Computer Scientist And Musician

Dear Mr. President,

Whether or not you choose to follow up with me specifically, I want to thank you for reaching out to a scientist who doesn't benefit from prior personal connections to someone associated with your administration. Your sphere of advisors has seemed unusually distant from the scientific and technical communities.

I can understand, in a way, why you have been reticent in the past. Many scientists work in the academic environment, which tends to be liberal minded, and perhaps you've worried that there would be an ideological coloration in the advice you would receive. It would seem that the scientific mainstream is often at odds with your administration on issues such as stem cell research, global warming, and so on.

But the best way around this is not to retreat from the scientific community as a whole, but to embrace it, and demand that it find a way to transcend ideological colorations in its interactions with you. After all, much of the discipline of science is devoted to reducing personal bias. We spend a lot of our time repeating work that's already been done before because we're so cautious about our all-too-human vulnerabilities that could lead to self-deception. In a way we are the most skeptically conservative community around, and you would probably find more common ground with us than you expect if you gave us more of a try.

I suppose a science advisor has to be part speech writer and part budget warrior.

With that in mind, I would like to give you a sense of what my advice would be like on a variety of difficult issues.

You are in an amazing position. You are the most powerful president in a generation. Be bold! Science and technology are the most potent tools mankind has for improving our circumstances. Let's use this amazing moment in history to create a new period of happiness and prosperity. Please don't let your marvelous position in history go to waste.

In this note I will address the four toughest issues, which present the greatest opportunities and the most difficult political dilemmas. These are:

1) New medicine

2) New energy and transportation solutions.

3) Global warming response.

4) War on terror.

America's success on every level has depended in the past on government lead research initiatives.

There are three models from the twentieth century for giant government research and development projects: The Manhattan Project, the Apollo Program, and the era of massive public works, including the TVA, much of the WPA, and the Interstates.

We have to be bold and imagine a new type of national initiative that combines the best of all three models. The Manhattan project showed what can be done by gathering the very best minds in one place. The Apollo Program showed that it's possible to do big science in a way that engages all the world in a positive way. The massive public works projects I listed, while they might be abhorrent to your economic advisors, should be appreciated because they showed that government can create a giant infrastructure without damage to democracy or capitalism.

I do not propose that big centralized science initiatives are the best method of tackling all our hardest problems, only the ones I listed above.

Private industry can sometimes address a big problem, even one that is serious enough to threaten our survival. In such cases, government should still play role of oversight and be ready to step in should industry fail for some reason. Some examples in this category:

1) Impending loss of efficacy of antibiotics

2) Need for new desalinization technologies and other fixes for looming shortages of fresh water

3) AIDS crisis. In this case, private industry has the research and manufacturing infrastructure in place already, but is not structured to do as much as it should to help patients in most of the world. An enhanced government role is crucial, because this problem as well as other related ones in the Third World will have a huge impact on our security in the long term.

About stem cells, cloning, and such things:

Here we have the potential to extend and improve human life, and it's just the sort of research that is better undertaken under governmental lead. It's expensive, high risk, and fraught with ethical concerns. Furthermore, if the vast new intellectual property riches are either Balkanized or monopolized, humanity will suffer, and America's role in the world order will be seriously challenged.

You face a tough situation here, though, in that one of your core constituencies, the faith-based voters, is understandably queasy about the whole direction. So you've sought compromises on such things as embryonic stem cell research, but the available compromises don't quite give the scientific community enough room to make progress. I understand how difficult these decisions are.

There are two likely negative outcomes from your policies as they stand. In the short term, legitimate research on new fundamental medicine will often be overshadowed by weird proprietary outfits, such as the supposed cloning achieved by a UFO cult or stray doctors here and there. These events poison public discourse.

In the long term, foreign countries will enjoy an economic advantage because the US will not be a center of expertise in medicine. In twenty years we could see a phenomenon in which masses of Americans who can afford the trip head to Europe or Asia for medical care, leaving their dollars abroad, so that there's increasingly less wealth to go around for those Americans who had to stay home.

I don't need to tell you how significant this would be to the long term economic health of our nation.

I would advise you to use your bully pulpit to be tough with both your religious constituents AND the scientific research establishments.

To the scientists, I would say something like this: "You have yourselves to blame in part for the public's reticence to fund the new age of medicine. You seem to love making claims about life's fundamental questions. I'm sick of reading that some robot at MIT has gained emotions, that some new gene explains as much as you seem to claim about a person's character, or any opinion of yours at all about consciousness or God. I don't believe you have expertise on these matters and you embarrass yourselves."

Yes, I want you to be that tough on us, because we deserve it, and because it is what your religious constituents need to hear in the public sphere.

Of course you can have a speech writer smooth these thoughts out so they sound nicer. I'm used to combative debates so you have to tone down any advice I give you in matters of rhetoric. I'm sure you have people who can handle that job.

To your religious constituents, I would say this: "Your concerns are legitimate and sane, but it's possible you've been mislead a bit by those who enjoy exaggerating the true nature of the new frontiers in medicine. You must remember that scientists have to sell themselves in order to be funded, just like everyone else, so you need to learn to discount a little bit of the science fiction-like atmosphere that surrounds reporting on recent research.

For instance, they talk about 'clones', but that's a science fiction word. Dolly the sheep was really no more than a delayed twin, and in fact less similar to Dolly than a regular twin would have been. That's not to say that I support the creation of human delayed twins—I don't. But it's important not to allow the scientific community to mystify what it can do.

It is essential that we hold life precious. Unfortunately, Americans don't always agree on specific questions like abortion, but I know that almost all Americans do hold life sacred and precious. I want to suggest to you that defining the chemical moment of conception as the start of life is not going to work, because it is a definition based on scientific concepts which are themselves in the process of being transformed. We can't reduce human life to a mechanical interaction of molecules, or whatever objects scientists are talking about in a given era. I believe that there is a difference between a collection of cells and a person—call it a soul if you like. If you believe there's a soul in a Petrie dish, you reduce what you mean by a soul.

I want my family and friends to be relieved from disease when it is possible and I want the same for your family and friends. Please join me in a loving quest to achieve this possibility."

I think this approach can work.

Once you win the hearts of both sides, and I think you can, an ethics policy should be based on open information and consent. A person should know and approve of what happens to their tissue. No viable embryo should be created outside of the rule of law. And so on.

But please, let us proceed to improve our lives using the means available to us.

I'll next address Energy, Transportation, and Climate:

We have to address the possibility of climate cataclysm. If we take the position that Kyoto is flawed, and I think there's a strong case that it is, we must articulate an alternative soon, so that the world doesn't think we're crazy.

The revolution in transportation and energy must come about anyway, whether the climate scare is legitimate or not.

I have a bit of a confession to make here. My colleagues and I might have contributed to your falsely optimistic sense about the near term potential of the oil economy. In the last twenty years, ever more powerful computers have created the illusion the oil supply is increasing. I worked on some of the first virtual oil field exploration tools, and such tools have made oil fields far more productive than we ever imagined. Furthermore, computer-aided design has helped produce a new generation of oil extraction machinery that can get at the oil we discover through our simulations. That's all fine, and I'm proud of how much computer science has been able to contribute to the oil exploration business, but there's also a hidden danger. Without computers, not only would oil have been running out by now, but it would have run out gradually, with prices going up as a warning sign. I'm afraid that computers are creating the illusion of an ever increasing supply, and will therefore reduce the period of warning before the supply runs out, which it will.

So, I suppose I hope to make you aware of how my colleagues and I have inadvertently fooled you on this matter. But this issue can be framed positively even better than it can be framed negatively. Why don't we invent new, better fuels and engines and then sell them to the world? What's wrong with that picture? It seems like such a win-win solution.

We should create a new energy/transportation infrastructure, presumably based on a cleaner and more efficient chemistry than the current one. I agree with the emerging consensus that it would probably consist of decentralized hydrogen production, possibly using biotechnology to make the hydrogen. I also see cars that can drive themselves, almost never getting into accidents, and merging flawlessly and automatically into trains to create ad-hoc mass-transit solutions. Car accidents cause more deaths than wars, so the introduction of this technology would create a new boom in wealth and happiness even aside from the curing of problems related to dependence on oil.

If the world saw us building the next energy cycle, our policies related to the current energy cycle would be less contentious.

We might have already contorted the climate enough that switching fuels will not be enough. We might need to resort to a massive technological fix. I dearly hope this will not come to pass, but I believe we should set up an institute that explores such high risk measures as re-carving the ocean floors or intercepting the sun's energy in space on its way to the Earth. Once again, I would grieve if it came to pass that we had to attempt measures such as these in the future, but I must regretfully recommend that we begin to prepare ourselves just in case.

The recent surprise announcement by the Japanese that they had created the world's fastest computer, in order to model the weather, should be treated as a friendly Sputnik-like event. I'm on the science board for what had been the world's fastest civilian computer, at the Pittsburgh Supercomputer Center, and I have to tell you my heart sank when I read the announcement, even though I'm also happy that the new Japanese machine is being put to a good use. I hope you felt as embarrassed as I did, and I wish you would share that emotion with the public.

About the war on terror.

War is Hell. I lived right by the World Trade Center, and I dearly wish I had not been home that day. It is clear that in our connected world, in which many technologies become cheaper and more widely available because of Moore's Law-like processes, and in which communication is easy and essentially free, the old equations about privacy and liberty have to be re thought. I hate this fact with the whole of my being, but I acknowledge it's a fact.

I don't think your administration has been handling this matter very well. For instance, your attorney general comes off badly in public. He seems to be enjoying this turn of events, as if it vindicates his beliefs. If you want Americans or other people in the world to make the mental transition and emotional commitment into a new order, your administration ought to be able to show that it shares in the pain.

You might be thinking to yourself, "This matter is none of my science advisor's business." But privacy these days is about digital policy, and that overlaps both socially and institutionally with the scientific and engineering communities.

I believe you have to have these communities on board in order for your policies to be successful and for the country to be more secure.

I have two specific suggestions.

First, if you want the public to accept less privacy, make it symmetric. Instead of merely building a new domestic spying capability that itself would be vulnerable to corruption, as secret centers of power always are, make key institutions more open and transparent.

This serves multiple purposes. Let's not forget that since the war on terror began, corrupt accounting cost the country more, in monetary terms, than the terrorist attacks. The direct costs were tremendous, but the indirect costs due to the gutting of investor confidence were immeasurable.

We have the greatest information infrastructure in all history, and yet investors weren't tipped off about a wave of massive fraudulent schemes until it was too late. This cannot stand. The remedy is to make big companies and yes, big government agencies, as transparent to the public as the public must become to the new security apparatus.

This might sound counterintuitive at first. Would this not give terrorists more information and therefore advantage as they planned attacks?

I think there are strong arguments that symmetry increases security. No matter how big the spy agencies might be, they can't employ enough trusted eyeballs to look at all the data. And no, as your advisor I can assure you that you cannot count on artificial intelligence programs to make up the gap. The only solution is to have the whole public looking. It was widely distributed public information that lead to the capture of the Unabomber, the DC snipers, and so on.

The strength of Islamist terrorist cells is not so much that they are well trained as that they benefit from a surrounding society that doesn't call in tips. This leads to the second reason to support symmetry. Transparency can be used to make the world friendlier to the US.

Here I would like to add a specific recommendation. The Arabic-speaking world is encountering the power of modern propaganda for the first time via satellite TV. Our response has been to craft infomercials, but why not try to find the next generation of leaders when they are young. They are undoubtedly oriented to new media just like their Western counterparts. Why not make language translators available on the web so that kids in Arabic speaking countries can browse English language websites and learn for themselves about us? Why not encourage personal links using the web? Why not make science and technology education materials available in this way?

None of these proposals would be easy to implement. Computer access is restricted in repressive countries, for instance. Nonetheless, there is considerable room to maneuver and it doesn't cost much.

In a related vein, we could do more to help empower and win the hearts of young people in the exploding populations of the third world by cleverly using inexpensive technology. We could use the latest advances in speech recognition and synthesis to empower illiterate people with access to basic information, for instance. Even undernourished populations often gain access to consumer electronics these days. This strange situation could be turned to advantage. Why not design a hard-to-detect, human powered, wireless communicator designed for illiterate people and give away millions of them in the poorest parts of the world? Why not bring these people into the web of modernity, in which they might find their way to a better life and coincidentally might just send in tips?

All of these ideas relate to security, because as soon as terrorists realize there's even a slight increase in the chance that someone in their home environment might rat on them, they rapidly lose maneuvering room. A little openness could go a long way.

I believe that if such devices were in place, we'd have given out the unclaimed cash award for information leading to the capture of Bin Laden by now.


Jaron Lanier
Computer Scientist And Musician
Pioneer of Virtual Reality
Founder and former CEO of VPL
Currently the lead scientist for the National Tele-Immersion Initiative.