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The Department of "Homeland Arithmetic"

Via Xeni Jardin and boing boing, a story on The Edge's annual question for its community, a hypothetical request by President Bush, "What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?"

Marvin Minsky's letter is the shortest:

Mr. President:

My idea is that the whole "Homeland Defense" thing is too cost-ineffective to be plausible. The lifetime cost of, for example, preventing each airplane-crash fatality will be the order of $100,000,000 -- and we could save a thousand times as many lives at the same cost by various simple public-health measures.

Conclusion: what we really need is a "Homeland Arithmetic" reorganization.

Yours truly,

Marvin Minsky
Mathematician and computer scientist
Toshiba Professor of Media Arts and Sciences; Cofounder of Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
MIT
Author of eight books, including The Society of Mind.

I'd be curious to see the details of Minsky's argument. How can we know the cost of preventing fatalities when we don't know how many fatalities we prevent? If the Department of Homeland Security prevents wave after wave of planned airplane-based attacks, then the number Minsky cites could be far too high. On the other hand, if there would never be another 9/11-style attack even without the Department of Homeland Security, then the cost per prevented fatality would rise to infinity.

An obvious counter-argument is the preventioin of the use of weapons of mass destruction. Imagine that a terrorist would like to set off a nuclear device in New York, killing, say, two million people. Assuming the entire first-year budget of the Department of Homeland Security goes to prevent this (assigning the entire budget to this tilts the numbers in Minsky's favor), then the cost per life saved would be something like $18,500 -- clearly a win. Even an order of magnitude greater cost would still be an easy decision.

Having said that, we don't know what terrorist acts increased security will prevent -- partly because we don't know what would have happened in the absence of such security, and partly because spooks will say, "If only you knew what we know..." So Minsky could be exactly right or terribly wrong. No matter what, though, he's clever.

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