BREAKPOINT: terrorists vs. transhumanists

Big Ideas — POSTED BY Joe Murray on February 17, 2010 at 12:05 pm

Former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke’s BREAKPOINT novel, set in the year 2012, is based on emerging technologies. “Globegrid,” a high-speed global network, links supercomputers worldwide. Combined with advanced AI software, it promises to reverse-engineer the brain, revolutionize genomics, enable medical breakthroughs, develop advanced human-machine interfaces, and allow for genetic alterations and even uploading consciousness. But it spurs a terrorist-fundamentalist Luddite backlash against transhumanists, as hackers take down the power grid, and destroy vital international data and telecom links, communications satellites, and biotech firms.

Author’s Note:

It may read to some like science fiction, but it is based on emerging technologies that are the subject of research today

In The Scorpion’s Gate, I projected a world in 2010, with the United States and China competing politically and economically for a dwindling supply of increasingly expensive oil and gas. That competition naturally took them to the Persian Gulf, where the largest oil deposits remained.  The Persian Gulf of 2010 was unstable, with the United States threatening Iran, and fundamentalist Islamic forces emerging in Saudi Arabia.  Corruption and giant corporations made Washington a political battleground.  While I noted at the time of publication that the work was not meant to be predictive, many of the trends in the novel have developed and are dominating the news.

by Richard A. Clarke

Breakpoint, set in 2012, is meant to be predictive, at least about technology.  It may read to some like science fiction, but it is based on emerging technologies that are the subject of research today.  Scientists and engineers differ in their views about when the research will result in deployed technology, but their differences are most often a discussion of “when,” not “if.”

This novel is intended to project you a few years ahead, to start readers thinking now about the political, social, and economic changes that technology is about to create. Those changes could be wrenching, creating tensions in our society.  A woman’s right to choose, the teaching of evolution, and stem-cell research have already created social and political discord in the United States.  The coming technological events may make these current controversies seem like a practice round, a warm-up.  For the next debate may be about “what is a human”: Should humans change the species with human-machine interfaces and genetic alterations?

The opening rounds have already occurred.  The Transhumanist movement is real and has regular meetings around the country.  In 2002, the National Science Foundation issued a stunning report, “Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science.” The report, which overall has an upbeat and optimistic tone, concludes that connections between the human brain and computers will transform the way humans work, other technologies will eliminate disabilities and diseases that have plagued the human condition for centuries, and human creativity will flourish due to both improved understanding of the human mind and enhancements to the brain. A year later, the President’s Council on Bioethics issued its report, “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness” which took a somewhat dimmer view of using technology to enhance human beings. Chaired by Leon Kass, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the commission included conservative political figures such as Francis Fukuyama and Charles Krauthammer. They believe that genetic science should not be used to enhance human performance, only to fix mistakes that make some humans less healthy than the norm.  In 2004, Californians voted on a referendum on stem cell research and approved funding for research.  Court fights have delayed the spending of state monies.

As to some of the specifics in Breakpoint:

– The concept of Globegrid arises from the fact that supercomputers in Japan, the United States, and Russia have already been linked through Internet 2, a new high speed networked being developed by a consortium of 207 universities.  U.S. and European labs are actually engaged in a project to reverse engineer the human brain.

– Living Software does not yet exist, but companies like Watchfire Fortify, Coverity, and others are already developing software to test software for human error.

– Very Light Jets (VLJs) have been approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and are in manufacture. They are four-to-six seat aircraft meant to operate like taxis.  Eclipse Aviation’s Eclipse500 and Citation’s CJ-1 are among the first deployed VLJs.

– Intelligent video surveillance, in which the software and cameras (not people) recognize aberrant behavior, are already being deployed by companies such as DVTel and Vidient in subways, airports, and other facilities.

– Exoskeleton suits are already in the prototype phase. The U.S. Army has teamed with the University of California at Berkeley to develop the prototype, which will allow soldiers to carry 180 pounds while feeling as if they were lugging five. Plans on the drawing board at the Army’s Natick Labs in Massachusetts show soldiers being able to run, jump, and throw the way they are described in the baseball game in Breakpoint. The other capabilities that make up the full suite of technologies in the exoskeleton suits (night vision, network connections, GPS, remote cameras, and vital-system monitoring) are all part of a program called the Objective Force Warrior Ensemble, set to be deployed by 2010.

– People in the United States will be driving Chinese-manufactured cars like the Chery product line in 2007-08.  Cars powered by ethanol derived from switch grass exist today.

– Driven by the large number of U.S. casualties in Iraq, Marine and Army amputees are now receiving prosthetics far more advanced than what is available in the civilian community. Known as sea legs, these new prosthetics are driven by microprocessors at each joint. They use innovative new materials and techniques to respond to signals from the human brain to straighten a leg or flex a muscle. Servicemen and women who once would have been unable to lead normal civilian lives are now able to return to the battlefield.

– Human nerves have already connected artificial ears directly to the brain. Paralyzed patients are today using their thoughts to move computer mouse devices.  Some patients suffering from severe depression and other disorders already do have miniature wires leading to parts of their brain and do have battery packs implanted behind their collarbones. Other Human-Machine Interfaces (HMIs) are in development.

– Artificial retinas for people suffering from blindness caused by diseases such as retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration are in the development phase and have already seen some success in restoring limited vision in clinical trials. The devices work by implanting a small chip at the back of the eye that stimulates retinal neurons. They are powered by solar receptors fed by the light that enters the eye. Replacing the full eye with a silicon-based optical unit may be feasible, but is also likely that the ability to regenerate or transplant an eye may happen sooner and be more appealing.

– The state of cyber security described in the novel is, unfortunately, not fiction. Identities (name, date of birth, Social Security number, credit-card number) are bought and sold in cyberspace hacker chat rooms.  Software coding errors are regularly used by hackers to enter networks and computers.  Scientists at U.S. government national laboratories have demonstrated the possibility of taking down the power grid through hacking.

–The company iRobot has sold large numbers of robots to clean floors. Asimov, the robotic dog, could easily be a reality in the near term. Sony’s Aibo already can mimic the actions of a “real” dog. Moving from Aibo to the fictional Asimov will require adding voice recognition technology, a wireless web link, limited artificial-intelligence capabilities, and advanced motor devices to power its arms and legs. In some form or another, these technologies all exist today.

– Performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals (PEPs) is my own name, but  the concept is not fiction. For memory enhancement, a compound known as CX717 has proven effective in boosting the brain chemical glutamate, the substance that is key in learning and memory. Studies have shown it effective in treating narcolepsy and ADD. It has also proven effective for otherwise healthy individuals who need to stay focused over longer periods without sleep. For sports, regulatory authorities are fighting an uphill battle, with gene doping and performance enhancing pharmaceuticals becoming more sophisticated, more effective, and safer than steroids.  The Pentagon is developing drugs that will allow soldiers to go for long periods without sleeping

– Cellular regeneration of organs and other body parts is in its infancy but will likely yield real-world results by the end of this decade. Embryonic stem cells are thought to hold the most promise for treating a wide range of maladies, from cancer to spinal injuries. Human adult stem cells are already used to treat a variety of ailments. Fixing retinas, cloning hair for baldness, and regrowing teeth are all showing promise.  Progress on stem cell research has slowed due to the Bush administration’s unwillingness to fund research on embryonic stem cells. This decision has slowed progress and shifted much work overseas, where governments have embraced the promise of this research. It is quite possible the United States will be left behind in what will be the most pivotal medical advance since the decoding of the genome.

– Aircraft without onboard pilots are already in use.  I fought a bureaucratic battle with CIA in 2000 to get them to use the unmanned Predator to hunt for terrorists and in 2001 to arm the Predator with missiles. When Predator finally was used to attack terrorists in Afghanistan and Yemen, it was probably the first time a robot intentionally killed a human. The U.S. Air Force is now developing UCAVs, unmanned combat aerial vehicles, fighter planes whose pilots will sit safely on the ground hundreds or thousands of miles away from the aircraft. Lockheed has plans for an unmanned version of the F-35.

– The laser gun depicted in Breakpoint is a technology set to emerge sometime within the next decade, depending on the prioritization it receives in Pentagon budget negotiations. The Airborne Laser is being built by Boeing to mount a laser on a 747 for use against ballistic missiles. When the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) was first put on the drawing board in 2001, plans called for a solid-state laser as an offensive weapon.  Although it has been delayed, The Lightweight Tactical Laser weapon  may now be incorporated in the F-35 block 30.

– The initial mapping of the human genome was complete in 2000. Detailed mapping of the individual chromosomes is under way, with most of the existing human chromosomes already mapped. The first genetic therapy was approved to treat patients in 1990. Today, genetic therapy is used to fix flaws in some human coding, including sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis and hemophilia.

– Nanotechnology is already in use in cosmetics, tennis racquets, paints, and fabrics. The National Nanotechnology Initiative is the largest new federal science project in recent years. Researchers have successfully used gold nanoparticles to deliver DNA molecules safely into cancer cells as part of a program to defeat cancer.

– The field of Synthetic Biology is also real and has resulted in the creation of Bio Fab plants, named to sound like the plants (called Fabs) that made silicon-based computer chips. Synthetic Biology has created bacteria that seek and invade tumor cells, yeast that produce the anti-malarial drug precursor artemisinic acid, and biological sources of renewable energy.

Sometimes you can tell more truth through fiction.


Originally published in Breakpoint, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, January 2007. Reprinted with permission on May 21, 2007. Richard A. Clarke will be featured in Ray Kurzweil’s movie, “The Singularity is Near, A True Story about the Future,” due for release in Spring 2008.

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