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Sandia Tackles Tomorrow’s Terror

Sandia National Laboratories develops a five-point plan to beat terrorism with technology.
February 22, 2002

When Gerold Yonas, Principal Scientist at Sandia National Laboratories, thinks about the war on terrorism, he thinks about fighting fires. For centuries, fire was the scourge that threatened life and property and caused constant unease and helplessness. But eventually society came to understand that fire was not an insurmountable problem, and today fire prevention is integrated into almost all aspects of daily life-from fire hydrants in every neighborhood to smoke detectors in every home to sprinklers at work to flame-proof pajamas for babies.

Yonas wants to do the same with the concept of terrorism. Understanding that the present predicament is not overwhelming, he believes that “terrorism prevention” can be worked into the very fabric of today’s culture. Since September 11, his Advanced Concepts Group at Sandia has been developing a plan (see table below) that, if implemented, will gradually make society better prepared for future threats.

Yonas is on the road a lot these days, bringing Sandia’s plan to technologists around the country. staff editor David Cameron caught up with Yonas to get some details.

TR: When did Sandia Labs start thinking about terrorism?
YONAS: The Advanced Concepts Group has been looking at long-term security issues for almost three years. During the two years prior to September 11, we’d been analyzing many global and national security items including the possibility of a terrorist group that would seek to undermine the fabric of the U.S. We concluded that nobody existed with the discipline or organization to even try. And we also concluded that we wouldn’t fall prey to such a thing. Now, we had collaborated with experts from all over the security community. We even brought in some of the best science fiction writers in the country to help us think about the future. Basically, our mindset was that the potential attackers weren’t that good and we were too good.

TR: September 11 must have been humbling.
YONAS: It was very humbling. We’d thought long and hard about that issue-then rejected it. We felt like we’d let people down-the people who had counted on us to think outside the box.

TR: So what is being done differently now?
YONAS: We realized that we couldn’t come up with any answers before we understood the threat. So, we spent the first two months trying to define the nature of the threat, then the next three months working on the outline of a system solution. And that’s how we came up with this five-part program. We wanted to understand how the U.S. could fundamentally change its approach to the terrorism threat.

TR: What did you find?
YONAS: First we looked at the military and intelligence community’s need for intelligence, their need to understand the behavior of groups, their capabilities, how they’re organized and where they’re going. You know, in the past we’ve done a lot of work with precision weapons, such as GPS guided bombs, but precision weapons without real-time precision knowledge of target locations are pretty useless. We needed to focus on real-time finding of targets. So we proposed developing a network of small gadgets that can sense, decide, act, and communicate-something that we call SDACs (pronounced “see-daks”).

“In the past we’ve done a lot of work with precision weapons, but precision weapons without real-time precision knowledge are pretty useless.” (Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories)

TR: Are you talking about robots or sensors?
YONAS: Both, really. The idea is to have devices that can be deployed into a region, where they can then move around, collect information, process data, and even make crude decisions. It could be a tele-robot, an autonomous robot, a swarm of robots, or even just a stationary sensor. Imagine something as small as a coffee cup that could contain a camera, a signal processor, a GPS locator and the ability to communicate with a relay such as a satellite. So when you go into a region, a cave or a city, you can distribute these ubiquitous observation gadgets, and they all communicate with each other and not only learn but adapt to the situation and provide precision knowledge to a decision maker.

TR: Do we have anything like that yet?
YONAS: No, but it’s not beyond our capabilities. The military has been talking about network-centric warfare, where you have sensor webs, or an electronic skin that covers a large region, where you have nodes networked together (see “DARPA’s Distruptive Technologies,” TR October 2001). The whole point is to be able to deploy a network of sensors in a system that can locate, observe, and then give us the knowledge to neutralize the enemy. I’d say it’s doable in three to five years.

TR: What comes next?
YONAS: In addition to us going into another region and blanketing it with an information web of ubiquitous sensors, we build our own infrastructure that way. We build our own buildings and cities with instruments that are interconnected and can share information with each other and with decision makers and adapt and respond.

Really, it’s doing the exact same thing to our infrastructure that I propose we do to the enemy’s infrastructure. We have our own sensor web that can see, decide, act and communicate. It can respond to surprise, and it can provide people with information they need. It’s making our own infrastructure robust and adaptable to surprise together (see “Networking the Infrastructure,” TR December 2001).

TR: So first we permeate the enemy’s infrastructure, then our own?
YONAS: Yes. Especially when it comes to our borders. A border isn’t a barrier; it’s a region for social and economic development. But how do you make a border that enhances economic development but also provides security? That’s a complex problem where economics and culture must be incorporated from the outset. You have a society and you have an economy you’re trying to sustain. So the more a border flows, the more danger there is, but if you stop the flow, then you don’t have a global economy.

Take an airport for example. With too many searches and delays you could destroy the benefits of air travel, but you also can’t just let everybody in without interruption. We need to employ integrated information systems and sensors yet also incorporate the realities of global and local economics as well as social behavior.

TR: Sounds complicated.
YONAS: It is. And because there are so many components, an essential part of our plan is to develop some sort of administrative architecture, so to speak, for this complex adaptable system that could, for example, link the airline’s information network to the FBI to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, to 911 to local police precincts and so on and so on. Now in order to link them they all need to have some kind of self-similar nature. If they all have different software or different radio frequencies, they can’t link. If these groups shared a self-similar nature and had communication links that work, they could share with each other directly or through an information broker.

TR: If this had been in place, could it have prevented September 11?
YONAS: No, but it could have greatly mitigated the consequences. It’s conceivable that with this kind of integrated system, the two terrorists would have been recognized when they boarded American Airlines Flight 11. The plane might have taken off, but after it turned off its transponder, and then when the United Airlines plane reported unexplained transmissions, planes could have been grounded or the warnings could have been sent ahead to NYC to empty other tall buildings. The fighter aircraft could have been alerted sooner, first responders would have had information on what to do, and the Pentagon could have been alerted, maybe even emptied.

TR: So how can we do more than contain an attack? How do you prevent humans from committing terrible acts?
YONAS: That’s the most troubling one for us. From the beginning we wanted to understand perceptions and behaviors. For the first two months we tried to understand the nature of the threat, what motivates them, and more importantly, what might demotivate them. Ultimately we don’t want to wage war; we want to convince them that it’s not in their best interest. And here it requires that we understand not only their capabilities but their intentions. We need to know what their capabilities are and how to anticipate what they intend to do with those capabilities.

For that we hope to bring together the social scientists and behavioral psychologists and computer scientists, and to use large-scale computing to model these complex behavioral issues-although many of my friends say this is a hopeless task.

TR: Out of all the things you’ve mentioned this sounds the most, well …
YONAS: Far out?

TR: Yes. It also raises certain philosophical and ethical questions, like how far can or should technology really go? Can the human psyche be captured in an algorithm?
YONAS: Well, bringing together interdisciplinary teams of social scientists and physical scientists, and maybe a mix of neurobiological scientists would certainly be challenging. It’s probably the problem of the age. We’re now talking about trying to understand human behavior in a much better way and develop techniques for putting more predictive capability into the social sciences-which sounds unlikely. Highly unlikely. The goal is to find a model to understand al-Quaida, how it’s organized, their rhetoric, what they’ve done in the past, what they might do in the future. Really, we’re trying to anticipate an unknown.

The hardest part of this isn’t trying to discover what is there but unknown, but trying to discover something that is not there but might be there. This isn’t just problem solving, it’s predicting the future of social behavior, and that may be twenty or fifty years off-or never.

The Five-Point Plan

Organizations love acronyms, and Sandia is no exception. Each element of Sandia’s Advanced Concept Group’s plan is defined and described in the table below. Yonas says the first three projects could be launched within the next three years. The last two will take more time-especially DICTUM, which may be twenty years off.


Terrorist Activity, Location, Observation and Neutralization
Infiltrate enemy territory with smart sensors that can communicate with one another.
Intelligent and Robust Infrastructure System
Network our own infrastructure with smart sensors to mitigate consequences of a terrorist attack.
Smart and Secure Borders
Use technologies to secure our borders while maintaining a global economy.
Fractal Approaches for Clarifying and Enabling Timely Support
Network all government and public agencies to facilitate immediate real-time responses to danger.
Dynamic Integrated Capability for Threat, Understanding and Management
Integrate computer sciences with behavioral sciences to predict future events.

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