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Terrorism and advanced technology

On 9/11/01 I stood at Newark airport in New Jersey waiting for my flight to Toronto, which never flew. The airport was in clear sight of the World Trade Center 10 miles away across Jersey City and the Hudson River. As I watched the towers fall, I had a curious sense of detachment from the moment — but I distinctly remember thinking, and pointing out to my wife, that this was a major test of the American character. If those towers were back up by 2010, I opined, it would say a lot about us. If they weren’t, it would say a lot too, and not in a good way.

CAESAR
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

Re-enter Servant

What say the augurers?

Servant
They would not have you to stir forth to-day.
Plucking the entrails of an offering forth,
They could not find a heart within the beast.

– Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 2:ii

In the meantime, it seems, the reaction has been to post guards everywhere, restrict people as much as possible, and in general to worry that any given technical advance would be seized on by terrorists. In the optimistic 60s, Arthur Clarke wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic, and the clear implication was that we were heading into a magical future. Today it seems that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from terrorism.

Even if a terrorist attack were to succeed every year with the full death toll of 9/11, it would raise your chance of dying by a factor of 0.0012. You’d be 11 times more likely to die by suicide than an attack — and 220 times as likely to die of heart disease. The reality is a lot lower. So why are we spending so much more than a tenth of a percent of our time, energy, and angst on terrorism?

The latest scare seems to be EMP from a rogue nuclear device, which could fry the roughly 300 100-MVA transformers that form the backbone of our power grid. How are we going to shield ourselves from this?

It seems to me that there are two major ways to go. The first is prevent anyone from being able to do anything, so that the bad guys can’t build bad gadgets. The other is to do just the opposite, so that when attacks happen, they are opposed by greater capability, cause less damage, and are more quickly rebounded from.

After all, EMP isn’t the only way to fry a transformer. Natural solar Carrington events would have the same effect. They could be blown up the old-fashioned way by explosives — or even explosively shorted out by shooting giant steel arrows into them from catapults.

Turns out these transformers begin failing spontaneously after 40 years of service anyway.

Rob Freitas and I once did a back-of-the-envelope calculation that a fully-developed molecular manufacturing capability could rebuild the entire infrastructure of the US in somewhere between 1 and 2 weeks. If you have that kind of productive capacity available, you can stand lots of shocks with equanimity. If the twin towers had that kind of productive technology built in for active maintenance, repair, and expansion, they’d still be standing.

Back in the present, reality is, as usual, somewhat ambiguous. A new tower is under construction, groundbreaking was 2006. It’s scheduled to open in 2013. This construction time is approximately the same as the original towers, which were broke ground in 1966 and 1969, accepted tenants in 1970 and 1972, respectively, opening officially in 1973.

Is there a heart within the beast after all? Time will tell.

8 Responses to “Terrorism and advanced technology”

  1. Michael Kuntzman Says:

    “Even if a terrorist attack were to succeed every year with the full death toll of 9/11, it would raise your chance of dying by a factor of 0.0012.”

    Isn’t that a little cold? Sure, your chances of dying would only rise by a tiny fraction, but how many more people would die? Personally, I’m really not concerned that I might get killed in a terrorist attack. I probably have a much higher chance of dying in a car accident. But I am concerned about terrorism because of the many lives that could be negatively affected. And the same is true for wars, hunger, disease, or any other calamity.

    That said, I totally agree with the main point that it would be much more productive to make our technology (and our society) more robust, rather than live in constant fear of how many more ways will there be to disrupt it in the future. And I agree that nanotechnology would indeed help us do that.

  2. James Gentile Says:

    You’d be 11 times more likely to die by suicide than an attack — and 220 times as likely to die of heart disease. The reality is a lot lower. So why are we spending so much more than a tenth of a percent of our time, energy, and angst on terrorism?

    Yes, but the real problem was financial. Didn’t the US lose $2 Trillion worth of capital because of those attacks? Also, one death does not equal another death. That is why we spend so much ‘time, energy, and angst’ protecting the President of the United States. Allowing Terrorists to kill any target with equal probability of success would effectively shut the nation down, even if the terrorists could only kill a very small fraction of the population. Yes it’s not fair, and it’s hard to explain to your children, but it’s the truth of the world we live in.

    But I do agree, advanced nanotechnology is the only effective long term solution to terrorism and many other issues. With nanobots everywhere monitoring and sensing the environment, suicide bombers could be detected by chemicals emitted from their explosives and neutralized before they could detonate. Although it would save relatively few lives, it would change the world profoundly for the people of the world not to live in fear of these scumbags and have to entertain their ideas for fear of being targetted. Not to mention the usual, yet ultra-profound benefits to life extension, reduction of accidents, curing diseases and aging, and eliminating poverty. Why is it no one in control of large amounts of resources knows these things? Not one billionaire of large goverment/corporation gives a damn about curing all diseases and having everyone live forever enough to donate a couple of billion to making nanorobotics? That just leaves me speechless, anyways I hope too many don’t die before such people realize what I realized 10 years ago…

  3. Tim Tyler Says:

    Re: It seems to me that there are two major ways to go. The first is prevent anyone from being able to do anything, so that the bad guys can’t build bad gadgets. The other is to do just the opposite, so that when attacks happen, they are opposed by greater capability, cause less damage, and are more quickly rebounded from.

    Control the world’s education system, to eliminate bad guys at the source?

    Control the world’s economic system, to make sure the guys are all working for you, and it is not in their interests to damage infrastructure?

  4. Peter G. Says:

    Michael–

    You ask how many more people would die. On this point, even the original author was wrong. Even large-scale terrorism will not “raise your chance of dying by a factor of 0.0012.” How many more people will die? None.

    We’re all going to die.

    The only question is whether we’re going to live.

    [NB: the 0.0012 increase is in chance of dying in a given year. -jsh]

  5. Toads Says:

    One thing people fail to remember is that on 9/11/01, their INTENT was to kill 50,000. They managed to kill 3000. So all such calculations are not meaningful without factoring in intent.

    The sum total of people working in the WTC, plus the fact that United 93 had an uprising and crashed in PA rather than hit some other heavily-patronized target, reduced the death toll. The fact that the WTC towers stood for an hour before collapse, allowing at least 30,000 people to get out before it fell, is what saved the most lives. I hope people know that the full total of people working and visiting the two WTC towers on a given weekday was much more than 3000. 3000 would only be 12 people per floor, across both towers.

    If the WTC towers fell as soon as they were hit, we would be adding a zero to the death toll (and thus reducing a zero from your percentage). From AQ’s point of view, the attack was actually a failure in death-toll terms (just 6% of expectations).

    Remember, intent is what counts.

  6. Instapundit » Blog Archive » J. STORRS HALL on terrorism and advanced technology…. Says:

    [...] J. STORRS HALL on terrorism and advanced technology. [...]

  7. looking closely Says:

    Terrorism isn’t about killing people, nor is about those who die.

    Its about TERROR, ie affecting the lives, beliefs, and behaviors of those who LIVE.

    The most effective terrorism doesn’t even have to kill anyone, so long as it creates fear or intimidation enough to change action or political policy.

    9-11 wasn’t just about those who died, but about the massive economic and psychological damage to the country.

  8. Golf Blog Says:

    I agree with Michael’s perspective. I think our technology should be more robust and all encompassing instead of so focused on terrorist attacks. While they are an issue, and a very sensitive one at that, because 9-11 was so recent, it is not an everyday occurrence in our country as it is in others. While 3,000 died in 9-11, how many were affected for the rest of their life? I can say almost everyone who understood what 9-11 meant. We need to get on board with our nanotechnology as a form of offense.

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