September 5, 2011

Crossing the ‘valley of fear’: technology, economic efficiency and national security

Technology and security always had a complicated relationship. On the one hand, we rely on technology – and increasingly so – to resolve many security and military challenges we face. Just think of the array of surveillance and detection technologies authorities deployed in response to a terrorist threat after 9/11 attacks, or employment of remotely operated aerial drones to strike targets deep in the lawless areas of Pakistan or Somalia where ‘putting the boots on the ground’ is not practical or feasible. ‘We look to technology to take care of our future — we hope in technology’, wrote Brian Arthur in his ‘The Nature of Technology’ (2009). On the other hand, technology itself can be a serious source of security risks, especially if it creates new vulnerabilities or empowers our adversaries. A dictum saying that today’s solutions are often at the root of tomorrow’s problems rings true in the realm of interaction between security and technology.

Technology and security always had a complicated relationship. On the one hand, we rely on technology – and increasingly so – to resolve many security and military challenges we face. Just think of the array of surveillance and detection technologies authorities deployed in response to a terrorist threat after 9/11 attacks, or employment of remotely operated aerial drones to strike targets deep in the lawless areas of Pakistan or Somalia where ‘putting the boots on the ground’ is not practical or feasible. ‘We look to technology to take care of our future — we hope in technology’, wrote Brian Arthur in his ‘The Nature of Technology’ (2009). On the other hand, technology itself can be a serious source of security risks, especially if it creates new vulnerabilities or empowers our adversaries. A dictum saying that today’s solutions are often at the root of tomorrow’s problems rings true in the realm of interaction between security and technology.

Thinkers and policymakers often fret about ‘technology running amok’: there is always a possibility that some great scientific invention or technological innovation may come to wreak such havoc in the wrong hands, or by pure freak accident, that we may come to regret its coming into being altogether. This fear provides an inexhaustible supply of script ideas to Hollywood movies about such things as artificial intelligence systems or self-conscious robots getting out of control. Even the script of ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ connects with the real-life concerns about scientists tinkering in their labs with genes of various primates in order to induce human-like features in them. Breakthroughs in such fields as synthetic biology are already triggering alarms that one day our ecosystems and lives will be threatened by Frankenstein-like organisms that have never existed before and were created by man playing God. (Speaking of God: Even CERN facility, built to discover and explore the so-called ‘God’s particle’, otherwise known as ‘Higgs boson’, drew its own share of scaremongering that they are about to open a black hole on planet Earth, which will eventually consume us all).

Certainly, most of the Science and Technology (S&T) breakthroughs did not happen because they were pursued for the sake of undermining our security. Quest for new knowledge is a very powerful human force, regardless of fears about its possible misuses and negative consequences. However, there is another powerful source of such breakthroughs which sometimes puts S&T progress and national security at odds: a perennial quest for gains in economic efficiency. This force has already led to radical supply chain reconfigurations in many industries, putting lots of manufacturing in low-cost countries and prompting so much whining of populists about ‘jobs lost to Chinese’. (In Western defence technology and industry circles, the latest fad is to worry witless about dependency on China for the supply of ‘rare earth’ minerals crucial in the production of high-tech weapons and equipment – a very valid point if one prepares to go to war with China or to use military force for the purposes and in ways that upsets Beijing). The very same force drives us to do things which eventually turn out to be rather silly, to put it mildly, from a security perspective.

The latest story comes from the field of nuclear technology, where the use of lasers to substantially lower the cost of enriching nuclear fuel has long been a holy grail sought by those in the nuclear business: the news broke out that scientists working at the facility co-owned by General Electric Nuclear of the U.S. and Hitachi of Japan – a consortium which is one of the world’s leading nuclear reactors producers (and, coincidentally, the one chosen for negotiations to build a new reactor in Visaginas) – managed to pull the trick which has evaded their colleagues for decades. Based on the results of their work, a novel nuclear fuel enrichment industrial process becomes possible and a nuclear fuel enrichment facility employing it will be built soon, promising a bonanza of much cheaper fuel for nuclear reactors.

Very welcome news it is indeed to the nuclear energy industry, beset by post-Fukushima gloom, haunted by knee-jerk reactions of some governments and ever rising costs of improving nuclear safety. However, there is a catch in this wonderful story of S&T achievement and cost-cutting innovation: nuclear proliferation experts are already up in arms, claiming that the new technology will rekindle the interest of ‘rogue states’ in getting their hands on nuclear bomb material at a lower cost and, perhaps, with lesser chances of detection by spies or international inspectors. Of course, GE Nuclear and Hitachi went for the usual corporate trick of fighting fire with fire: commissioning (and paying for) an ‘independent’ expert study to assess such risks (which, naturally, found their likelihood being quite low and that they can be easily managed). The U.S. government has not had its say yet, but it will (again, naturally for any government adjudicating various interests) most probably try to find some middle way and keep both the wolf and the lamb happy.

Whatever is the outcome of this tussle between the economic efficiency and national (or international) security, the problem of a narrow definition of and perspective towards the economic costs will not go away. How would technological innovation driven by cost-cutting zeal fare if we were to factor in security risks from the outset? How can we even price such risks, given that they are often hypothetical at the dawn of a specific technology? How can we better achieve ‘win-win’ between lower costs and greater security? How far, in the name of national security, should the governments go in restricting or steering S&T progress and its diffusion in the economy? How should S&T community and businesses be induced to reflect upon possible security consequences of their quest for knowledge and cost-cutting innovation from the very early stages? How can S&T foresight of national security authorities be improved to anticipate such consequences and take early action?

In the technology innovation jargon, there is a popular term — ‘valley of death’ — basically referring to failure of many inventions to make it to the commercial market. Perhaps, in the discourse on security and S&T relationship, we should introduce the term ‘valley of fear’, which some new technologies have to cross in order to become accepted or perceived as not creating national or international security issues of one degree or another. Usually we manage to walk through this security ‘valley of fear’ in S&T advancement and emerge on the other side in a rather decent shape: after all, security costs tend to eventually sink in and, if not absorbed by taxpayers or users – which is getting harder in the times of debt and austerity – lead to a demise, replacement or redesign of technology burdened with multiple costly security features, measures and regulations. But then, with the exception of nuclear energy and its weaponisation, we haven’t seen yet a technology making us dread about and even fight for our survival as a species because we endorsed technological progress so uncritically, hastily and greedily. Perhaps I’ll be watching ‘The Matrix’ again (or, maybe, ‘Dr. Strangelove’), while I’m thinking through the issue of non-technologist democratic control of S&T becoming as pertinent and pressing in the 21st Century as civilian democratic control of the military.

Filed under: Blog

No comment yet, add your voice below!


Add a Comment