Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Stupid Smart Machines

In consumer technology, as in biology, mutations tend to be useless or maladaptive. The Taser isn't improved by being combined with an mp3 player, unless you believe that two capabilities are automatically better than one, no matter how incompatible they may be. I think it's fair to suggest that turning a dangerous weapon into yet another lifestyle accessory - one that distracts you from your surroundings, no less - makes users and innocent bystanders less safe.

Now, there's talk among Serious People of marketing a cellphone that doubles as a radiation detector:

"The likely targets of a potential terrorist attack would be big cities with concentrated populations, and a system like this would make it very difficult for someone to go undetected with a radiological dirty bomb in such an area," said Longman, who also is Purdue alumnus. "The more people are walking around with cell phones and PDAs, the easier it would be to detect and catch the perpetrator. We are asking the public to push for this."
Let's imagine for a moment that I'm an actual terrorist, rather than a member of that Islamopacifascist fifth column, the American Left. Let's suppose further that I have access to radioactive material, and that I don't want it to go undetected. What's to stop me from putting it in magnetic containers on the undercarriage of UPS trucks, or crosstown buses? Or taping it under subway or taxicab or bicycle seats? Or floating it down rivers and canals? Or mailing it?

It seems to me that anyone who took these steps could cost one or more cities a great deal of money, and citizens a huge amount of trouble and worry, while undermining whatever remained of public faith in our "protectors." This is a perfect example of how easily anti-terrorist technology can become a readymade weapon, or a force multiplier, making us more vulnerable to disruption and despair as well as to violence. Schemes like this one are the technocratic equivalent of an autoimmune disorder.

If these modern-day Tom Swifts have considered this argument, they're keeping quiet about it:
The system could be trained to ignore known radiation sources, such as hospitals, and radiation from certain common items, such as bananas, which contain a radioactive isotope of potassium.

"The radiological dirty bomb or a suitcase nuclear weapon is going to give off higher levels of radiation than those background sources," Fischbach said. "The system would be sensitive enough to detect these tiny levels of radiation, but it would be smart enough to discern which sources posed potential threats and which are harmless."
Which would be great, in theory, if human beings of average intelligence weren't more than smart enough to outwit it, and to turn it against us.

In other news, our infrastructure is crumbling. Which is why it's disheartening to learn that research into this miracle cellphone "has been funded by the Indiana Department of Transportation through the Joint Transportation Research Program and School of Civil Engineering at Purdue."

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