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The Next Killer App

December 10, 2001

By Peter W. Huber

Tune these devices just right and you can see through almost any clutter--clothes, walls, fog, smoke, foliage, dirt and Sheetrock.

The Tech Sector's new challenge: see, Identify, track--and then, if need be, kill--people and things before they kill you. Americans now have to watch hundreds of millions of trucks, cars, packages, letters and people. We have to see the plastic explosives before they detonate, the anthrax before it gets out of the envelope, the Sarin nerve gas before it gets into the air-conditioning duct.

And not just "see" it, but recognize it for what it is. This is airport screening, shifted over to the rest of daily life and made much better than the screening that airports themselves were getting until recently.

Forensic labs have slow and expensive ways of seeing things, but the challenge now is to see all over the place and make sense of a deluge of complex imagery on the fly, and do it cheaply. It's an information problem, and we will turn to digital technology to solve it.

Most targets will cooperate, to speed their own passage through all the new gateways. Cars and trucks will get sophisticated transponders--advanced versions of the E-ZPass system that clears cars through tollgates from New York to Delaware. Companies like Motorola have developed radio frequency identification technology that combines silicon with printed ink to embed smart electronic tags ubiquitously in packaging materials. The Dutch have just implemented an optional iris-scanning system at Amsterdam airport; you have to pay for the privilege of using it, and frequent travelers will, of course.

Even these opt-in systems will have to link up with intelligent networks and databases. Transponders can be stolen, after all. Security services will therefore track patterns of activity and daily habits in much the same way that Citibank looks for out-of-the-ordinary charges to your credit card, and calls you if it doesn't like what it sees.

Other technologies will be engaged to screen uncooperative targets. These devices begin with the lightbulb and the eyeball, now built out of semiconductors, and redesigned to see across a wide range of frequencies, from microwaves to X rays. Tune these systems just right and you can punch through almost any clutter--clothes, walls, fog, smoke, foliage, dirt and Sheetrock--to form an image of anything else--metals, hard plastics, explosives or biological molecules. Microwave-frequency radar emerged to save London, and then the Atlantic convoys, in World War II. Today's civil defense will do its looking with everything from millimeter waves on up the dial.

Once you paint the target, you have to make sense of what reflects off it. That requires massive number crunching, and even more massive storage. Until Sept. 11 pattern-recognition software focused on voice recognition and the translation of printed text into digital data. And until then, it was entertainment video that was going to impel a surge of new demand for high-speed communications links. But entertainment is mainly two-dimensional; threat recognition is 3-D. Voice and printed text involve two familiar, standardized media. Security threats come in many more forms. Now the scanner has to decipher the microwave, optical or X-ray signatures of plastic explosives, anthrax DNA and human irises.

Look how much high technology it takes to do a CAT scan, or a nuclear magnetic resonance scan, to visualize organs inside the human body. Now we have to do much the same with suitcases. And parcels in the mail. Tens of millions of times a day. Now we have to make sense of all those fuzzy images and extract from them the one-in-a-million shadow of terrorism.

Threat-recognition systems will use much the same smart hardware, bandwidth and databases as Verizon does to provide Digital Subscriber Line service, or Citibank does to manage its credit cards, or Google does to archive Web pages. But now the databases will store and the digital lines will carry images of bad things like guns and anthrax, rather than good things, like bestselling books or credit card validations.

Many of these technologies have been in development for years, for the Pentagon and for a rising number of civilian applications, like radar for cars. But Sept. 11 changed things fundamentally. Before, seeing technologies became technically and commercially inevitable when costs dropped enough and performance rose enough to motivate purchase by tire-kicking consumers, workaday factory managers, highway engineers and a Pentagon strapped for cash. The new inevitability is driven by the specter of the collapsing skyscraper.

Original Source:



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