Electronic Design

Countering Terrorism: The Ultimate Challenge To Technology

We've done it. Last month, regardless of the probable consequences, the United States and its allies responded to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. For better or worse, the initial response has provoked the expected rhetoric as well as threats of further terrorist actions. Although the U.S. and its allies around the world have tightened security since September 11, there are numerous paths terrorist groups can follow to elude or circumvent many of the added security measures.

As we all know, death or injury has many causes, ranging from natural disasters to accidents to man's inhumanity to man. It is not practical to fold ourselves into a cocoon and wait for the world to be safer. Natural perils such as earthquakes, typhoons, and volcanic eruptions cannot be stopped or even influenced.

However, we can minimize their impact by designing buildings and infrastructures to withstand the devastation or to be repaired/rebuilt quickly. Accidents can similarly teach us what went wrong so we can build the next generation of planes, ships, nuclear reactors, and so on with more backups and other safety provisions.

For both natural and accidental events, there have already been many efforts to provide advance warnings of impending danger. Highly sensitive in-ground sensors, satellite observation systems, and multiple-sensor technology combine with failure-prediction software to signal that something is about to go amiss.

But we still have a lot to learn in almost all areas. Sensor technology still does not provide the capability to collect all the data needed for improving the analysis of all conditions. Furthermore, our ability to model and analyze systems based on the data collected is still woefully inadequate. Better models of catastrophic events, coupled with much higher levels of compute power, are needed to calculate system responses more accurately. This should help assure the building of safer structures, provide advance warnings, and eventually generate countermeasures that minimize the effects of an event.

Can we apply the same procedures to thwarting terrorism? We already have metal and chemical detectors at airports and critical buildings. But our means are woefully inadequate to model the human psyche and take adequate corrective measures in advance. This means that much of the burden falls on the technical community to develop better sensing and countermeasures technologies, as well as even smarter weapons able to target ever-smaller hostile activities.

The ultimate goal must be to totally neutralize terrorist threats. We engineers must dedicate ourselves to developing solutions that prevent terrorism from succeeding. If we fail, we will be forced to forego many of the freedoms we currently treasure. Let's put technology to work and save us from that undesirable fate.

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