I am an avid reader of science fiction, and the use of futuristic fiction as a source of ideas is a welcome development. The best science fiction is that which explores the boundaries of our concepts whether in the mind, the computer or how we relate to each other. This is one of the advantages of defending the freedom of the mind, the expression of which is usually described as freedom of speech
Anti-terror chiefs in the United States have hired a team of America’s most original sci-fi authors to dream up techniques to help them combat al-Qaeda.
Ideas so far include mobile phones with chemical weapons detectors and brain scanners fitted to airport sniffer dogs, so that security staff can read their minds.
The writers have also put government scientists in touch with Hollywood special-effects experts, to work on better facial-recognition software to pick out terrorists at airports.
The Department of Homeland Security has set aside around $10 million – one tenth of its research budget – for projects dreamt up by the best brains in futuristic fiction.
Whilst DARPA is a useful channel for futuristic ideas, ten percent of a research budget handed over to any project is not such a good idea. Once the institutional apparatus is set up, with a secretariat to flesh out the innovative ideas, and the bureaucratic accretions which turn gold to mud, what will be left. A few nuggets from the civil service quicksand.
More useful is the Sigma organisation set up by Andrew Arlen some years ago, if it survives the seductive sirenic call of the public sector:
Mr Pournelle said the facial recognition plan was one of a number that aimed to replicate ideas seen on television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and NCIS, a similar show. "In real life, the computers are still nowhere near as good as they are on TV," he said. "It’s just one of several high risk, high pay-off projects we have suggested.
He is a member of Sigma, a group set up by fellow writer Arlan Andrews to pursue "science fiction in the national interest. Mr Andrews, who predicted handheld, electronic books long before they became a reality, said: “We spend our entire careers living in the future. Those responsible for keeping the nation safe need people to think of crazy ideas.”
How unusual that CSI, paraded as an authentic and naturalistic program, can be classified as science fiction, on the grounds that the technology deployed is probably three or five years ahead of our current capabilities. Yet, the same confusion may dazzle the Department of Homeland Security. The politicians will reach for science fictional solutions when actual success probably stems from incremental graft on current processes and clear procurement and privatisation.
Research is often touted as a PR solution for public sector problems. Treat this with scepticism.