Monthly Archives: May 2011

Quantum Hackers

Last year, two quantum cryptographic systems were shown to be vulnerable to hacks which neither system registered. For years, quantum cryptographers have promised completely secure systems. However a year ago, a group led by Hoi-Kwong Lo at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada showed a vulnerability in quantum systems. It was a complete hack, but it still left some noticeable errors after the fact. Another hack led by Vadim Makarov at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim rendered a system incapable of recognizing a breach in security. With this second hack, the security of quantum systems became truly questionable. More recently, the team of this second project have introduced another method to exploit vulnerabilities in quantum systems.

To some extent, the research weakens the perception of security which quantum cryptography has always promised. However, the increasingly successful field of quantum hacking should not reduce confidence in the security of quantum systems. There are always vulnerabilities in any system, but quantum systems are still a viable choice for state of the art security. This research actually helps strengthen the security of such systems by exposing existing vulnerabilities. Once the vulnerabilities are out in the open, they can be dealt with accordingly.

Environmental & Horizon Scanning

Horizon scanning and environmental scanning are two terms which are seemingly interchangeable. Even futurist organizations are often unsure how to use them. As a scanner, I feel there is a difference. Scanning the environment means looking only for what is happening now and immediate consequences, but scanning the horizon is looking more broadly at the plausible implications of what is happening now and weak signals for how things may change in the future. If I were to choose a preference for describing what I do, I would say I am a horizon scanner because environmental scanner is too narrow. In truth, any good scanner does both, and so it is largely unnecessary for anyone outside of the foresight field to bother with the difference which is largely semantic.

I make this distinction here because I recently came across a great flyer by Maree Conway about what makes a good environmental scanner. Ms. Conway’s description is appropriate for scanning in general whether horizon or environmental. There is one thing I would add to the list. Scanners must be resilient to hype and capable of maintaining objectivity. These are similar to the scanner understanding their own world view and challenging assumptions about the future, but they are more specific. Without a proper hype meter, the scanner is likely to bring in too much dross and apply too much emphasis to something without merit. Whether the scanner is looking at the daily news, blogs or academic journals, hype and poor research methods abound. A good scanner has a critical eye and the ability to apply the right emphasis to potential trends and changes by being aware of the influence of others on themselves and the world around them.

Cultural lag of nanotechnologies

One of the first trend alerts I wrote back in January 2010 can be found here. The link requires an account, but the account is free. I continue to follow these developments and the topic has become one of my specialties.

Essentially I look at the growing health concerns over nanotechnologies* and apply William Ogburn’s social theory of cultural lag to the situation. Ogburn says, “technology moves forward and the social institution lags behind in varying degrees.” Ogburn identifies four stages to the cultural lag: technological, industrial, government, and social philosophical. Industrial is the first sector to adjust to the new technology, but it is within the governmental stage where Ogburn says things can easily go wrong. Governments have the responsibility to regulate the technology, and if the “lethargic governmental bodies” do not work effectively, society will suffer. It is at this stage of the cultural lag that Dana Fischer and Larry Wright connect James Carey’s theory. If government does not work quickly and effectively, “satanic and angelic images” surround the technology to justify and denigrate it. Fischer & Wright adjust Carey’s terms to utopian and dystopian images.

Since the technology sector has evidence for environmental, health and safety (EHS) concerns about nanotechnologies, it seems quite likely that utopian and dystopian images are likely to arise. Indeed they already have with various claims of curing cancer and ending the need for fossil fuels on the utopian side. One of the first instances of dystopian imagery came in 1986 when Eric Drexler suggested grey goo as the cause of a doomsday scenario. The term, grey goo, was further popularized in 2003 when Prince Charles called upon the Royal Society to investigate EHS concerns over nanotechnologies. It is interesting to note that Prince Charles wrote a year later that he never used the term grey goo. He suggests this was a term forced upon him by the media who feed upon and force feed the public with satanic and angelic images.

These uotpian and dystopian images are likely to be seen for a few more years. However with further research, scientists and scientific sources have begun to temper their utopian claims. At the same time, industry and governments are beginning to communicate more effectively about nanotechnologies. To see the cultural lag of nanotechnologies in action, I would recommend a few sources including The Politics of Fear and Anti-Nanotechnology Activism, Nanotoxicology myth buster, and this scathing criticism of Friends of the Earth. You can also watch a great symposium hosted by Andrew Maynard at the University of Michigan.

*Why is nanotechnologies plural instead of the usual uncountable singular? A number of researchers, both social and scientific, have discussed the potentially negative impact which the term Nanotechnology, as if it described a unified field, could have on the public perception of the vastly different applications of nanoparticles. Therefore, using the plural term maintains the efficiency of using one term to describe technology at the nanoscale while implying that not all nanotech is the same. Therefore, the baby would not be thrown out with the bath water if a particular nanoparticle were shown to be directly attributable to a human endangerment outside the lab. Some nanoparticles like fullerenes, which occur in nature, have been studied extensively with little (but still some) evidence of nanotoxicity while others like nanosilver have greater evidence for EHS concerns.