Monday, October 17, 2011

"Killer apps" and "big data"

Several years ago, I read an article - possibly a book review, probably in Science - that outlined the science underlying certain aspects of ancient and medieval warfare, including the mathematics of fortifications and catapults. Science and engineering have always been servants of war, for better and for worse, steadily producing more powerful and more accurate ways to kill and maim people, destroy property, and wreak havoc. My knowledge of military history is incomplete at best, and my knowledge of the history of diplomacy is probably even weaker, but I venture to guess that the "science" of negotiation and diplomacy - war by peaceful means - has not kept pace with the science of war, perhaps because it is so much easier to make better weapons than it is to make better men.*

This rumination was precipitated by two recent articles: A comment by P.W. Singer ("Military robotics and ethics: A world of killer apps," Nature 477:366-401, September 22, 2011) and a news article by John Markoff ("Government aims to build a 'data eye in the sky'," New York Times October 10, 2011).

Singer opens his piece by commenting on the unexpected consequences of the Manhattan Project, which "opened up entirely new areas of physics, revolutionized the energy industry and transformed world politics."
What is different today is the speed with which our technology can outpace our ethical and policy responses to it. Astounding advances grab the headlines so frequently that the public has become numb to their significance - whether it is robotic planes, directed-energy weapons such as high-energy lasers, or 'electric skin', tiny sensors that are applied to the body like tattoos.

We are "giants" when it comes to technology, but "ethical infants" when it comes to understanding its consequences, as US Army general Omar Bradley remarked in 1948. Bradley was referring to nuclear research, but as the pace of technologic change takes off, that gulf - between our sophisticated inventions and our crude grasp of the consequences - continues to widen. We need to start bridging it.
In light of this perspective, we should all be alarmed by news that both DARPA and IARPA (U.S. agencies that support cutting-edge research; the acronyms stand for Defense/Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency/Activity) are interested in using social science techniques to "mine the vast resources of the Internet" with automated systems that will provide a "data eye in the sky" to follow and, they hope, predict "political and economic events" as well as "pandemics and other types of widespread contagion."

There's not much point in demanding the cessation of such initiatives; they will be pursued by someone. There might be a chance to direct and control them, however. If we know how.

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

*I use the word "men" in the old-fashioned sense of "human beings" because that usage, in spite of its sexist connotations, has a certain power and dignity, at least to my ear. Besides, until recently, war was pretty much a monopoly held by the males of the species, so I think we deserve the blame.

1 comment:

Ken Pimple said...

For more on the DARPA/IARPA initiatives, see "Spies to use Twitter as crystal ball" by Sharon Weinberger (Nature 478:301, October 17 2011) at