Computer technology needs to be tailored to terrorist threat, speakers agree at Washington conference of SGI

WASHINGTON — Computer technology could play a major role in the current efforts to counter terrorism, speakers agreed at a conference sponsored by SGI of Mountain View, Calif., last month in Washington, but this technology has to be focused on the problems at hand.

Dec 1st, 2002

By John Rhea

WASHINGTON — Computer technology could play a major role in the current efforts to counter terrorism, speakers agreed at a conference sponsored by SGI of Mountain View, Calif., last month in Washington, but this technology has to be focused on the problems at hand.

Could technology have prevented the attack of Sept. 11, 2001? Bob Bishop, chairman of SGI, asked rhetorically. "Of course," he said. "We already have operational technology to detect and deter attacks."

Databases have been soaring to where Bishop says he expected to see them at the level of exabytes (10 to the 15th power) within the next five years, but the problem is to translate that capability into what he called high-productivity computing. "We need insights, not numbers," he told the conference.

For example, Robert Hall, chief of the geosciences and structures laboratory at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Miss., says his organization is using numerical simulation to assess the integrity of buildings to survive terrorist attacks. The group is developing personal computer-based tools that enable engineers to accomplish 80 percent of the retrofits of buildings, according to Hall. "Nobody wants to live in bunkers," he says.

At the FBI laboratory in Washington, Carl Adrian, a visual information specialist, says computer technology is being used in crime scene reconstruction using such advanced techniques as laser scanning to improve speed and accuracy. "A crime scene is like a broken video tape," Adrian says, "and you have to rearrange the missing frames."

Another example cited by John Orcutt, deputy director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, is the use of powerful computers to integrate data from heterogeneous sensors. Since this past March Orcutt's group has been using a SGI Onyx 16 million instructions per second processor to integrate earthquake data from sensors in the nearby desert, as well as high-resolution photos from the Earth Resources Satellite.

This idea of using heterogeneous data is also being explored by the new Information Awareness Office established by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in January. Robert Popp, its deputy director, compared the necessary information to detect terrorists to the acoustic signal processing used in anti-submarine warfare. "The job is to find the terrorist signatures within a world of information," Popp said.

In another example of tailoring existing technologies to new problems, Tom Hopkins, director of technology development at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, proposed a test bed of networked sensors to provide early warning of a biological attack that would essentially duplicate existing U.S. Air Force sensors to monitor nuclear weapons tests. The common factor for military and civilian infrastructures is survivability, Hopkins said, and detection at long ranges is the "holy grail."

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