Do yourself a favor and check out Slate's roundtable, from the authors of Safe: The Race To Protect Ourselves in a Newly Dangerous World.All of the items they're discussing will be at least passingly familiar to Defense Tech readers -- stuff like next-generation lie detectors and programs that comb through data trails for potential enemies of the state.But yesterday's discussion, about the ability (or lack thereof) of government-funded machines to detect biological attacks, is particularly illuminating. Because, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars dumped into the sensors, the gadgets are, for all intents and purposes, useless.A quick example: for years, the military has been trying to put together bio-detectors that use laser radar, or LIDAR, to pick up toxic clouds. But the dust and organisms that naturally float around in the air often blind the sensors, absorbing the light before it gets to the cloud. And even when LIDAR sensors can see through the grime, they don't have the ability to figure out what that cloud actually is. Just like radar can only figure out the broad outlines of a plane, LIDAR only sees that there's a cloud of something biological in the air. But what exactly that something is -- the sensors can't tell. Pollen, anthrax, and diesel exhaust all look about the same, according to Al Lang, a LIDAR researcher at Sandia National Laboratories.Of course, most reports about America's bio-defense never bother to mention this not-exactly-insignificant point. Nor do they get too caught up by fact that the attack the Bush administration is gearing up to stop -- a giant toxic cloud, released over a crowded city -- is just about the least likely terrorist attack of all time.The Safe crew, on the other hand, nails it. "At the moment, there's really only one feasible way to put together a sensor network for detecting biological attacks: assign the job not to technologies but to people. Today, as throughout the history of public health, most disease outbreaks are spotted when a clinician recognizes something unusual or out of place."
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