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2038th Stated Meeting: Morton L. Mandel Public Lecture
Managing the Benefits and the Risks of Nuclear, Biological, and Information Technologies

Watch video of this event.

On May 10, 2016, Jonathan Fanton introduced a panel discussion focused on managing the benefits and the risks of nuclear, biological, and information technologies. The panel featured James Acton, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Eliza Harris, University of Maryland; Herbert Lin, Stanford University; and Robert Rosner, University of Chicago.

This discussion served as the 2038th Stated Meeting of the American Academy.

I am Jonathan Fanton, President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and it is my pleasure to welcome you all and to call to order the 2038th Stated Meeting of the American Academy.

Welcome to the Morton L. Mandel Public Lecture on Managing the Benefits and Risks of Nuclear, Biological, and Information Technologies. It is fitting that we hold tonight’s meeting at the University of Chicago, one of the Academy’s Affiliates, where the “Atomic Age” began. Today, Henry Moore’s “Nuclear Energy” sculpture sits on Ellis Avenue as an historic landmark of Enrico Fermi and his colleagues’ first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.

Tonight’s program follows the Academy’s newest publication Governance of Dual-Use Technologies: Theory and Practice, which is now available on the website of the American Academy.

The publication is ambitious in its scope as it aims to examine three types of technology that have a dual use: nuclear, cyber and biological. The term dual-use in its traditional meaning describes technology, that is to say materials and techniques, with both military and commercial applications. It is widely agreed that nuclear, cyber, and biological technologies have produced important developments for humanity — think electricity and medical screening, access to information, and vaccines. Yet those same technologies also pose threats to our collective security and they demand our careful consideration.

As we all know, nuclear power technology can be used safely to produce electricity, but it can also be used for military purposes leading to the development of weapons of mass destruction. Information technology, too, is a double-edged sword: while it allows people to stay connected more efficiently and frequently, it also allows hackers and dangerous non-state actors access to private information that can be exploited for cybercrimes, cyber-espionage and even worse to instigate violence and wars. Finally, the field of biology has provided humanity with essential vaccines, which have contributed to longer life expectancy and are responsible for the worldwide eradication of diseases like smallpox. However, states have also exploited the power of biological technology by using infectious agents such as bacteria and viruses to kill and harm both soldiers and civilians as acts of war. Each technology brings with it immense benefits for society as well as potentially irreversible risks that must be pondered, mitigated, and tamed.

The debate over how to regulate powerful dual-use technology is not a new one. At the dawn of the nuclear age, Academy Member Leo Szilard, who worked at the Manhattan Project’s Metallurgical Laboratory here at the University of Chicago on aspects of nuclear reactor design, foresaw the potential weapons implications of experimental results regarding the chain reaction. In an interview in 1950, he said, “I have been asked whether I would agree that the tragedy of the scientist is that he is able to bring about great advances in our knowledge, which mankind may then proceed to use for purposes of destruction. My answer is that this is not the tragedy of the scientist; it is the tragedy of mankind.

The development and use of new technologies has always implied a difficult tradeoff between innovation and safety and security. Innovation leads societies to new ideas, discoveries and inventions. The innovation impulse is welcome and should be supported and nurtured, but it is equally important to reflect upon the societal consequences of each individual innovation. Even more so today, with the rise of global terrorism, the scientific community is asked to be mindful of the potential security implications of their innovations. For example, in the telecommunications field, such innovations range from everyday technologies such as social media and GPS systems to elaborate encryption software and cyber engineering that terrorist and extremist groups have used to recruit members, fund their operations, and commit cyber-attacks.

The work that the Academy has conducted in the area of global security has revealed a longstanding interest in reducing the risks of dual use technologies and in minimizing the spread of weapons of mass destruction more broadly.

In 1959, a group of Academy Members including Donald Brennan, Edward Teller — who taught here at the University of Chicago — Henry Kissinger and Thomas Schelling established an Arms Control Committee to study pathways to de-escalate the nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was this committee that coined the term “strategic stability,” which then became the central principle underpinning the nuclear postures of both superpowers.

In 1963, the Academy and several of its members, including Eugene Rabinowitch at the University of Illinois and Szilard played a critical role in the creation of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, with the goal of preventing the dangers resulting from the global deployment of thermonuclear weapons.

In 1969, at the peak of the Cold War, and at a time when national and international leaders were involved in a debate over restraints on chemical and biological weapons, the Academy, in partnership with the Salk Institute, organized a conference to illuminate the most important public policy issues raised by the existence of chemical and biological weapons. The subsequent report analyzed America’s weapons policy, including the military’s recommendation for chemical and biological capabilities. Participation of Academy Fellows in the hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on April 30, 1969 was influential in leading Congress and the administration to ratify the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare in 1975.

Most recently, in 2014, the Academy launched a project on New Dilemmas in Ethics, Technology and War with the purpose of exploring how new technologies such cyber technology help to prevent or to exacerbate conflicts.

Tonight we have the pleasure to have with us the authors, and the editor, of our Governance of Dual-Use Technologies: Theory and Practice, a publication of our long-standing project, The Global Nuclear Future Initiative. We thank Dr. Elisa Harris, for editing this thought-provoking report. We are also grateful to have with us Emma Belcher, Director of the International Peace and Security program at the MacArthur Foundation, which has generously funded our research in this field and this publication.

And I am delighted that one of the two co-chairs of this project is here tonight to moderate this discussion. It is my pleasure to introduce Professor Robert Rosner, who will introduce the rest of the panelists and moderate tonight’s discussion. As most of you know, Bob is a theoretical physicist, on the faculty of the University of Chicago since 1987, where he is the William E. Wrather Distinguished Service Professor in the departments of Astronomy & Astrophysics and Physics, as well as in the Enrico Fermi Institute, the Computation Institute, and the Harris School of Public Policy Studies. He served as Argonne National Laboratory’s Chief Scientist and Associate Laboratory Director for Physical, Biological and Computational Sciences from 2002 to 2005, and was Argonne’s Laboratory Director from 2005 to 2009. He was also the founding chair of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Laboratory Directors’ Council.

Over the past few years, he has been increasingly involved in energy technologies, and in the public policy issues that relate to the development and deployment of various energy production and consumption technologies, including nuclear energy, the electrification of transport, and energy use in urban environments. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2001. In addition to serving as a Co-Chair of the Academy’s Global Nuclear Future Initiative, he is a member of the American Academy’s Council.

At this point, Dr. Fanton turned the program over to Bob Rosner.

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