Agence France Presse January 22, 2002
Lab-coat regiments muster in war against terrorism
By Richard Ingham
War can have a resounding effect on science, prompting governments, corporations and universities to pour funds and intellect into research.
Quite often, the outcome is not only a more efficient way of killing people but a boon for civilians too, as electronics, jet travel, antibiotics, the Global Positioning System and the Internet -- all legacies of World War II or the Cold War -- have shown.
So what can we expect from the War Against Terrorism?
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.Org, a military thinktank based in Alexandria, Virginia, says that since September 11, the hot areas are biometrics -- the science of identifying an individual through his face, voice and other signatures -- bioweapons and "any technology that is describable as contributing to defence against terrorism." One sign of where the big bucks will be heading can be found in a document drawn up by the US authorities last October.
In it, the Pentagon and the Technical Support Working Group (TSWG), an interagency forum gathering 80 security organisations across the federal government, invited public bids to supply a whole array of new anti-terrorism technology.
The wish-list includes a system to automatically identify speakers of Pashtu, Urdi, Farsi and Arabic dialects, comparing the voice against a databank of vocal signatures.
It calls for computers with enhanced abilities to identify a person from video pictures and track his movements in a crowd, as well as "prediction" software to suggest what a terrorist might do next on the basis of his known behaviour and background.
Other futuristic inventions on the list are steganography computers to spot secret messages buried in Internet pages; explosives detectors with a range of up to 61 metres (200 feet); "through-the-wall" imagers to detect people in a building; and small sensors that sniff the air for chemical or bacterial agents.
"Most of the things that they're looking for are simply modest improvements to things that they already have, which can be solved by putting money in at one end and waiting," Pike says. "Other things, though, are physically impossible, but it would be fun if it were possible."
Typical of the surging interest in biometrics is a study, published this month in the British science journal Nature, that appears to offer a quick, simple way of spotting would-be plane hijackers and bombers.
The technique entails using a sensor to detect minute changes in temperature in the skin around the eyes. This area literally blushes when someone tells a lie, but the change can be invisible to the observer.
Lead researcher James Levin, of the Mayo Clinic's Endocrine Research Unit, Minnesota, believes such sensors could be used by airport staff to screen suspect passengers by asking them questions and seeing whether the resulting thermal image suggests guilt.
Another area likely to be showered with money is satellites, to monitor movements and conversations on Earth.
As September 11 proved, over-dependence on hi-tech rather than human intelligence can lead to disastrous failures in security.
Even so, said Bhupendra Jasani, a professor of war studies at King's College London, there is still a pressing need to improve these eyes and ears in the sky.
Unless there is some breakthrough in lenses, space-based cameras are unlikely to see a major further improvement in optics, he said. The best resolution, in the latest of the US KH-12 series of monster satellites, is around 12 centimeters (five inches).
However, there is room for better image processors to enhance the resolution of fuzzy pictures; in more sensitive heat sensors; and for robot sensors, dropped on the ground, that listen out for passers-by and then beam the information up to an overhead satellite.
At present, spy satellites can cost a fortune, and changing their orbital position is a hugely important decision as the move uses up precious onboard reserves of fuel.
But a technological push helped by defence spending will lead to cheap, versatile microsatellites weighing just a few dozen kilos each, and could one day lead to robot tankers to refuel bigger satellites in orbit, he said.
The eventual civilian benefits of low-cost satellite communications are clear, as is the potential reward from interest in biological terrorism.
Scientists are racing to unravel the genome of anthrax and other agents in order to create safe and effective treatments, while epidemiologists are striving to beef up reporting networks to swiftly detect the outbreak of a bioterror attack.
Such endeavours, if they succeed, are bound to have a spinoff in the fight against other diseases, especially in the field of vaccines, one of the most sadly neglected areas of medicine.
Copyright 2002 Agence France Presse