(Click here to read the entire “The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series.)
Quick question: who, in the whole world, has the most powerful supercomputer?
Answer: The U.S. Government.
Second question: What do they do with it?
Answer: Collect, store and analyze internet traffic.
For details, read this prescient Wired article by author James Bamford that describes how the NSA is building a gigantic facility in Utah to track, store, crack and read a huge chunk of the communications passing through the U.S interwebs. To help decrypt and understand all this information, the NSA is trying to build the world's most powerful supercomputer. (If you had read this article pre-Snowden leaks, well, Prism and XKeyscore weren’t stunning revelations. Those leaks, though, confirmed what many of us suspected but couldn’t prove.)
As I said in the intro to this series, I don’t want to frame the NSA’s meta-data collection in terms of privacy and civil liberties, but in the terms of economics...and loss. The computing power purchased and harnessed by the NSA has opportunity costs. By using the world’s most powerful computer to track terrorist communications, we’re not using it on other things. Things that could save more lives.
For instance, when the NSA and Congress choose to spend billions on designing and building supercomputers for eavesdropping on our phone calls and emails, we choose to not use it on cracking the human genome. Genetics scientists have become much better at decoding individual human genomes. However, doing extensive analysis requires--you guessed it--massive amounts of computing power.
(For the sake of total honesty, the U.S. may not currently hold the title of “World’s Fastest Supercomputer”. The super-computer rankings are constantly shifting. Either way, the U.S. still has several very, very powerful super-computer systems dedicated to stopping terrorism.)
So I ask you, what would be a better use of the world's largest supercomputer, trying to prevent a handful of attacks a year by terrorists, or developing medical innovations that could come by feeding the world's fastest supercomputer human genome data?
To be safe, let's run the numbers.
Assume that without the supercomputer, Al Qaeda would have the ability to conduct three 9/11-sized attacks every year. (This is, of course, a ridiculous exaggeration.) That's around 9,000 people a year saved by the supercomputer. (Again, this is a ridiculously high figure, approximately twice as many people as the actual number of Americans who have died by international terrorism since 1969 or roughly 44 times more than the average number of people who have died of terrorism since 1969). The average age in the U.S. is 36.8. The life is expectancy is around 77. That means that the computer saved around 361,000 U.S. life years. (I mean, it didn’t, but go with us here.) Go NSA supercomputer!
Let’s assume that instead of stopping terror attacks, we use all that computing power on decoding the human genome. Let’s say we target it at breast cancer alone. Let’s say this develops a cure for one form of breast cancer, or approximately 12% of the 232,000 newly diagnosed cases every year. The average person lives 5 years after a breast cancer diagnosis. Let’s say this adds on an additional 12 years. This would assume the average diagnosis age is 60, and the average survival is now normal life expectancy. (It’s a cure, remember?) This supercomputer, on a very limited and conservative estimate, just saved 334,000 U.S. life years.
Don’t think too hard; these are just rough back of the envelope calculations, filled with assumptions. Just kicking the tires a tiny, tiny bit, though, shows my thesis holds up: we are wasting computing power on stopping terrorism. That assumption of 9,000 U.S. lives saved by terrorism is ridiculously high. Ludicrously high. If the government’s computer could save even a fraction of lives by decoding the human genome (the break-even in life years), then we should use it for that purpose.
(And I just used it for breast cancer, not other cancers, or heart disease or diabetes or infectious diseases or a host of other illnesses where genetics play a part. We didn’t even mention unfolding proteins, which is both medically useful and the perfect task for a supercomputer.)
The moral? Don’t let counter-terrorism advocates fool you into thinking spending money stopping terrorism saves your life. Wasting money on supercomputers to stop terrorism is killing you.