New institutions for a new day
by SevenStrings, Sun Apr 20, 2008 at 10:20:45 PM EDT
(posted in my blog http://whathojeeves.blogspot.com/)
In Oct 1957, the Soviets shocked the world (and the Americans) by launching Sputnik. There was one important consequence of this action: The United States setup the Advanced Projects Research Agency (ARPA, later renamed as DARPA for Defense ARPA).
In previous diaries, I have discussed the perils of globalization with special emphasis on how the strong tend to exploit the weak using the very pillars of globalization. In this diary, I will discuss ways in which the act of becoming strong unleashes the creative potential, and increases the quality of life for everyone ... even the weak. Unfortunately, the argument I am making is that global warfare, and conflict in general, does have a practical purpose. This is unfortunate from my viewpoint ~ I am a peacenik at heart, and would prefer not to believe the argument I am going to make.
This is also extremely unfortunate for another reason... as I hope you will discover if you read onto the end.
Initial attempts by the US to respond (or to preempt) the Sputnik was a dismal failure (Project Vanguard run by the US Navy). Following this, an older program (Project Orbiter) was revived at NASA JPL as the Explorer Project, which was then launched with an Army Ballistic Missile Defense rocket (the Jupiter). The first Explorer launch was on Febuary 1 1958. ARPA was created in the same month.
The formation of ARPA was motivated by the realization that the Soviets had caught (or perhaps even surpassed) the US in technological prowess as applied to military needs, and that this situation posed a grave and gathering danger to the US. A need was felt to increase the technological prowess within the US, and it was felt that an agency dedicated to this purpose would be useful. DARPA is currently setup with about 150 technical employees who direct about 2 Billion dollars of research every year.
Therefore, the agency offers a useful case study as to the interplay between technological prowess for military needs, and general economic development. Let us consider some examples.
(a) The first program initiated by DARPA was the Saturn rocket engine program (staffed by Werner Von Braun's crew in Huntsville, AL), which led to the moon landings less than 10 years later. Let us ignore the rocketry itself as relatively inconsequential to global economic development (aside from the economic impact of having communications satellites), and discuss the specific subsystems on the satellites and moon rockets.
(b) Rocket science is about a lot of things, but weight reduction is close to the top of the list. In the 1950s, the semiconductor had not yet been commercialized, and electronics was dominated by the bulky vacuum gates. DARPA realized that weight reduction was critical, and invested heavily in the semiconductor technologies of the day. Fairchild Semiconductoes (which led to both Intel and AMD) and other icons of today were nurtured by DARPA during the early years. While it would be an exaggeration to say that DARPA created the semicoductor revolution, they did foster it along with amazing skill
(c) The US entanglement in Vietnam brought some more interesting examples. There was one particular bridge which was of strategic importance to the North Vietnamese, and the US had tried (repeatedly) to bomb that bridge. Unfortunately, that bridge was surrounded by high mountains, and had survived multiple bombing raids. It was thought that destroying that bridge from the air was impossible. DARPA was tasked with finding a solution, and the laser guided bomb was invented. And what does a laser guided bomb have to do with economic development ?, you may ask. The answer is simple: it was the first significant market for any laser.
(d) We all know about the ARPANET, which is now the internet. It was developed so that various DoD entities could talk to each other securely.
(e) A significant advantage in warfare is knowing where you are with respect to a detailed map ~ hence the global positioning system.
(f) Another significant advantage in warfare is knowing where you are when you are moving very quickly and where satellite navigation is of limited value for other reasons ~ hence the inertial navigation systems
I can go on and on, but I hope you get my point. Each one of these specific technologies was developed to make the US military more competitive, and has had the trivial consequence of unleashing tremendous economic development. None of these developments happened by accident ~ they were fostered for a reason. Absent that reason, they were less likely to happen.
Let me restate that for emphasis: absent that reason (i.e., warfare), all those technological innovations that have so improved the quality of life in the last 50 years would have been less likely to happen.
That is quite a chilling thought, actually. Why ?, you ask. Let us consider the challenges that we face today, and the answer will become apparent.
What are the challenges that we face today ?
Let us forget minor problems like terrorism, the economy and health care, and concentrate on the big challenges that we face. These include: not enough energy, not enough water, not enough food, and too much CO2. If you have accepted my thesis so far, then you will agree that each one of these problems is more likely to be solved if solving them affords us an advantage in warfare. If they don't afford an advantage in warfare, then the funding to pursue solutions to them simply do not exist.
Some of you might argue against this statement, and point to agencies such as the National Science Foundation, and to private companies. The NSF does fund basic research. Unfortunately, the budgets for NSF is miniscule compared to DARPA ~ technologies that give you an advantage in warfare have always been preferred. And private companies simply do not fund research and development with more than a 5-10 year outlook.
So let us examine our problems, and discuss if solving them provides an advantage to the military
The energy crisis We need a source of economically feasible renewable energy if we are to avert global warming. The metric associated with economic feasibility is $/watt of installed generating capacity. Unfortunately, the US defense department is not cash starved, and does not care about the $/watt metric ~ they care about lbs/watt metric (they have to lug things around, and do not like the idea of lugging a heavy photovoltaic system), and the $/watt and lbs/watt metric do not point in the same direction. Largely as a consequence of this, there is relatively few dollars that supports economically feasible renewable energy sources. The military does have limited motivations to further biofuels, but that is solely due to their own needs (even the shiniest tanks need fuel). Once again, they are not concerned with the economic feasibility of the biofuel.
The water crisis Some of you may have read that global warming has caused a permanent change in the weather patterns. Historic population centers have typically been built around sources of clean drinking water (Los Angeles, where I live, is an obvious exception), and as the weather patterns change, the population centers will be deprived of their water. This has already happened in Australia, for instance. The solution to this is "reverse osmosis" of sea water, but the process is expensive (both in terms of capital and in energy requirement). Fortunately, the US military has a strong motivation to find a solution ~ an Army in the desert needs lots of water, and shipping drinking water can be expensive (in dollar terms, and also in terms of the number of casualties associated with it). It would be so much better if each soldier could take brackish water (which is readily available) and purify it, instead of shipping a bottle of Fiji water to him/her.
The food crisis Unfortunately, the military does not have any motivation to solve this issue. While it is true that an Army marches on it's stomach, it is also true that an Army can commandeer as much food as it wants. The challenge for the Army is not that the world does not make enough food, but how to transport the food to it's soldiers.
Global warming Once again, the military has no motivation here. As discussed previously for the energy crisis, they have plenty of $$s, and developing an economic source of renewable energy does not have any priority.
I hope you can see where I am heading:
(1) The institutions that are responsible for the breathtakng technological innovations of the past 50 years are not designed to address the challenges that we face today
(2) It behooves us to create new institutions specifically designed to face the challenges we face today... just like ARPA was created in response to Sputnik
(3) It behooves us to choose our leadership that understands this issue.