When Incremental Improvement isn’t Enough

When Incremental Improvement isn't Enough

One of the things that I love about the Intelligence Community (IC) is that they think future and they think big.

Noah Schactman in Wired Magazine (12 December 12–great date!), gave a snapshot view of 2030 as provided by the National Intelligence Council (NIC).

Some of the predictions (or aspirations) include:

– Bioprinting such as creating 3-D printed organs (how’s that for your orchestrating your own organ transplant?)

– Retinal implants for night vision thermal imaging, seeing the distance without binoculars, or even one-upping Google Glass by providing augmented reality in your eye instead of over it

– Brain chips for superhuman thought and recall (those without remain doomed to brain farts, in comparison)

– Bioweapons where DNA is used to target and take out people by genetically engineering viruses to attack them, specifically, without leaving any markers

– People embedded in machines–reminiscent of when Ripley in the movie Alien enters in an exoskelton robotic suit to kick some Alien butt!

Other predictions include: megacities, climate change, big data clouds, aging populations, and more drones.

While some of these advances are incremental in nature–for example genetic engineering and bioweapons are incremental steps from DNA sequencing of humans.

However, other leaps are more dramatic.

An article by Stephen Levy in Wired (17 January 2013) discusses how Larry Page (one of the Google founders) strives for inventions that are magnitudes of “10x” (often actually 100x) better than the status quo, rather than just 10% improvements.

Google has many examples of leaping ahead of the competition: from its transformative search engine which has become synonymous with search itself to Gmail which came out with 100x the storage of its competitors, Translations for the entire web from/to any language, Google Fiber with broadband at 100x faster than industry speeds prototyped in Kansas City, Google Books providing a scanned and searchable archive of our global collection of books and magazines, Google+ for social media (this one, I see as just a Facebook copycat–to get on Facebook’s nerves!), Google Maps for getting around, Android their open platform operating system for mobile devices, and even self-driving cars–many of these are developed by Google X–their secret skunk work lab.

I really like Google’s concept of going for the “moon shot” rather than just tweaking technology to try and stay ahead of the competition, temporarily.

And as in space, there is so much territory to explore, Google believes it is attacking just .1% of the opportunities out there, and that the tech industry as a whole is attacking maybe 1% in aggregate–that leaves 99% or plenty of opportunity for all innovators and inventors out there.

To get to 2030 and beyond–we’re just at the tip of the innovation iceberg! 😉

Biowarfare: A Fight At The Molecular Level

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There is a fascinating article in The Atlantic (November 2012) on an emerging bioweapons storm that is brewing that could be used in a decapitation strike to harm anyone, even the President of the United States. 

Advances in genetic engineering, biotechnology, and synthetic biology (Synbio) has been seen from decoding human DNA to the development of “magic bullets”, personalized viral therapies that can target and destroy cancer cells.

However, just as most things can be used for good or evil–so too, can this biotechnology be used to target and destroy cancerous cells or perversely to attack healthy ones.

Bioweapons could be targeted to various parts of the body or brain to cause blindness, memory loss, or death itself. More subtly, it can be used to “fabricate evidence” of affairs, crimes, “cast doubt” as to birthplace or heritage, or as supposed markers for genetic diseases, and even mental disability. 

Moreover, while bioweapons of mass destruction can destroy virtually entire civilizations, personalized bioweapons can be engineered based on the manipulation of a specific person’s DNA to attack that person–then just like a sniper, it becomes one shot, one (targeted) kill. 

Personalized bioweapons can be silent and deadly, difficult to detect, hard to pin on a source, and may even be confused with death by natural causes. 

And the cost is coming down…cell-culturing gear “can be had on eBay for as little as $10,000” or “cobbled together for less than $1,000.”

Even non-weaponized use of this technology, can be extremely dangerous. For example, Synbio, can be used to “cut and paste” genetic code from one species to another, can be mixed from multiple species, and new creatures can be created altogether–all this potentially leading to frightening scenarios of “undesired cross-breeding with other organisms, uncontrolled proliferation, crowding out existing species, and threats to biodiversity.” 

Already, “forty nations now host synbio research” and “The Beijing Genomics Institute…is the largest genomic research organization in the world.”

The article speaks to various approaches to counter the personalized bioweapons threat including scientific task forces, bio-detectors, “Clean DNA” (as biological backup system), conducting biological war games, and open/crowdsourcing for solutions. 

It seems clear that the answers of how to defend against these emerging threats are not as good as the questions raised by them–and we will need to be vigilant and fast-track R&D in these areas, as we are still vulnerable. 

Further, I see some similarities between bioweapons, cyberweapons, and even legions of attack drones/droids, as all areas that are non-conventional and developing quickly and quite lethally. 

Unfortunately, we can’t just put on a coat of armor and be safe from attacks at the molecular level, or from malicious code seeking to cripple our national critical infrastructure, or from robots that can stream across a battlespace attacking without fear, pain, or tiring. 

There is no simple paradigm for killing anymore and we better let our imaginations run wild, so we can figure out new ways to protect everyone–from the President and on down to us all.

(Source Photo: Andy Blumenthal)