I’m disappointed in the pace of technological change lately, in particular when you consider that we live in a time of war.
During World War II, some of the most astounding technological developments of all time were developed, both by the Allies and the Axis powers. In some cases existing technologies advanced by leaps and bounds, and in other cases new technologies emerged from practically nothing in less than half a decade. The list of revolutionary innovations that emerged during the war years is staggering:
- Radar and Sonar
- Computers and Cryptography
- Jet Aircraft
- Nuclear Reactors
Lesser innovations, at least in comparison to these milestones, came as well in fields as diverse as project management, communications, transportation, and medicine. And of course, more soberingly, many military technologies were advanced or fully realized during the war, including aircraft carries, submarines, and atomic bombs.
America is now at war again, against an enemy whose tactics continually confound and frustrate us. And yet, as far as I can tell, our pace of technological innovation over the past six years — longer than all of WWII — has been utterly pathetic.
Think of all the areas in which new technologies could be helping us in the so-called “War on Terror”, or in the fight against insurgents in Iraq: Machine translation, bomb and toxin detection, robotics including unmanned aircraft and ground forces, new forms of logistics, management, and troop rotation, new generations of armored vehicles, leaps forward in mobile communications, new medical and psychological treatments for injured soldiers… I’m not a military visionary by a long shot, but even as a layman I can imagine some of the kinds of developments we urgently need and how much better off we could be.
And yet instead of investing in military and technological innovation, our government seems to be spending its energy and money on outdated and ineffective older technologies. Even leaving aside the moral and constitutional questions, our technological strategies are at best stagnant: From anti-missle defense to domestic wiretapping to flat-out torture, our anti-terror strategies seem to have gone backwards in time rather than forwards. The Bush Administration has probably spent more time, energy, and taxpayers’ dollars on lawyers crafting arguments to defend medieval torture techniques than they’ve spent on developing newer and more reliable interrogation technologies.
Maybe it’s all a secret?
Many people will argue that perhaps the government and the Pentagon already are, in fact, developing and using astounding new technologies every day, and that the general public just doesn’t know about it. They will ask: Did the American people know what the physicists were doing with the Manhattan Project? Did the British people know what the mathematicians were up to at Bletchley Park?
Of course, these are the same people who argued that President Bush had mountains of proof about Saddam’s involvement in 9/11, but that because the material was so secret he couldn’t share it even with members of Congress. Or that the evidence against the prisoners at GuantÃ¡namo is rock-solid but is so sensitive that nobody even in the American judicial branch can be trusted to see it.
These arguments are preposterous, of course. If Bush had proof for Saddam’s connection to 9/11, he would have released it at all costs. Half of the prisoners at Gitmo, far from being provably guilty, have been freed.
If the Administration was truly committed to increasing America’s technological advantage against our existing and potential enemies, we would see many of the results every day, for example in the security at our airports, toll plazas, banks, and government institutions. We’d see newly-funded research programs at our universities. We’d see new anti-money-laundering technologies in place in the financial sector. We’d see commercial products using technologies developed in the military and finding their way into consumer electronics. And American combat casualties would be reduced.
Let’s face it. There’s no secret weapon or secret plan.
Where we should be:
Many of the technologies that would help us in the War on Terror are exactly the kind of technologies that could easily trickle into the private sector with no harm to our national defense. Alternately, helpful military technologies could emerge, with government support, from our private sector.
Machine translation is a great example of where we have fallen short: In six years, couldn’t we have invested billions of dollars in a program to make a machine that can reliably transcribe spoken Arabic into textual English? Or for that matter, any language into any other? Private sector technologies have slowly been scratching at the surface of this, from commercial speech-to-text software to the many online translation algorithms, such as the legendary Alta Vista Babelfish, that have existed for over a decade. But given that our ability to understand foreign languages has never been more important to national security, shouldn’t there be a Machine Translation Manhattan Project?
Or interrogation: The New York Times had an analysis of the state of America’s interrogation technology a few weeks ago, and it is embarassingly pathetic:
As the Bush administration completes secret new rules governing interrogations, a group of experts advising the intelligence agencies are arguing that the harsh techniques used since the 2001 terrorist attacks are outmoded, amateurish and unreliable.
The psychologists and other specialists, commissioned by the Intelligence Science Board, make the case that more than five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration has yet to create an elite corps of interrogators trained to glean secrets from terrorism suspects.
While billions are spent each year to upgrade satellites and other high-tech spy machinery, the experts say, interrogation methods â€” possibly the most important source of information on groups like Al Qaeda â€” are a hodgepodge that date from the 1950s, or are modeled on old Soviet practices.
Meanwhile, this week’s New Yorker includes a survey of current lie-detection technologies, in particular a new technique using MRI scanners to detect deception. The article says that the Pentagon is indeed exploring this technology, but it seems pretty clear that the private sector is leading the charge. Although the tech is still primitive and unreliable, at least for now, it shows some promise. Shouldn’t we have moved from waterboarding to reliable brainscanning by now? Such an advancement in interrogation techniques would not only help us militarily, but also in the court of public opinion: discontinuing physical torture would go a long way towards putting America back in a position of moral advantage.
Any serious presidential contender for 2008 should propose that the USA is technologically a full decade behind where we can and should be in protecting ourselves against today’s new threats. The Administration’s abject neglect, and downright hostility, towards advanced science and technology has gone on long enough. It’s time to bring the eggheads back.