Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Photo of Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

Boston Bombing & Individual Power

The Boston Marathon Bombing is horrific and whoever is responsible took a shot at everything that is great about living in the modern world especially inclusiveness and the celebration of individual effort.   In terms of the tragedy and what it means for individuals, Boston, and the rest of the world I have nothing to add to what has already been written or said in many forums.  However, acts of terrorism highlight just how powerful, for better or worse, we have all become.   My point here is that individuals and small groups of people now have ready access to technology and can do things that used to be the purview of large organizations or governments.   That “power” can be used to good things or bad things.   Let me give you four examples:


1.     Car Parts Baby Incubator

Incubators for babies are lifesaving.   When high tech incubators (and other medical equipment) designed for the developed world are donated to hospitals in less developed parts of the world they fail and the infrastructure to repair and maintain them is not available.  However, low cost baby incubators can be made from “Toyota parts” that are available everywhere.   This is an example of how “good enough” technology can be used to innovate in creative ways.


2.     Bombs From Ag Supplies & Cell Phones

The bombs in Boston were made using cheap and easy to obtain parts.  Similarly, the truck bomb used in the 1995 Oklahoma City attack was constructed using readily available materials including fertilizer that cost perhaps $5,000 dollars in total.  The 2004 Madrid subway attacks were remotely triggered using cell phones.


3.     Designer Doping

Novel steroids for sports doping have been developed essentially in “underground” labs.   In the past making new drugs would take the research lab facilities of a big hospital, university, or a drug company.  There is also a web-based secondary market for lab equip, and a rogue innovator can easily develop a lab “in the basement” with an impressive array of low cost equipment.   On the positive side, this secondary market also facilitates legitimate innovation in small companies.


4.     Computer Capacity & Cyber-Attacks

Most people have far more computer capacity on their desktop or laptop than they need for routine tasks like e-mail and word processing.   This excess capacity can linked and used to solve problems or it can be harnessed surreptitiously to do mischievous and destructive things like generating denial of service attacks directed at various organizations or governments.   There is a lot of talk about sophisticated cyber warfare, but the vast majority of cyber-attacks are denial of service attacks that merely overwhelm the target’s IT system.



We are surrounded by cheap and reliable technology that can be mixed and matched to do wonderful things like make simple, effective and easy to fix incubators for babies.  Forget the developed world; cell phones are transforming economies and political systems in the developing world.   Cheap lab equipment and computing power is leading to all sorts of invention and innovation.  However, this same cheap and reliable technology can also be used for great evil as the Boston bombings show.  Unlike big organizations or governments what end users do with all of this technology as it diffuses is very difficult “control”.




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