military-industrial complexities

A week in Baltimore at SPIE’s Defense Security and Sensing conference on behalf of Optics.org produced a few published things.

Among them, coverage of an address from Bruce Carlson, director (possibly former, by now) of the National Reconnaissance Office. Viewed by a visiting European, the back-and-forth over funding and priorities within the US intelligence community is endlessly fascinating. But I hadn’t realized that the NRO also tracks orbiting satellites and takes action when there’s an imminent collision among all the circling hardware. A man who can say “Every other week or so I manoeuver a satellite around”, is one with an interesting desk. As you might expect when the holder of this post addresses an open meeting of international delegates, there was a certain amount of frostiness in the air; forty-two minutes in, someone asked a question about the potential usefulness of the NRO’s info to human rights organizations, and Carlson more or less adjourned the meeting on the spot.

Also a keynote from Franca Jones of the White House science policy office, who made the point that there’s room for much more joined-up thinking when it comes to gathering data on climate and habitat, and a clear connection between having that kind of info on hand and the ability to predict things like cholera outbreaks. Biosurveillance still has an almighty image problem though, starting with the word; expect “biosensing” to feature in a larger font.

And a discussion between military strategists and venture capitalists about why the military needs new kinds of infrared sensing technologies. It is still jarring, nearly eleven years after the game most visibly changed, to hear a man from DARPA comment that “our mission is changing, but our sensor technology is not,” although here too you wonder if the discussion would have been quite the same behind closed doors and away from international observers. None the less, the sentiment that changes in warfare can be good for the progress of technology and the balance sheets of private companies is hard to argue with, even while quietly wishing for a different kind of world.

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