In his article published in the Guardian on 3rd October this year regarding the Snowden files, and to what extent citizens should be concerned, John Lanchester reminds us of a scale physicists use to put the levels of radiation risks in perspective. It’s affectionately referred to as the BED: the banana equivalent dose. That is the dose of radiation you are likely to receive from a banana. Serious radiation poisoning level starts around twenty million BED. Sleeping with another person results in half a BED – seems logical. A dental x-ray is worth ten times that – around fifty BED. We could go on but as the point is already made we can return to the primary subject, terrorism, where Mr. Lanchester introduces us to another scale in order to gain a similar perspective. For this he substitutes the BED for the SDRD, standard daily road deaths, which comes out at a little less than seven a day in the UK where there have been fifty three deaths directly attributed to terrorism since 9/11. While agreeing that even one such death is unacceptable it is worth considering why we are prepared to go to such expense, and to sacrifice so much of our privacy, to further reduce what is one hundredth of an SDRD.
In defense of administration’s use of our time and money defending us against terrorism we might take a look at the current world of entertainment. CBS introduced Person of Interest, a fictional series based in New York about machine comprising data collection, from just about any digital source, analytical software, and communication capability through any digital device. Put this together with an imaginative writer, an ex-special forces hero and an intellectual giant, and you have a twenty three part series running into its third season. That its success cannot have received anything but a huge boost from the Snowden revelations takes nothing from the virtues of the production company which directs much to its efforts revealing the socially ambivalent nature of the governments’ use of the machine. That administrations forget who they are elected to serve is not a new theme: we see it in nearly every American entertainment in every format. That the technical feasibility is far from reality too, is not new, but the proximity to current reality takes a leap forward when we take a look at what NASA and Google are achieving by combining their rapidly developing algorithmic and quantum technologies.
Introducing modern quantum physics into the world of data processing, and into writing algorithms that write algorithms, brings the possibility of not just the current use of forecasting the composition of oil deposits before they are sampled, or the face recognition capability of a surveillance camera; it brings the reality of anticipating weather patterns and human behaviour to our desktops. It brings medical analysis to our smart phones and will, given just a tweak or two here and there, permit us to forecast the performance of a stock and the winner of a game – any game. Is that a stretch? Not at all.
If a gambler has access to all available data about a football team: including mental and physical conditions of all players, trainers, managers, and their immediate families, there is no reason to believe analytical algorithms could not be written to accurately forecast the outcome of a contest between it, and another team, about which an equal amount is known.
This short step from current reality literally brings a game changer to sports industries that rips at the very heart of sports fan. Who wants to watch, or even play, when the result is known? Come to that who would offer to sell a stock bound for success; who would buy one that was not? In a stroke then fear is eliminated from the betting industries. How would it fare in the down home comfort zones of perfecting parental skills, life partner choice – or lack there of, career selection – again, or lack there of, life span analysis, and the likelihood of creating an intelligent child. Would you want to have a child if you knew it would turn out short and fat and not very bright or worse – that you might give birth to a psychopath.
It is clear that fear can be removed from most equations once the ability to analyze the huge stocks of data becoming available is enabled. Greed, at first glance, is not – in fact it may appear to be advanced. Who can access the most and who can process faster might foster races driven by fear of losing, or will it? Can the ultimate race not be forecast? If so its outcome could surely be predicted: so why enter?
We are, then, with the initiation of quantum engineering, on the verge of a paradigm shift in human behaviour. The suddenness of it may shock us; it may, initially at least, discomfort us. It may send some, possibly many, into a state of seizure from which lengthy convalescence will be required but most will adjust, adapt, and pick up the new lifestyles. We did, after all, adjust from hunting and gathering to farming, from there to industrialization, then to mass production, to mass media, instant porridge, and the exponential nature of the of the growth of the microchip. Individuals will adapt okay. Industry, religions, and administrations might drag their feet, even fight a little rearguard action to defend their positions, but we’ll get there in the end which, once accepted, may well prove to be the beginning.
So in answer to Mr. Lanchester’s concerns: There is nothing to fear except. . . .