Column: Being human and enhancing intelligence

  • Engineers and technicians assemble the James Webb Space Telescope on Nov. 2, 2016, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS) ap — Alex Wong

  • Narain Batra. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 7/30/2022 8:00:13 PM
Modified: 7/30/2022 7:57:03 PM

I’m not a techno-romantic person. But I believe that technology could solve our most complex problems though in the process sometimes it would raise legal, ethical, and social issues. Climate change, reproductive freedoms, school safety, random gun violence and other conundrums cry out for technologically innovative solutions. When policy wonks and lawmakers are at loggerheads, technology might come to our rescue.

Human beings won’t be replaced, but their capabilities could be enhanced multifold by technologies with embedded intelligence systems. Just think how NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has given us a glimpse into the early universe with its sharp and deep infrared photos. We do not know what impact, if any, it would have on our daily lives but there’s no doubt that more than the political dramas being played out in the Capitol, our future is being determined by technologies including information communications technology (ICT), artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, space technology, biotechnology and quantum computing.

There’s no endgame in technology. The gun powder, printing press, the steam engine, the telegraph, the Internet, the mobile phone, for example, have been determinants of history.

Technologies’ disruptive potential on societies should not be underestimated. In the early days of globalization, for example, technology pushed jobs offshore to take advantage of cheap skilled labor. Capitalism loves cheap labor. But jobs in the future would be lost not to countries with cheap skilled labor, but to networked systems with man-machine embedded intelligence, which would require a new kind of skilled workforce, people who could work with semi-autonomous smart systems.

And no one is more eager to develop smart intelligent systems than the US Military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to upend the military’s first response capabilities and keep the nation out of danger as much as possible. They call it Early Awareness System (EAS), which is different from Early Warning System (EWS). In EAS, you imagine and calculate probabilities of developments that might happen, foreseeing events that might occur, and take appropriate proactive measures. In EWS, on the other hand, you deal with developments that have already taken place. The concept of first response capabilities based on embedded intelligence and early awareness system is finding applications in business, law enforcement and anti-terrorism.

Technologies are seldom stand-alone in this age of digital networking. They have a recombinant potential and tend to converge with others to form newer technologies, which could be used in ways the original inventors never imagined. A new world of sensate surroundings in which nothing would remain incommunicado is arising. Based on the convergence of sensor and intelligent technologies, law enforcement and anti-terrorism experts have been dealing with terrorism, among other problems, in altogether different ways and perhaps more effectively.

The inside of the airplanes of the future would be embedded with sensors that record and transmit any unusual activity to a monitor-and-control center for pre-emptive action. Scientists at QinetiQ, a commercial offshoot of the UK’s Ministry of Defense, have developed a working model of a sensor-embedded airplane seat that’s capable of capturing signals of physiological changes in a passenger and transmitting the information to the cockpit monitor. The signals could enable the system to analyze whether the person is a terrorist or someone who is suffering from deep vein thrombosis, for example.

The smart seat would eventually be able to register signs of any emotional stress a passenger feels during the flight. Hidden seat sensors would provide unobtrusive in-flight surveillance and have the potential for actionable intelligence about the activities including the health status of in-flight passengers. More importantly, the information would enable plain-clothed air marshals to take preventive action in case there is a danger of terrorists contemplating blowing up or hijacking the plane. The cockpit would become an anti-terror cell.

We have become accustomed to various kinds of intrusive searches at airports, banks, and other places. We do not object to data collecting smart environment if the purpose is to enhance security. We know the security cameras are on us; but we do not feel self-conscious that we are being spied upon when we go to an ATM or a bank teller for a transaction. This is the price we pay for security and convenience and freedom. There can be no freedom without security. So perhaps we wouldn’t mind sitting in a sensor-embedded train or bus if that takes us safely to our destination where we can enjoy all the privacy we want.

Aah! But here’s the challenge. Could school buildings like airplanes be turned into early awareness smart systems with embedded intelligence? We have seen the horrific video of the Uvalde, Texas school shooting where the 18-year-old gunman walked freely and shot dead 19 students and two teachers and wounded 17 other people. If Robb Elementary School were equipped with embedded networked early awareness intelligence system, the gunman would have been apprehended long before he committed the carnage.

The Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, is sacred to most Americans, but it should not become a black hole that sucks all our other cherished freedoms.

Batra teaches in the graduate college at Norwich University. He is the author of several books including The First Freedoms and America’s Culture of Innovation, and the most recent, India In A New Key: Nehru To Modi. He is working on a novel about the people of the Upper Valley.




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