Lasrick writes: A pretty informative debate on banning autonomous weapons has just closed at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The debate looks at an open letter, published In July, 2015, in which researchers in artificial intelligence and robotics (and endorsed by high-profile individuals such as Stephen Hawking) called for 'a ban on offensive autonomous weapons beyond meaningful human control.' The letter echoes arguments made since 2013 by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, which views autonomous weapons as 'a fundamental challenge to the protection of civilians and to international human rights and humanitarian law.'
But support for a ban is not unanimous. Some researchers argue that autonomous weapons would commit fewer battlefield atrocities than human beings—and that their development might even be considered morally imperative. The authors in this debate focus on these questions: Would deployed autonomous weapons promote or detract from civilian safety; and is an outright ban the proper response to development of autonomous weapons?
Dan Drollette writes: The solution to producing energy without contributing to global warming may be to go fly a kite. Literally. Researchers in Switzerland and Italy — high-altitude places where the winds are strong, steady and predictable — have been working on ways to generate electricity from kites that fly hundreds or thousands of meters high. The scientists already have a prototype cranking out 27 megawatts; they expect to have a 100-megawatt plant big enough to power 86,000 households. And they say that they can produce electricity for less that 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is better than fossil fuel. Plus, the kites look really cool (as does the "“Darrieus rotor vertical axis wind turbine” at the base of the St Bernard Pass, on the Swiss side, which I've seen in operation in person). Be sure to click on the links.
Lasrick writes: Seismologist Jeffrey Park has done an initial analysis of the seismic data from North Korea's reported nuclear weapon test and found 'an uncanny resemblance to the signals recorded for the February 12, 2013 detonation.' Park's analysis pretty much destroy's the North Korean claim that they detonated a hydrogen bomb, and he postulates that P'yongyang is desperate for attention during the US presidential election cycle.
Siegfried Hecker, one of the world's top experts on the North Korea nuclear program, is nonetheless concerned that the DPRK has now completed its fourth test, and with it a greater sophistication in their bomb design. Hecker is also skeptical that the test was an H-bomb. However, as he says, "We know so little about North Korea’s nuclear weapons design and test results that we cannot completely rule it out."
Lasrick writes: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists offers a pretty thorough run-down of the pros and cons of the Paris climate accords. In a truly fascinating article, William Sweet examines not only the political machinations behind the agreement but much of what the agreement entails and how it got there after 21 years of COP meetings. In an audio recording of a teleconference briefing given to the Bulletin's Science and Security Board and other leading scientists and policy makers, Sivan Kartha and Richard Somerville (both on the S & S Board) give riveting explanations of the two weeks at Paris and what was accomplished (and not accomplished). The Question/Answer session is just as good as the presentations by Kartha and Somerville, as various leading minds in the field ask questions and offer additional information. Great stuff.
Lasrick writes: 'Frozen bank accounts. Cancelled operating licenses. Court cases, arrests, and punitive legal actions based on fabrications. International donations cut off. Individuals with legitimate business forcibly detained at the airport, harassed by officials, and prevented from travelling.' Ashish Fernandes of Greenpeace India details the government harassment of NGOs, activists, funding foundations, and others who have pushed back against new coal projects in India. Even though the country contributes only 6% of global emissions, this is disturbing news for a nation that not only came on board for the COP21 agreement but is also the world's largest democracy.
Lasrick writes: Michael Gross explores the ramifications of a recent report from the US Army that describes a number of future war scenarios with vexing ethical dilemmas. 'Visualizing the Tactical Ground Battlefield in the Year 2050' envisions a number of technological developments, but three stand out as both plausible and fraught with moral challenges: augmented humans, directed-energy weapons, and autonomous killer robots. Gross looks at the slippery slopes involved in using these new technologies, and questions the moral dilemmas that result from their use.
Lasrick writes: The gaping hole in the oversight of life sciences research, especially when it comes to asking if ethical or security risks outweigh potential benefits, is made obvious in the case of Crisper-Cas9, the gene editing technique that 'has the potential to genetically alter entire groups of humans or animals." Permanently.
Labs around the world have been rushing to embrace the technique and have already used it to edit the genomes of a variety of organisms. Indeed, Chinese scientists have been using Crispr-Cas9 to edit the genomes of human embryos.
Laura Kahn describes the budding effort to halt the use of Crisper-Cas9 on the human genome, an effort that includes the UC Berkeley scientist who co-discovered the technique, Jennifer Doudna. Terrific read.
Lasrick writes: Two articles in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists analyze the IAEA's December 2nd report on the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran's nuclear program. Ariane Tabatabai goes into what the report did (and did not) reveal, and Harvard's Martin Malin gives five takeaways from the process.
Lasrick writes: The United States has submitted a proposal encouraging fellow members of the Biological Weapons Convention to develop a common understanding of 'tacit knowledge.'
Tacit knowledge is arguably the key determinant of bioweapons development, but one which past nonproliferation efforts have largely ignored in favor of more tangible threats.
As Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley writes: 'Tacit knowledge consists of unarticulated skills, know-how, or practices that cannot be easily translated into words, but are essential in the success of scientific endeavors. Often such skills amount to unarticulated “ways of doing things” special to individual scientists (personal knowledge) or shared among teams (communal knowledge).'
When it comes to nonproliferation, tacit knowledge is both a threat and a bulwark against the spread of dangerous technologies. Fascinating read.
Lasrick writes: Moritz Kutt, a PhD candidate in the Physics Department at the Technische Universität Darmstadt, Germany, wants to make arms control verification systems open source. He uses the Volkswagen cheating scandal as an example of why open source is a better choice for verification systems, and points out: 'As long as nations take the trouble and risks to construct clandestine facilities for weapon production, what would stop them from manipulating verification devices?'
Kutt believes that by using open source systems, verification software would 'attract more scrutiny from more places, from hackers to the general public. As Eric S. Raymond, one of the founders of the Open Source Initiative, famously said, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Put simply, with more people looking, the chances are greater of detecting and fixing both malicious malfunctions and innocent flaws.' Terrific idea.
Lasrick writes: Lovely Umayam, founder and chief writer of Bombshelltoe, a blog exploring the intersection of nuclear policy and pop culture, looks at next week's rollout of "Fallout" and tries to explain to the uninitiated what the excitement is all about: 'While harnessing these themes to create a thrilling premise, Fallout also presents a provocative and loaded question—what makes you S.P.E.C.I.A.L. enough to survive a nuclear war?—and invites players to answer on their own terms.'
Lasrick writes: Brad Allenby, Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics and founding chair of the Consortium for Emerging Technologies, Military Operations and National Security at Arizona State University, delivers a fascinating examination of resistance to technological developments over time. Allenby starts by breaking down discussions into 3 categories, and then focuses on the third: the 'apocalyptic' discussions. '[T]echnological evolution is accelerating, which has significant implications. Past rates of technological change were slow enough that psychological, social, and institutional adjustments were possible, but today technology changes so rapidly that technology systems decouple from governance mechanisms of all kinds. All these factors, operating together, synergistically increase the impact, speed, and depth of change.' Great, forward-thinking piece.
Lasrick writes: Hugh Gusterson thinks a symposium sponsored by the US Energy Department was the first sign that the Administration is readying a push to finally ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). 'Conceding that the earlier drive to ratify the treaty in 1999 ended in a humiliating defeat for the Clinton Administration, [Secretary of State John Kerry] said that “the factors that led some senators to oppose the treaty have changed, so [senators’] choices should change too.' The article goes into the technology that has developed over the last 15 years that make testing unnecessary. Great read.
Lasrick writes: Games for Change is looking for ideas for games that address the risk of nuclear weapons.
The N Square Challenge is a $10,000 game design competition, sponsored by N Square, a two-year pilot working to inspire nuclear safety solutions.
The challenge invites anyone, anywhere, to conceptualize a game that will engage and educate players about the dynamics of nuclear weapons risk. No prior game design experience or subject matter expertise is required. You supply the idea, and we’ll design the game.
The winning design idea will receive a $10,000 cash prize!
Lasrick writes: Aaron Tovish is calling on the US government to release documents pertaining to one of the scarier incidents of the Cuban Missile Crisis. According to an Air Force airman, the system designed to prevent an accidental launch of nuclear weapons failed as the codes ordering a launch were given in each of the three transmissions required for a launch: 'By Bordne's account, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Air Force crews on Okinawa were ordered to launch 32 missiles, each carrying a large nuclear warhead. Only caution and the common sense and decisive action of the line personnel receiving those orders prevented the launches—and averted the nuclear war that most likely would have ensued.' Terrific story.