Democracy & Technology Blog Can Technology Defeat Terrorism?

The following is a transcribed excerpt of Peter Huber’s Gilder/Forbes Telecosm 2006 keynote, delivered earlier this month in Lake Tahoe:
When a deliberate nuclear release occurs in the United States, as I think it inevitably will, we will almost certainly find that the material originated somewhere mundane–a hospital, a factory, an industrial setting. There is a whole lot of nuclear material out there all over the place. It has many useful applications. People who want it will find it.
The London subway bombers used Triaceatone Triperoxide (TATP). They brewed it in the bathtub using acetone, drain cleaner, and bleach. The Japanese subway attackers home-brewed their Sarin gas. The Oklahoma City bombers mixed liquid fertilizer and diesel fuel.

It is easy to forget about things like this if they haven’t happened in very recent memory. One would prefer to think that they’re not possible. But, the simple fact is–and people in the know really do know this–we still face today an absolutely horrifying disconnect between u-weapons (these very toxic materials) and our own ability to see them before they are released or detonated in a subway or a stadium.
Scientists can of course see anything in a lab. They can see a single atom of Cobalt-60 or a molecule of TATP or a strand of anthrax DNA. Just bring your sample to the right building and a well-trained technician will fire-up a room-sized or larger mainframe unit and in due course the instrument will tell you exactly what it is you brought in. It happens after every attack. They can always tell you what hit you, after you’ve been hit.
The challenge is to see these things before they detonate, before they’re dispersed, before they get into the air ducts, and to see them not roughly or approximately, but so precisely that you can see exactly what they are and react to them appropriately, in real time, in all of the places where they could inflict damage.
How do you even begin to do that?
Just across Manhattan on any given day are some 4 million letters, 3 million people, at least half a million motor vehicles, half a million parcels, any of which could be carrying a tiny amount of something that could cause enormous harm.
Some time ago, the officers who patrol the mall in Washington D.C. were given portable radiation detectors. They soon removed the batteries. The units registered so many false alarms, they were worse than useless.
Radiation is easy to detect. It’s easy to detect badly. You can’t evacuate Yankee Stadium twice during every game to respond to false alarms.
Again, inferior technologies are worse than useless. A significant fraction of money spent in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 on technology was wasted. Yet, with that said, there is absolutely no other alternative. You cannot fight unstable atomic nuclei or nerve agents or DNA with guns and guards and gates. Guns and guards and gates are too expensive and completely ineffectual. They can’t see the stuff and, if they can see it, they can’t intercept it. You need the accuracy of a lab in something the size of a pager. You need to push out the boundaries, so you can screen huge numbers of packages and containers and so on at points of origin overseas and screen again at ports of entry and at key switching points like mail centers and transportation transits points and buildings and hospitals, where the first responders are treated, and on and on and on.
What are the essential technologies that will make this possible? What are the core enablers?
I will not suggest that there is a short list, but one can begin to zero in on a few of them. That is certainly what I and some fellow investors started doing before 9-11 and have continued doing since…
Peter Huber is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Reasearch and Co-founder of Digital Power Capital.
Click here to download the audio of Peter Huber’s complete Telecosm 2006 keynote address.
(NOTE: This is a large 69MB MP3 file, which includes George Gilder’s opening Telecosm 2006 remarks. It may take a few minutes to download.)

George Gilder

Senior Fellow and Co-Founder of Discovery Institute
George Gilder is Chairman of Gilder Publishing LLC, located in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A co-founder of Discovery Institute, Mr. Gilder is a Senior Fellow of the Center on Wealth & Poverty, and also directs Discovery's Technology and Democracy Project. His latest book, Life After Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy (2018), Gilder waves goodbye to today's Internet.  In a rocketing journey into the very near-future, he argues that Silicon Valley, long dominated by a few giants, faces a “great unbundling,” which will disperse computer power and commerce and transform the economy and the Internet.