A Dialog with the New York Times on the Technological Implications of the September 11 Disaster

In preparation for the New York Times article “In the Next Chapter, Is Technology an Ally?”, Ray Kurzweil engaged in a conversation with computer scientist Peter Neumann, science fiction author Bruce Sterling, law professor Lawrence Lessig, retired engineer Severo Ornstein, and cryptographer Whitfield Diffie, addressing questions of how technology and innovation will be shaped by the tragic events of September 11, 2001.


In preparation for the New York Times article “In the Next Chapter, Is Technology an Ally?”, Ray Kurzweil engaged in a conversation with computer scientist Peter Neumann, science fiction author Bruce Sterling, law professor Lawrence Lessig, retired engineer Severo Ornstein, and cryptographer Whitfield Diffie, addressing questions of how technology and innovation will be shaped by the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Read Ray Kurzweil’s responses to three questions posed by New York Times editor Katie Hafner.

Questions from Katie Hafner, New York Times Editor

September 22-23, 2001

Question One from New York Times

Where do you think last week’s terrorist attacks will take us in terms of technological innovation? What place is there for private entrepreneurship? Or will this see a resurgence of innovation at Government labs like Los Alamos, LLNL and Sandia, which have been losing their biggest talent to the private sector in recent years?

Ray Kurzweil’s Response to Question One

The “September 11 tragedy” will accelerate a profound trend already well under way from centralized technologies to distributed ones, and from the real world to the virtual world. Centralized technologies involve an aggregation of resources such as people (e.g., cities, buildings), energy (e.g., nuclear power plants, liquid natural gas and oil tankers, energy pipelines), transportation (e.g., airplanes, trains), and other resources. Centralized technologies are subject to disruption and disaster. They also tend to be inefficient, wasteful, and harmful to the environment.

Distributed technologies, on the other hand, tend to be flexible, efficient, and relatively benign in their environment effects. The quintessential distributed technology is the Internet. Despite concerns about viruses, these information-based pathogens are mere nuisances. The Internet is essentially indestructible. If any hub or channel goes down, the information simply routes around it. The Internet is remarkably resilient, a quality that continues to grow with its continued exponential growth.

In the immediate aftermath of this crisis, we already see a dramatic movement away from meetings and conferences in the real world to those in the virtual world, including web-based meetings, Internet-based videoconferencing, and other contemporary examples of virtual communication. Meeting in this way is obviously safer, and ultimately more convenient. Despite the recent collapse of market value in telecommunications, bandwidth nonetheless continues to expand exponentially which will continue to improve the resolution and sense of realism in the virtual world. We’ll see a great deal of innovation to overcome many of the current limitations.

By the end of this decade, we’ll have images written directly to our retinas from our eyeglasses and contact lenses, very high bandwidth wireless connection to the Internet available at all times, and the electronics for all this woven into our clothing. So we’ll have ubiquitous, always-available, full-immersion, visual-auditory, shared virtual reality environments where we will be able to gather together for purposes ranging from business conferences to intimate encounters. The understandable fear from this tragedy is not going to go away, and will accelerate this trend.

In energy, we need to move rapidly toward the opposite end of the spectrum of contemporary energy sources, away from the extremely concentrated energy installations we now depend on. Many of today’s energy technologies represent vulnerabilities far more grave than what we have just witnessed. As an example of a trend in the right direction, one company is pioneering fuel cells that are microscopic in size using MEMS (Micro Electronic Mechanical Systems) technology. They are manufactured like electronic chips but they are actually batteries with an energy to size ratio vastly exceeding conventional technology. Ultimately technology along these lines could power everything from our cell phones to our cars and homes. This type of technology would not be subject to disaster or disruption.

As these technologies develop, our need for aggregating people in large buildings and cities will diminish and people will spread out, living where they want, and gathering together in virtual reality. This is not a matter of simply giving in to Terrorist-generated fear, but rather a positive trend that will ultimately enhance the quality of life.

Question Two from New York Times

In the wake of the attacks, I’ve been hearing people say that we have been blinded by technology, that when we paint scenarios of terror, they tend to be laden with technology. Yet what these people did was in fact quite low tech. Have we become too smitten with a high-tech view of the world?

Ray Kurzweil’s Response to Question Two

The terrorists clearly obtained remarkable leverage with their low tech weaponry. But the leverage came from the technology they commandeered (i.e., jet planes, jet fuel, huge buildings). Little attention has been paid to the security of our technology-based society, and the “opportunities” for such destructive leverage, unfortunately, are manifold. I share Peter Neumann’s dilemma in wondering how much these leverage points should be publicly discussed. On the one hand, the only way to generate the political support to take the necessary security steps is through a public debate. On the other hand, no one wants to give the wrong people the wrong ideas.

I think we need to look at technology from the broadest perspective of its deeply intertwined promise and peril. Because of its inherently accelerating nature, most technology development in human history has occurred in the last two centuries. Compare life today to that of 200 years ago. Life expectancy then was less than half of what it is today, and everyday life was extremely labor intensive (preparing the evening meal took much of the day), disease and poverty filled, and disaster-prone. Technology has liberated much of humanity from this precarious and painful situation. On the other hand, the “peril” side of technology provides concentrated power to create suffering on unprecedented scales. We’ve already seen this in the twentieth century. Hitler’s trains and Stalin’s tanks were applications of technology. Technology empowers both our creative and destructive impulses.

The issue is acute because we are not dealing with a static situation. Technology is accelerating (according to my models we’re doubling the rate of paradigm shift rate, i.e., the rate of technology progress, every decade). There are already means available to cause outrages at a far greater scale than the tragedy we’ve just witnessed, as the discussion on terrorism using weapons of mass destructive makes clear. As we go forward, the same technology that will save millions of lives (and ease the enormous suffering) from cancer and other painful diseases will also potentially provide the means for a terrorist to create a bioengineered pathogen, which would again raise the stakes.

It is worth pointing out that we have not yet even dealt with the scenario that we witnessed on September 11. A terrorist can still take a plastic knife (i.e., I’m not talking about picnic plastic ware, but rather knives as effective as metal ones) through airport metal detectors. We have essentially no security with regard to private planes. The full list of vulnerabilities in our open society is very extensive.

We urgently need to identify these exposures and risks and develop defenses while also greatly augmenting public preparedness for different forms of terrorism, particularly those involving chemical and biological weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

I began a conversation with Bill Joy in a Lake Tahoe Bar in October of 1998 on the intertwined promise and peril of twenty-first century technologies, a dialog which has continued in diverse venues. Although Bill and I are often paired as pessimist and optimist respectively, we actually agree on the reality of the dangers. September 11 is a wake up call, although I would say that we are still not taking seriously enough the diverse nature of the threats. I have been critical of Joy’s apparent recommendation of relinquishment, and continue to be. Relinquishing broad areas of technology (such as nanotechnology) is neither feasible (not without relinquishing essentially all of technology) nor desirable. It would just drive these technologies underground where all the expertise would be left to the least responsible practitioners (i.e., the terrorists). However, I do support what I called “fine-grained relinquishment,” which is avoiding specific capabilities and scenarios of particular danger (e.g., the Foresight Institute’s call for ethical guidelines against creating entities that can self-replicate in natural environments). However, we also need to unleash the full power of our creativity on the defensive technologies. We also need to emphasize the relatively safer distributed technologies, such as distributed energy (e.g., microscopic sized fuel cells), and distributed communication (e.g., the Internet).

Question Three from New York Times

Larry Lessig says that the hard question is whether future innovation will be tailored to protect privacy as well as support legitimate state interests in surveillance and control.

Do you agree with him that we as a culture tend to think too crudely about technologies for surveillance? Where do you think the trade-offs should be?

And how, as Larry proposes, might the innovators develop technologies that both reserved important aspects of our freedom while responding to the real threats presented by the attacks.” ?

Ray Kurzweil’s Response to Question Three

The nature of these terrorist attacks and the organization of the organization behind it puts civil liberties in general at odds with legitimate state interests in surveillance and control. The entire basis of our law enforcement system, and indeed much of our thinking about security, is based on an assumption that people are motivated to preserve their own lives and well being. That is the logic behind all of our strategies from law enforcement on the local level to “mutual assured destruction” on the world stage. But a foe that values the destruction of both its enemy and itself is not amenable to this line of attack.

So consider one very practical and current issue. The FBI identifies a likely terrorist cell and arrests the participants, even though they have not yet committed a crime and there may be insufficient evidence to convict them of a crime. Attorney General Ashcroft has proposed legislation that would allow the Government to continue to hold these individuals. The New York Times in its lead editorial today (September 23) objects to this and calls this a “troubling provision.” So, according to the logic of this editorial, the Government should release these people because they have not yet committed a crime, and should re-arrest them only after they have committed a crime. Of course, by that time these terrorists will be dead along with a large number of their victims. How can the Government possibly break up a vast network of decentralized cells of suicide terrorists if they have to wait for each one to commit a crime?

I say this as someone who is generally very supportive of civil liberties. Indeed, one can point out that curtailing civil liberties in this way is exactly the aim of the terrorists, who despise our freedoms and our pluralistic society. Yet I do not see the prospect of any “magic bullet” innovation that would essentially change this equation.

The encryption trap door may be considered a technical “innovation” that the Government has been proposing in an attempt to balance legitimate individual needs for privacy with the government’s need for surveillance. I have been supportive of this approach. Along with this type of technology we also need the requisite political innovation to provide for effective oversight by both the judicial and legislative branches of the executive branch’s use of these trap doors to avoid the potential for abuse of power. The secretive nature of this opponent and its lack of respect for human life including its own will deeply test the foundation of our democratic traditions.

Author: Raymond Kurzweil

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