Feeds

DHS calls in sci-fi writers as consultants

You couldn't make it up - maybe they can

Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction

The feds at the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have this week called in some self-described "deviant" consultants to aid them in the battle against terrorists, illegal immigrants, smugglers et al.

The deviants in question are a group of science fiction writers, namely Jerry Pournelle, Arlan Andrews, Greg Bear, Larry Niven, Yoji Kondo and Sage Walker.

"We need to look everywhere for ideas, and science-fiction writers clearly inform the debate," Christopher Kelly, spokesman for Homeland Security's Science and Technology division, told USA Today.

The writers are members of Sigma, a "think tank of patriotic science fiction writers" founded to advise government officials by Arlan Andrews when he worked in the White House Science Office in the early 1990s. He recruited only authors with advanced technical or medical degrees, in order to pass the "laugh test."

"If you don't read science fiction, you're not qualified to talk about the future," he told the St Louis Post-Dispatch.

"We're well-qualified nuts," added Jerry Pournelle, co-author with Larry Niven of the bestsellers Footfall (alien invasion) and Lucifer's Hammer (comet strike apocalypse).

The educated scribes were invited to attend the Homeland Security Science and Technology Stakeholders Conference as guests of the DHS. The writers weren't paid, and like scribblers everywhere seem to have been reluctant to give out their best ideas for free. According to the Post-Dispatch, all they offered up was:

"material that becomes armor when struck by a bullet; an antibiotic that cures martyrdom; a satellite that beams solar energy to earth."

Oh, and "mind-reading helmets for bomb-sniffing dogs," apparently.

The armour material is old hat, so to speak. So is the solar-power satellite, which Pournelle for one has been advocating for decades.

The sci-fi scribes might not have given of their best and freshest at the conference, but it's certainly true that science fiction has sometimes predicted the course of technology a long time in advance.

Robert Heinlein for instance, author of Starship Troopers among many others, was writing about recognizable cellphones in 1948. (In Space Cadet.) He also has a passage in Friday (1982) in which he gives a fairly prescient idea of how computer networks could operate in looking for information - years ahead even of Gibson's cyberpunk works, let alone the consumer web. (Though not, quite, ahead of Lexis-Nexis.)

Still, Heinlein also predicted nuclear-powered rocket ships, household robots which could "put dishes away after the dishwasher was through", human colonies throughout the solar system and beyond, "Beanstalk" orbital elevators etc etc. Not to mention a dystopian future for America in which a crazed religious zealot would establish a theocratic dictatorship. The all-American hero in that book joins a successful secret rebellion against the US government. Not something that the feds at the DHS are likely to smile on.

But the Sigma writers are patriotic as well as qualified, and mostly haven't written anything off-message like that. They've produced some imaginative stuff nonetheless, and could well offer the DHS some pointers.

There will always be a stiff laugh test to pass when government takes advice from novelists. Nonetheless, the feds may have history on their side here. The DHS was formed as a response to the outrages of 9/11, after all - events fairly similar to the suicide-747 attack on the US Capitol at the end of Tom Clancy's bestselling 1994 airport doorstopper Debt of Honor.

Scoffers beware.®

SANS - Survey on application security programs

More from The Register

next story
Android engineer: We DIDN'T copy Apple OR follow Samsung's orders
Veep testifies for Samsung during Apple patent trial
MtGox chief Karpelès refuses to come to US for g-men's grilling
Bitcoin baron says he needs another lawyer for FinCEN chat
Did a date calculation bug just cost hard-up Co-op Bank £110m?
And just when Brit banking org needs £400m to stay afloat
One year on: diplomatic fail as Chinese APT gangs get back to work
Mandiant says past 12 months shows Beijing won't call off its hackers
Don't let no-hire pact suit witnesses call Steve Jobs a bullyboy, plead Apple and Google
'Irrelevant' character evidence should be excluded – lawyers
EFF: Feds plan to put 52 MILLION FACES into recognition database
System would identify faces as part of biometrics collection
Ex-Tony Blair adviser is new top boss at UK spy-hive GCHQ
Robert Hannigan to replace Sir Iain Lobban in the autumn
Alphadex fires back at British Gas with overcharging allegation
Brit colo outfit says it paid for 347KVA, has been charged for 1940KVA
Jack the RIPA: Blighty cops ignore law, retain innocents' comms data
Prime minister: Nothing to see here, go about your business
Singapore decides 'three strikes' laws are too intrusive
When even a prurient island nation thinks an idea is dodgy it has problems
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a defence for mobile apps
In this whitepaper learn the various considerations for defending mobile applications; from the mobile application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies needed to properly assess mobile applications risk.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Securing web applications made simple and scalable
In this whitepaper learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.