploit time-based or GPS-coordinate-based, they might want to issue a radio ‘kill’ command in a locale where there would be little opportunity to retrieve the black box (concealing all trace of the attack). I wonder: do the radios on an A330 have any software signal processing capability? As for the attackers: they wouldn’t need to physically go to the rocks–just compromise the scientific station’s network via email or other intrusion, etc. and issue the ‘kill’ command from a hacked communication system. If I were an investigator, I’d be physically securing and scouring everything that had radio capabilities on those rocks. And looking closely at any record of radio signals in the area (testing suspicious patterns against a virtual A330’s operating system). Buffer overrun (causing the whole system to crash?). Injecting an invalid (negative) speed value? Who knows… Perhaps the NSA’s big ear has a record of any radio traffic issued around that time.

The big concern, of course, is that this is a proof-of-concept attack — thus, the reason for concealing all traces of the compromise.

From John Robb - Global Guerillas:

The really dangerous hacking, in most situations, is done by disgruntled/postal/financially motivated employees. With all glass cockpits, fly by wire, etc. (the Airbus is top of its class in this) it would be easy for anybody on the ground crew to crash it. No tricky mechanical sabotage.

External hacks? That is of course, trickier. One way would be to get into the diagnostic/mx computers the ground crew uses. Probably by adding a hack to a standard patch/update. Not sure if any of the updates to these computers are delivered “online.”

Flight planning is likely the most “connected” system. Easier to access externally. Pilots get their plans for each flight and load them into the plane. If the route has them flying into the ground mid flight, it’s possible they won’t notice.

In flight hacks? Not sure that anything beyond outbound comms from the system is wireless. If so, that would be one method.

Another would be a multidirectional microwave/herf burst that fries controls. Might be possible, in a closed environment/fly by wire system to do this with relatively little power.


There has been continuous discussion of the dangers involved with fly-by-wire systems in Peter Neumann’s Risk Digest since the systems were introduced in the late 1980s. The latest posting on the subject is here.

Investigator: Computer likely caused Qantas plunge

The air is buzzing. People are talking about health more than ever before, and it’s good news for patients. Technology is making it possible for patients to take an active role in “participatory medicine”, partnering with their doctors to decide on the best course of action for their health.

Over the next few months, these 6 events will bring together patients, researchers, doctors, and health enthusiasts. Discussions, partnerships, and innovations will emerge. Keep your eye on these, and attend if you can!

1. TEDMED — October 27–30,
The medical version of the legendary TED conferences. From the TEDMED site: “The fifth in a series created by Marc Hodosh and Richard Saul Wurman, TEDMED celebrates conversations that demonstrate the intersection and connections between all things medical and healthcare related: from personal health to public health, devices to design and Hollywood to the hospital.” This year’s speakers include Dean Kamen, Craig Venter, Sanjay Gupta and Goldie Hawn..

2. Transform — September 13–15,
A collaborative symposium at The Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation. From the Transform site: “Transform brings together a dynamic group of speakers and participants from inside and outside the health care industry to explore the intersections between human experience, health care delivery and new business models. Join us to imagine and create innovative ways to deliver a better health care experience in a 21st century world.”

3. Health 2.0 — October 6–7,
Next-generation health companies and patient advocates converge. From the Health 2.0 site: “With more than a hundred speakers and hundreds of new healthcare demos and technologies on display on stage and in the exhibit hall, you’ll get a sweeping overview of the ways that information technology and the web are changing healthcare in areas from online search to health focused online communities and social networks.”

4. Web Strategies for Health Communication — July 19–24,
A new course by Dr. Lisa Gualtieri at Tufts University School of Medicine. From the Web Strategies site: “The Summer Institute on Web Strategies for Health Communication covers how to develop and implement a Web strategy to drive a health organization’s online presence, specifically the processes for selecting, using, managing, and evaluating the effectiveness of Web technologies for health communication.”

5. Singularity University — July-August,
Graduate studies program started by Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis. From the Singularity University site: “Singularity University aims to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges.” Biotechnology and Medicine are two of the tracks they offer..

6. Regenstrief Conference — Sept 23–35,
An invitation-only unconference, but one to watch. From the Regenstrief site: “The theme for this year’s conference is Open Health Methodologies. Participants include: Clay Shirky (open source), Dr. Roni Zeiger (Google Health), and Mark Surman (Mozilla).”

If you aren’t able to attend, let us know what you think are the most important issues in health today and we’ll make sure to represent your ideas. Good things will come from all the buzz — the future of health care and health research is bright.

(Crossposted on the blog of Starship Reckless)

Eleven years ago, Random House published my book To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek. With the occasion of the premiere of the Star Trek reboot film and with my mind still bruised from the turgid awfulness of Battlestar Galactica, I decided to post the epilogue of my book, very lightly updated — as an antidote to blasé pseudo-sophistication and a reminder that Prometheus is humanity’s best embodiment. My major hope for the new film is that Uhura does more than answer phones and/or smooch Kirk.

Coda: The Infinite Frontier

star-trekA younger science than physics, biology is more linear and less exotic than its older sibling. Whereas physics is (mostly) elegant and symmetric, biology is lunging and ungainly, bound to the material and macroscopic. Its predictions are more specific, its theories less sweeping. And yet, in the end, the exploration of life is the frontier that matters the most. Life gives meaning to all elegant theories and contraptions, life is where the worlds of cosmology and ethics intersect.

Our exploration of Star Trek biology has taken us through wide and distant fields — from the underpinnings of life to the purposeful chaos of our brains; from the precise minuets of our genes to the tangled webs of our societies.

How much of the Star Trek biology is feasible? I have to say that human immortality, psionic powers, the transporter and the universal translator are unlikely, if not impossible. On the other hand, I do envision human genetic engineering and cloning, organ and limb regeneration, intelligent robots and immersive virtual reality — quite possibly in the near future.

Furthermore, the limitations I’ve discussed in this book only apply to earth biology. Even within the confines of our own planet, isolated ecosystems have yielded extraordinary lifeforms — the marsupials of Australia; the flower-like tubeworms near the hot vents of the ocean depths; the bacteriophage particles which are uncannily similar to the planetary landers. It is certain that when we finally go into space, whatever we meet will exceed our wildest imaginings.

Going beyond strictly scientific matters, I think that the accuracy of scientific details in Star Trek is almost irrelevant. Of course, it puzzles me that a show which pays millions to principal actors and for special effects cannot hire a few grad students to vet their scripts for glaring factual errors (I bet they could even get them for free, they’d be that thrilled to participate). Nevertheless, much more vital is Star Trek’s stance toward science and the correctness of the scientific principles that it showcases. On the latter two counts, the series has been spectacularly successful and damaging at the same time.

The most crucial positive elements of Star Trek are its overall favorable attitude towards science and its strong endorsement of the idea of exploration. Equally important (despite frequent lapses) is the fact that the Enterprise is meant to be a large equivalent to Cousteau’s Calypso, not a space Stealth Bomber. However, some negative elements are so strong that they almost short-circuit the bright promise of the show.

I cannot be too harsh on Star Trek, because it’s science fiction — and TV science fiction, at that. Yet by choosing to highlight science, Star Trek has also taken on the responsibility of portraying scientific concepts and approaches accurately. Each time Star Trek mangles an important scientific concept (such as evolution or black hole event horizons), it misleads a disproportionately large number of people.

The other trouble with Star Trek is its reluctance to showcase truly imaginative or controversial ideas and viewpoints. Of course, the accepted wisdom of media executives who increasingly rely on repeating well-worn concepts is that controversial positions sink ratings. So Star Trek often ignores the agonies and ecstasies of real science and the excitement of true or projected scientific discoveries, replacing them with pseudo-scientific gobbledygook more appropriate for series like The X-Files, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. Exciting ideas (silicon lifeforms beyond robots, parallel universes) briefly appear on Star Trek, only to sink without a trace. This almost pathological timidity of Star Trek, which enjoys the good fortune of a dedicated following and so could easily afford to cut loose, does not bode well for its descendants or its genre.


On the other hand, technobabble and all, Star Trek fulfills a very imporant role. It shows and endorses the value of science and technology — the only popular TV series to do so, at a time when science has lost both appeal and prestige. With the increasing depth of each scientific field, and the burgeoning of specialized jargon, it is distressingly easy for us scientists to isolate ourselves within our small niches and forget to share the wonders of our discoveries with our fellow passengers on the starship Earth. Despite its errors, Star Trek’s greatest contribution is that it has made us dream of possibilities, and that it has made that dream accessible to people both inside and outside science.

Scientific understanding does not strip away the mystery and grandeur of the universe; the intricate patterns only become lovelier as more and more of them appear and come into focus. The sense of excitement and fulfillment that accompanies even the smallest scientific discovery is so great that it can only be communicated in embarrassingly emotional terms, even by Mr. Spock and Commander Data. In the end these glimpses of the whole, not fame or riches, are the real reason why the scientists never go into the suspended animation cocoons, but stay at the starship chart tables and observation posts, watching the great galaxy wheels slowly turn, the stars ignite and darken.

Star Trek’s greatest legacy is the communication of the urge to explore, to comprehend, with its accompanying excitement and wonder. Whatever else we find out there, beyond the shelter of our atmosphere, we may discover that thirst for knowledge may be the one characteristic common to any intelligent life we encounter in our travels. It is with the hope of such an encounter that people throng around the transmissions from Voyager, Sojourner, CoRoT, Kepler. And even now, contained in the sphere of expanding radio and television transmissions speeding away from Earth, Star Trek may be acting as our ambassador.

May 2: Many U.S. emergency rooms and hospitals crammed with people… ”Walking well” flood hospitals… Clinics double their traffic in major cities … ER rooms turn away EMT cases. — CNN

Update May 4: Confirmed cases of H1N1 virus now at 985 in 20 countries (Mexico: 590, 25 deaths) — WHO. In U.S.: 245 confirmed U.S. cases in 35 states. — CDC.

“We might be entering an Age of Pandemics… a broad array of dangerous emerging 21st-century diseases, man-made or natural, brand-new or old, newly resistant to our current vaccines and antiviral drugs…. Martin Rees bet $1,000 that bioterror or bioerror would unleash a catastrophic event claiming one million lives in the next two decades…. Why? Less forest, more contact with animals… more meat eating (Africans last year consumed nearly 700 million wild animals… numbers of chickens raised for food in China have increased 1,000-fold over the past few decades)… farmers cut down jungle, creating deforested areas that once served as barriers to the zoonotic viruses…” — Larry Brilliant, Wall Street Journal

(Crossposted on the blog of Starship Reckless)

Working feverishly on the bench, I’ve had little time to closely track the ongoing spat between Dawkins and Nisbet. Others have dissected this conflict and its ramifications in great detail. What I want to discuss is whether scientists can or should represent their fields to non-scientists.

There is more than a dollop of truth in the Hollywood cliché of the tongue-tied scientist. Nevertheless, scientists can explain at least their own domain of expertise just fine, even become major popular voices (Sagan, Hawkin, Gould — and, yes, Dawkins; all white Anglo men, granted, but at least it means they have fewer gatekeepers questioning their legitimacy). Most scientists don’t speak up because they’re clocking infernally long hours doing first-hand science and/or training successors, rather than trying to become middle(wo)men for their disciplines.


Experimental biologists, in particular, are faced with unique challenges: not only are they hobbled by ever-decreasing funds for basic research while expected to still deliver like before. They are also beset by anti-evolutionists, the last niche that science deniers can occupy without being classed with geocentrists, flat-earthers and exorcists. Additionally, they are faced with the complexity (both intrinsic and social) of the phenomenon they’re trying to understand, whose subtleties preclude catchy soundbites and get-famous-quick schemes.

Last but not least, biologists have to contend with self-anointed experts, from physicists to science fiction writers to software engineers to MBAs, who believe they know more about the field than its practitioners. As a result, they have largely left the public face of their science to others, in part because its benefits — the quadrupling of the human lifespan from antibiotics and vaccines, to give just one example — are so obvious as to make advertisement seem embarrassing overkill.

As a working biologist, who must constantly “prove” the value of my work to credentialed peers as well as laypeople in order to keep doing basic research on dementia, I’m sick of accommodationists and appeasers. Gould, despite his erudition and eloquence, did a huge amount of damage when he proposed his non-overlapping magisteria. I’m tired of self-anointed flatulists — pardon me, futurists — who waft forth on biological topics they know little about, claiming that smatterings gleaned largely from the Internet make them understand the big picture (much sexier than those plodding, narrow-minded, boring experts!). I’m sick and tired of being told that I should leave the defense and promulgation of scientific values to “communications experts” who use the platform for their own aggrandizement.

Nor are non-scientists served well by condescending pseudo-interpretations that treat them like ignorant, stupid children. People need to view the issues in all their complexity, because complex problems require nuanced solutions, long-term effort and incorporation of new knowlege. Considering that the outcomes of such discussions have concrete repercussions on the long-term viability prospects of our species and our planet, I staunchly believe that accommodationism and silence on the part of scientists is little short of immoral.

Unlike astronomy and physics, biology has been reluctant to present simplified versions of itself. Although ours is a relatively young science whose predictions are less derived from general principles, our direct and indirect impact exceeds that of all others. Therefore, we must have articulate spokespeople, rather than delegate discussion of our work to journalists or politicians, even if they’re well-intentioned and well-informed.

Image: Prometheus, black-figure Spartan vase ~500 BCE.

March 12, 2009 10:00 AM PDT

Q&A: The robot wars have arrived

P.W. Singer

P.W. Singer

Just as the computer and ARPAnet evolved into the PC and Internet, robots are poised to integrate into everyday life in ways we can’t even imagine, thanks in large part to research funded by the U.S. military.

Many people are excited about the military’s newfound interest and funding of robotics, but few are considering its ramifications on war in general.

P.W. Singer, senior fellow and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, went behind the scenes of the robotics world to write “Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.”

Singer took time from his book tour to talk with CNET about the start of a revolution tech insiders predicted, but so many others missed.

Q: Your book is purposely not the typical think tank book. It’s filled with just as many humorous anecdotes about people’s personal lives and pop culture as it is with statistics, technology, and history. You say you did this because robotic development has been greatly influenced by the human imagination?
Singer: Look, to write on robots in my field is a risky thing. Robots were seen as this thing of science fiction even though they’re not. So I decided to double down, you know? If I was going to risk it in one way, why not in another way? It’s my own insurgency on the boring, staid way people talk about this incredibly important thing, which is war. Most of the books on war and its dynamics–to be blunt–are, oddly enough, boring. And it means the public doesn’t actually have an understanding of the dynamics as they should.

It seems like we’re just at the beginning here. You quote Bill Gates comparing robots now to what computers were in the eighties.
Singer: Yes, the military is a primary buyer right now and it’s using them (robots) for a limited set of applications. And yes, in each area we prove they can be utilized you’ll see a massive expansion. That’s all correct, but then I think it’s even beyond what he was saying. No one sitting back with a computer in 1980 said, “Oh, yes, these things are going to have a ripple effect on our society and politics such that there’s going to be a political debate about privacy in an online world, and mothers in Peoria are going to be concerned about child predators on this thing called Facebook.” It’ll be the same way with the impact on war and in robotics; a ripple effect in areas we’re not even aware of yet.

Right now, rudimentary as they are, we have autonomous and remote-controlled robots while most of the people we’re fighting don’t. What’s that doing to our image?
Singer: The leading newspaper editor in Lebanon described–and he’s actually describing this as there is a drone above him at the time–that these things show you’re afraid, you’re not man enough to fight us face-to-face, it shows your cowardice, all we have to do to defeat you is just kill a few of your soldiers.

It’s playing like cowardice?
Singer: Yeah, it’s like every revolution. You know, when gunpowder is first used people think that’s cowardly. Then they figure it out and it has all sorts of other ripple effects.

What’s war going to look like once robot warriors become autonomous and ubiquitous for both sides?
Singer: I think if we’re looking at the realm of science fiction, less so “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and more so the world of “Blade Runner” where it’s this mix between incredible technologies, but also the dirt and grime of poverty in the city. I guess this shows where I come down on these issues. The future of war is more and more machines, but it’s still also insurgencies, terrorism, you name it.

What seems most likely in this scenario–at least in the near term–is this continuation of teams of robots and humans working together, each doing what they’re good at…Maybe the human as the quarterback and the robots as the players with the humans calling out plays, making decisions, and the robots carrying them out. However, just like on a football field, things change. The wide receivers can alter the play, and that seems to be where we’re headed.

How will robot warfare change our international laws of war? If an autonomous robot mistakenly takes out 20 little girls playing soccer in the street and people are outraged, is the programmer going to get the blame? The manufacturer? The commander who sent in the robot fleet?
Singer: That’s the essence of the problem of trying to apply a set of laws that are so old they qualify for Medicare to these kind of 21st-century dilemmas that come with this 21st-century technology. It’s also the kind of question that you might have once only asked at Comic-Con and now it’s a very real live question at the Pentagon.

I went around trying to get the answer to this sort of question meeting with people not only in the military but also in the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch. We’re at a loss as to how to answer that question right now. The robotics companies are only thinking in terms of product liability…and international law is simply overwhelmed or basically ignorant of this technology. There’s a great scene in the book where two senior leaders within Human Rights Watch get in an argument in front of me of which laws might be most useful in such a situation.

Is this where they bring up Star Trek?
Singer: Yeah, one’s bringing up the Geneva Conventions and the other one’s pointing to the Star Trek Prime Directive.

You say in your book that except for a few refusenicks, most scientists are definitely not subscribing to Isaac Asimov’s laws. What then generally are the ethics of these roboticists?
Singer: The people who are building these systems are excited by the possibilities of the technology. But the field of robotics, it’s a very young field. It’s not like medicine that has an ethical code. It’s not done what the field of genetics has, where it’s begun to wrestle with the ethics of what they’re working on and the ripple effects it has on the society. That’s not happening in the robotics field, except in isolated instances.

What military robotic tech is likely to migrate over to local law enforcement or the consumer world?
Singer: I think we’re already starting to see some of the early stages of that…I think this is the other part that Gates was saying: we get to the point where we stop calling them computers. You know, I have a computer in my pocket right now. It’s a cell phone. I just don’t call it a computer. The new Lexus parallel-parks itself. Do we call it a robot car? No, but it’s kind of doing something robotic.

You know, I’m the guy coming out of the world of political science, so it opens up these fun debates. Take the question of ethics and robots. How about me? Is it my second amendment right to have a gun-armed robot? I mean, I’m not hiring my own gun robots, but Homeland Security is already flying drones, and police departments are already purchasing them.

Explain how robotic warfare is “open source” warfare.
Singer: It’s much like what’s happened in the software industry going open source, the idea that this technology is not something that requires a massive industrial structure to build. Much like open source software, not only can almost anyone access it, but also anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit, and in this case of very wicked entrepreneurial spirit, can improve upon it. All sorts of actors, not just high-end military, can access high-end military technologies…Hezbollah is not a state. However, Hezbollah flew four drones at Israel. Take this down to the individual level and I think one of the darkest quotes comes from the DARPA scientist who said, and I quote, “For $50,000 I could shut down Manhattan.” The potential of an al-Qaeda 2.0 is made far more lethal with these technologies, but also the next generation of a Timothy McVeigh or Unabomber is multiplying their capability with these technologies.

The U.S. military said in a statement this week that it plans to pull 12,000 troops out of Iraq by the fall. Do you think robots will have a hand in helping to get to that number?
Singer: Most definitely.

Singer: The utilization of the Predator operations is allowing us to accomplish certain goals there without troops on the grounds.

Is this going to lead to more of what you call the cubicle warriors or the armchair warriors? They’re in the U.S. operating on this end, and then going to their kid’s PTA meeting at the end of the day?
Singer: Oh, most definitely. Look, the Air Force this year is putting out more unmanned pilots that manned pilots.

Explain how soldiers now come ready-trained because of our video games.
Singer: The military is very smartly free-riding off of the video game industry, off the designs in terms of the human interface, using the Xbox controllers, PlayStation controllers. The Microsofts and Sonys of the world have spent millions designing the system that fits perfectly in your hand. Why not use it? They’re also free-riding off this entire generation that’s come in already trained in the use of these systems.

There’s another aspect though, which is the mentality people bring to bear when using these systems. It really struck me when one of the people involved in Predator operations described what it was like to take out an enemy from afar, what it was like to kill. He said, “It’s like a video game.” That’s a very odd reference, but also a telling reference for this experience of killing and how it’s changing in our generation.

It’s making them more removed from the morality of it?
Singer: It’s the fundamental difference between the bomber pilots of WWII and even the bomber pilots of today. It’s disconnection from risk on both a physical and psychological plain.

When my grandfather went to war in the Pacific, he went to a place where there was such danger he might not ever come home again. You compare that to the drone pilot experience. Not only what it’s like to kill, but the whole experience of going to war is getting up, getting into their Toyota Corolla, going in to work, killing enemy combatants from afar, getting in their car, and driving home. So 20 minutes after being at war, they’re back at home and talking to their kid about their homework at the dinner table. So this whole meaning of the term “going to war” that’s held true for 5,000 years is changing.

What do you think is the most dangerous military robot out there now?
Singer: It all hinges on the definition of the term dangerous. The system that’s been most incredibly lethal in terms of consequences on the battlefield so far if you ask military commanders is the Predator. They describe it as the most useful system, manned or unmanned, in our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Eleven out of the twenty al-Qaeda leaders we’ve gotten, we’ve gotten via a drone strike. Now, dangerous can have other meanings. The work on evolutionary software scares the shit out of me.

You’re saying we’re gonna get to a HAL situation?
Singer: Maybe it’s just cause I’ve grown up on a diet of all that sci-fi, but the evolutionary software stuff does spook me out a little bit. Oh, and robots that can replicate themselves. We’re not there yet, but that’s another like “whoa!”

People have finally got the attention of companies and governments to look ahead to 2020, 2040, 2050 in terms of the environment and green technology. But as you said in your book, that’s not happening with robotics issues. Why do you think that is?
Singer: When it comes to the issue of war, we’re exceptionally uncomfortable looking forward, mainly because so many people have gotten it so wrong. People in policymaker positions, policy adviser positions, and the people making the decisions are woefully ignorant in what’s happening in technology not only five years from now, not only now, but where we were five years ago. You have people describing robotics as “mere science fiction” when we’re talking about having already 12,000 (robots) on the ground, 7,000 in the air. During this book tour, I was in this meeting with a very senior Pentagon adviser, top of the field, very big name. He said, “Yeah this technology stuff is so amazing. I bet one day we’ll have this technology where like one day the Internet will be able to look like a video game, and it will be three-dimensional, I’ll bet.”

(laughing) And meanwhile, your wife’s at Linden Labs.
Singer: (laughing) Yeah, it’s Second Life. And that’s not anything new.

At least five years old, yeah.
Singer: And you don’t have to be a technology person to be aware of it. I mean, it’s been covered by CNN. It appeared on “The Office” and “CSI.” You just have to be aware of pop culture to know. And so it was this thing that he was describing as it might happen one day, and it happened five years ago. Then the people that do work on the technology and are aware of it, they tend to either be: head-in-the-sand in terms of “I’m just working on my thing, I don’t care about the effects of it”; or “I’m optimistic. Oh these systems are great. They’re only gonna work out for the best.” They forget that this is a real world. They’re kind of like the atomic scientists.

Obviously the hope is that robots will do all the dirty work of warfare. But warfare is inherently messy, unpredictable, and often worse than expectations. How would a roboticized war be any different in that respect?
Singer: In no way. That’s the fundamental argument of the book. While we may have Moore’s Law in place, we still haven’t gotten rid of Murphy’s Law. So we have a technology that is giving us incredible capabilities that we couldn’t even have imagined a few years ago, let alone had in place. But the fog of war is not being lifted as Rumsfeld once claimed absurdly.

You may be getting new technological capabilities, but you are also creating new human dilemmas. And it’s those dilemmas that are really the revolutionary aspect of this. What are the laws that surround this and how do you insure accountability in this setting? At what point do we have to become concerned about our weapons becoming a threat to ourselves? This future of war is again a mix of more and more machines being used to fight, but the wars themselves are still about our human realities. They’re still driven by our human failings, and the ripple effects are still because of our human politics, our human laws. And it’s the cross between the two that we have to understand.

Candace Lombardi is a journalist who divides her time between the U.S. and the U.K. Whether it’s cars, robots, personal gadgets, or industrial machines, she enjoys examining the moving parts that keep our world rotating. Email her at [email protected]. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.

Image from The Road film, based on Cormac McCarthy's book

How About You?
I’ve just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at the recommendation of my cousin Marie-Eve. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world and the main protagonists — a father and son — basically spend all their time looking for food and shelter, and try to avoid being robbed or killed by other starving survivors.

It very much makes me not want to live in such a world. Everybody would probably agree. Yet few people actually do much to reduce the chances of of such a scenario happening. In fact, it’s worse than that; few people even seriously entertain the possibility that such a scenario could happen.

People don’t think about such things because they are unpleasant and they don’t feel they can do anything about them, but if more people actually did think about them, we could do something. We might never be completely safe, but we could significantly improve our odds over the status quo.

Danger From Two Directions: Ourselves and Nature.

Human technology is becoming more powerful all the time. We already face grave danger from nuclear weapons, and soon molecular manufacturing technologies and artificial general intelligence could pose new existential threats. We are also faced with slower, but serious, threats on the environmental side: Global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation/desertification, ecosystem collapse, etc.

Continue reading “I Don’t Want To Live in a Post-Apocalyptic World” | >

Even as mega-banks topple, Juan Enriquez says the big reboot is yet to come. But don’t look for it on your ballot — or in the stock exchange. It’ll come from science labs, and it promises keener bodies and minds. Our kids are going to be … different.

(This essay has been published by the Innovation Journalism Blog — here — Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum — here — and the EJC Magazine of the European Journalism Centre — here)

Thousands of lives were consumed by the November terror attacks in Mumbai.

“Wait a second”, you might be thinking. “The attacks were truly horrific, but all news reports say around two hundred people were killed by the terrorists, so thousands of lives were definitely not consumed.”

You are right. And you are wrong.

Indeed, around 200 people were murdered by the terrorists in an act of chilling exhibitionism. And still, thousands of lives were consumed. Imagine that a billion people devoted, on average, one hour of their attention to the Mumbai tragedy: following the news, thinking about it, discussing it with other people. The number is a wild guess, but the guess is far from a wild number. There are over a billion people in India alone. Many there spent whole days following the drama. One billion people times one hour is one billion hours, which is more than 100,000 years. The global average life expectancy is today 66 years. So nearly two thousand lives were consumed by news consumption. It’s far more than the number of people murdered, by any standards.

In a sense, the newscasters became unwilling bedfellows of the terrorists. One terrorist survived the attacks, confessing to the police that the original plan had been to top off the massacre by taking hostages and outlining demands in a series of dramatic calls to the media. The terrorists wanted attention. They wanted the newsgatherers to give it to them, and they got it. Their goal was not to kill a few hundred people. It was to scare billions, forcing people to change reasoning and behavior. The terrorists pitched their story by being extra brutal, providing news value. Their targets, among them luxury hotels frequented by the international business community, provided a set of target audiences for the message of their sick reality show. Several people in my professional surroundings canceled business trips to Mumbai after watching the news. The terrorists succeeded. We must count on more terror attacks on luxury hotels in the future.

Can the journalists and news organizations who were in Mumbai be blamed for serving the interests of the terrorists? I think not. They were doing their jobs, reporting on the big scary event. The audience flocked to their stories. Their business model — generating and brokering attention — was exploited by the terrorists. The journalists were working on behalf of the audience, not on behalf of the terrorists. But that did not change the outcome. The victory of the terrorists grew with every eyeball that was attracted by the news. Without doubt, one of the victims was the role of journalism as a non-involved observer. It got zapped by a paradox. It’s not the first time. Journalism always follows “the Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics: You can’t measure a system without influencing it.

Self reference is a classic dilemma for journalism. Journalism wants to observe, not be an actor. It wants to cover a story without becoming part of it. At the same time it aspires to empower the audience. But by empowering the audience, it becomes an actor on the story. Non-involvement won’t work, it is a self-referential paradox like the Epimenides paradox (the prophet from Crete who said “All Cretans are liars”). The basic self-referential paradox is the liars’ paradox (“This sentence is false”). This can be a very constructive paradox, if taken by the horns. It inspired Kurt Gödel to reinvent the foundation of mathematics, addressing self-reference. Perhaps the principles of journalism can be reinvented, too? Perhaps the paradox of non-involvement can be replaced by ethics of engagement as practiced by, for example, psychologists and lawyers?

While many classic dilemmas provide constant frustration throughout life, this one is about to get increasingly wicked. Here is why. It is only 40 years since the birth of collaboration between people sitting behind computers linked by a network, “the mother of all demos”, when Doug Engelbart and his team at SRI demoed the first computer mouse, interactive text, video conferencing, teleconferencing, e-mail and hypertext.

Only 40 years after their first demo, and only 15 years after the Internet reached beyond the walls of university campuses, Doug’s tools are in almost every home and office. Soon they’ll be built into every cell phone. We are always online. For the first time in human history, the attention of the whole world can soon be summoned simultaneously. If we summon all the attention the human species can supply, we can focus two hundred human years of attention onto a single issue in a single second. This attention comes equipped with glowing computing power that can process information in a big way.

Every human on the Net is using a computer device able to do millions or billions of operations per second. And more is to come. New computers are always more powerful than their predecessors. The power has doubled every two years since the birth of computers. This is known as Moore’s Law.

If the trend continues for another 40 years, people will be using computers one million times more powerful than today. Try imagining what you can do with that in your phone or hand-held gaming device! Internet bandwidth is also booming. Everybody on Earth will have at least one gadget. We will all be well connected. We will all be able to focus our attention, our ideas and our computational powers on the same thing at the same go. That’s pretty powerful. This is actually what Doug was facilitating when he dreamed up the Demo. The mouse — what Doug is famous for today — is only a detail. Doug says we can only solve the complex problems of today by summoning collective intelligence. Nuclear war, pandemics, global warming. These are all problems requiring collective intelligence. The key to collective intelligence is collective attention. The flow of attention controls how much of our collective intelligence gets allocated to different things.

When Doug Engelbart’s keynoted the Fourth Conference on Innovation Journalism he pointed out that journalism is the perception system of collective intelligence. He hit the nail on the head. When people share news, they have a story in common. This shapes a common picture of the world and a common set of narratives for discussing it. It is agenda setting (there is an established “agenda-setting theory” about this). Journalism is the leading mechanism for generating collective attention. Collective attention is needed for shaping a collective opinion. Collective intelligence might require a collective opinion in order to address collective issues.

Here is where innovation journalism can help. In order for collective intelligence to transform ideas into novelties, we need to be able to generate common sets of narratives around how innovation happens. How do people and organizations doing different things come together in the innovation ecosystem? Narratives addressing this question make it possible for each one of us to relate to the story of innovation. Innovation journalism turns collective attention on new things in society that will increase the value of our lives. This collective attention in turn facilitates the formuation of a collective opinion. Innovation journalism thus connects the innovation economy and democracy (or any other system of governance).

There is an upside and a downside to everything. We can now summon collective attention to track the spread of diseases. But we are also more susceptible to fads, hypes and hysterias. Will our ability to focus collective attention improve our lives or will we become victims of collective neurosis?

We are moving into the attention economy. Information is no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is. Some business strategists think ‘attention transactions’ can replace financial transactions as the focus of our economy. In this sense, the effects on society of collective attention is the macroeconomics of the attention economy. Collective attention is key for exercising collective intelligence. Journalism — the professional generator and broker of collective attention — is a key factor.

This brings us back to Mumbai. How collectively intelligent was it to spend thousands of human lifetimes of attention following the slaughter of hundreds? The jury is out on that one — it depends on the outcome of our attention. Did the collective attention benefit the terrorists? Yes, at least in the short term. Perhaps even in the long term. Did it help solve the situation in Mumbai? Unclear. Could the collective attention have been aimed in other ways at the time of the attacks, which would have had a better outcome for people and society? Yes, probably.

The more wired the world gets, the more terrorism can thrive. When our collective attention grows, the risk of collective fear and obsession follows. It is a threat to our collective mental health, one that will only increase unless we introduce some smart self-regulating mechanisms. These could direct our collective attention to the places where collective attention would benefit society instead of harm.

The dynamics between terrorism and journalism is a market failure of the attention economy.

No, I am not supporting government control over the news. Planned economy has proven to not be a solution for market failures. The problem needs to be solved by a smart feedback system. Solutions may lie in new business models for journalism that provide incentives to journalism to generate constructive and proportional attention around issues, empowering people and bringing value to society. Just selling raw eyeballs or Internet traffic by the pound to advertisers is a recipe for market failure in the attention economy. So perhaps it is not all bad that the traditional raw eyeball business models are being re-examined. It is a good time for researchers to look at how different journalism business models generate different sorts of collective attention, and how that drives our collective intelligence. Really good business models for journalism bring prosperity to the journalism industry, its audience, and the society it works in.

For sound new business models to arise, journalism needs to come to grips with its inevitable role as an actor. Instead of discussing why journalists should not get involved with sources or become parts of the stories they tell, perhaps the solution is for journalists to discuss why they should get involved. Journalists must find a way to do so without loosing the essence of journalism.

Ulrik Haagerup is the leader of the Danish National Public News Service, DR News. He is tired of seeing ‘bad news makes good news and good news makes bad news’. Haagerup is promoting the concept of “constructive journalism”, which focuses on enabling people to improve their lives and societies. Journalism can still be critical, independent and kick butt.

The key issue Haagerup pushes is that it is not enough to show the problem and the awfulness of horrible situations. That only feeds collective obsession, neurosis and, ultimately, depression. Journalism must cover problems from the perspective of how they can be solved. Then our collective attention can be very constructive. Constructive journalism will look for all kinds of possible solutions, comparing and scrutinizing them, finding relevant examples and involving the stakeholders in the process of finding solutions.

I will be working with Haagerup this summer, we will be presenting together with Willi Rütten of the European Journalism Centre a workshop on ‘constructive innovation journalism’ at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Summit, 3–5 June 2009.