In a previous post, I wrote about the idea of the technological singularity: the concept that once computers start thinking for themselves, everything will change. In that post I explored what might happen if the singularity took a dark turn.
I first started thinking about the singularity in June 2010. I was doing research for my novel Patriarch Run and ran across Ray Kurzweil's book The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology.
At the time, I knew the villain in my story wanted to wipe out humanity. I got the idea of using artificial intelligence (AI) as a weapon from Kurzweil's book. What made my story difficult to write was that I didn't want it to be easy on the reader's conscience: I wanted the reader to be compelled to sympathize with the villain. More on that in a later post.
So here's what I had: I knew that the villain wanted to kill us, and I knew that he was going to use AI to do it. All that was left was to figure out the gory details: what would happen to America once the lights went out.
Would you believe that a government report published in April 2008 answered that question? The report detailed what would happen in a technical language so precise there was no shying away from its conclusion. It was a rigorous and punctilious vision of the apocalypse.
Report of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack was about the scariest thing I ever read. To get the information to my reader I summarized the 208 page report in a conversation between two characters: the Colonel and Jack.
Jack looked out the cabin window. He could see the Patriarch Run marking the location of his ranch. “Explain to me just how it is that your grandmother survived the first half of her life without electricity.”
“I’ll get to that. Did you know there are three main constituents of the power system? I didn’t either. Not until I was briefed on it by a skinny kid in glasses. That was two days ago. Generation, transmission and distribution. The part of that briefing that kept me up the last two nights was transmission. How long do you think it takes to replace a fried transformer?”
“Two years. That’s without a crisis, when you’re only replacing one. They don’t make them in this country anymore.”
“How many transformers are we talking about?”
“Thousands. They make them to order. Then you got these SCADA systems. Little electronic control boxes spread all over the nation’s power grid and other critical infrastructure. In the wake of a competent attack, at minimum, these devices will have to be rebooted or repaired. Many of them will have to be replaced. You know how many guys in the country know how to do that? They scour all fifty states for skilled workers when there’s a snowstorm in Buffalo.
“Those are just the rural components. Then you have these digital control systems and programmable logic controllers.”
“Sounds like a real goat-fuck.”
“We’re talking about the mother of all goat-fucks. Your typical power outage doesn’t hurt the power plants themselves. But an attack like the one we’re predicting is going to bring down a percentage of the generators. Power generators are sensitive. If the control system fails and the power plant shuts down improperly, that’s all she wrote.
“A competent attack would irreparably damage the vulnerable hardware. You wouldn’t be able to flip a switch and have power again. Even if you could mobilize, transport and feed all the trained workers in the country, it would take years to fully recover.”
“But you wouldn’t be able to mobilize, transport and feed them.”
“That’s right. No electricity to pump oil to the nation’s refineries means there would be very little finished fuel available for transportation. In addition to that, the one hundred twenty-five thousand miles of pipeline used to transport oil across the United States is dependent on the same SCADA systems as the power grid. With an inoperative SCADA system, the pipelines would have to be shutdown.
“Moreover, the process control of an oil refinery is dependent on integrated circuitry. If an attack damaged this circuitry, it would force the refinery to shutdown. As with the power generators, the forced, rapid shutdown of the nation’s refineries would wreak havoc on the hardware. A percentage of the refineries would never recover.
“In short, the quantity of fuel available to the nation would be dependent on the sophistication of the attack. If we lost the refineries, the fuel supply already in the distribution system would be almost immediately exhausted.”
Jack drew the conclusion, “Without the ability to generate power or to produce fuel, the whole country would simply stop.”
“Yes, it would. We’re talking about raw sewage overwhelming the Nation’s waterways, no drinking water, no food in the grocery...”
“Then how’d your grandmother get by without electricity?”
“Eighty years ago you couldn’t have brought about the end of the world by simply turning out the lights. You’re right about that. But times have changed. Today it takes electricity to do just about anything. Starting with food production...It takes electricity to irrigate crops. Electric pumps, valves, and other machinery. Eggs and poultry are produced in dense populations in controlled environments using computerized feeding, watering and air conditioning systems. In the twenty-first century it even takes electricity to milk a cow.
“The list goes on. The processing of food requires electricity: Captain Crunch, a can of soup, sliced bread. Meat packing requires an electrically powered processing line.
“Farm machinery runs on petroleum products. And the food has to be distributed. When my grandmother was a schoolgirl, food was grown around urban centers. Production was more labor intensive and electricity wasn’t very important. Except for your cattle drives, up until the age of railroads and ice, you couldn’t distribute fresh food over long distances on account that it would rot.
“To get food into the supermarkets of our modern cities you need refrigerated warehouses. You need refrigerated trucks and trains, which, once again, run on petroleum. Without electricity and petroleum the whole thing stops.
“My grandmother was born in 1902. At the turn of the century, forty percent of the population lived on farms. Today it’s two percent.
“You know what that kid told me: in the event of an attack like the one we’re predicting, you wouldn’t even be able to mobilize an emergency labor force to work the farms because nobody knows how anymore. The knowledge is lost.
“The population of the United States at the turn of that century was seventy-six million. It’s what...three hundred million today?
“Back when my grandmother was a little girl a power outage carried no threat because civilization wasn’t yet dependent on electricity. We’re feeding two hundred twenty-four million more people today. That’s an increase of four hundred percent, but we have only increased the amount of land we farm by six percent. To make everything work the American farmer has figured out how to increase yield by more than fifty-fold.
“How? Technology. Machines, fertilizers, pesticides. All of which are powered by petroleum. All of which are manufactured with electricity.
“So, yes, food will still grow, but without electricity, we’ll be back to 1902 yields. If everything went perfectly, which it wouldn’t, you’d have enough food for one quarter of the population. That’s best case scenario.
“Food has always been, and may always be, the weak link in the security of a civilization. A typical supermarket carries a one to three day supply of food for its community. So what happens when the power goes out for several years?
“I’m telling you that kid was a scary motherfucker. Most people have never asked themselves these questions. I never did.”
“Are you telling me there are no contingency plans for the production of fuel?”
“There was a push from the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources last fall to secure the refineries from this type of attack.”
“The energy lobby raised hell with one hand and donated vast sums to reelection campaigns with the other. The Chairman of the committee flipped. He came to believe that the plan was too expensive, that it would hurt the economy.” The Colonel stood up and stretched. “In effect, the deadline to safeguard the Nation’s critical fuel supply was pushed back twenty-five years.”
He opened the fridge, took out a Coke and offered it to Jack.
“You want to hear something bone-chilling?”
Jack leaned forward.
“An attack planned by a super-intelligent computer would be multi-pronged. If a device is connected to the internet, a telephone network or a satellite, it can be hacked. The banking system would collapse. With it, all commerce.
“Worms would be hidden inside the software code of the nation’s critical infrastructure: chemical processing plants, manufacturing facilities, ports–all strategically synchronized for a worse-case-scenario attack. A passive attack would simply shut the facilities down. A more aggressive attack would override the safety protocols. The displays in the control rooms would read system normal. Meanwhile gremlins would be running amuck throughout the plants overloading the machinery, creating dangerous pressures, critical temperatures. By the time the engineers figured it out, there would be fires, explosions, toxic clouds, chemical waste spilling into waterways.
“A computer smart enough could deny us the ability to control some of our weaponized nuclear assets. Any military hardware, vehicle or communications device connected to a network would be at risk of sabotage. Any country who came to our aid would be vulnerable to the same type of attack.”
“That’s an impressive catastrophe.”
“And I’ve only been briefed on the nightmares they’ve thought of so far. A computer smart enough could take over the country’s one hundred and four commercial nuclear reactors simultaneously. At which point, the reactors would run themselves to meltdown or be shutdown manually by the plant operators. Assume, for the moment, all one hundred and four reactors could be safely shut down: there is no shutting down the half-life of a radioactive isotope.
“It takes electrically powered cooling pumps to keep the spent fuel in these facilities from getting over heated. In the wake of such an attack, there would be no deliveries of diesel. Once the emergency generators ran out of fuel, the cooling pumps would shut down. If that happened, the spent fuel would heat up, boil off the water containing them then melt through the reactor cores.
“Even if the nuclear facilities could be shut down properly, without power to circulate water and cool the fuel, you would have Armageddon.
“The President would wakeup to radiation, toxic plumes spewing from chemical manufacturing plants, fires at oil refineries. Using the finite resources available to him, he could communicate by messenger and make strategic choices. Select installations could be saved or, at least, catastrophic failure postponed. But there wouldn’t be enough calculative power in the Federal Government, let alone supplies, to cope with the magnitude of the disaster.
“Here’s the kicker. The conflagrations, the poison clouds, the threat of meltdown would amount to a dazzling distraction. Such a spectacle would captivate the government’s attention, but its purpose would be to keep us from addressing the actual problem.
“The real threat is, and always has been, starvation. If you can’t distribute food, you don’t have a civilization. Forget about the economy. Wall Street went extinct the minute the power went out. Wealth will be counted in canned goods and the guns and ammunition stockpiled to defend them.
“Mass starvation, disease. The conservative number is one hundred fifty-three million casualties by the end of the first year. The middle of the road estimate: two hundred million. Not a bullet fired.”
Jack looked out the window at the city beneath them. “Talk about culling the herd.”
The Colonel cocked his head.
“Doesn’t all this assume the Chinese have a will to destroy us?”
“No, it does not. No rational state would jeopardize its own existence to strike at the United States of America. The country has a formidable nuclear deterrent. A super-intelligent computer would likely be able to neutralize the vulnerable assets of that arsenal. But by design the arsenal is diverse with terrestrial, airborne and maritime assets. Including highly portable tactical warheads. Some of which are so low tech it would be impossible to digitally disarm them.
“In short, if China attacked the United states, it would be obliterated. And the President has another option. A warhead of sufficient size detonated above the Chinese mainland would create a high altitude electromagnetic pulse that would, in effect, put them in the same boat as us.”
“If China’s not the threat, who is?”
“Yan Shi is essentially software. Software that can be sold and distributed to the highest bidder. If you were POTUS, would you take that risk?”
“It doesn’t make sense for the Chinese to sell it. If it were that powerful, they would want control. Besides, the consequences of an attack like the one you described would be catastrophic for everyone.”
“You’re right about that. Aside from the complete loss of China’s investment in American currency and the loss of its customer base for manufactured goods, the total collapse of the United States of America would precipitate a global economic super-depression. There would be unprecedented, planet-wide political instability. That’s a nightmare scenario for any surviving state.”
“But a medieval paradise for an Islamist extremist.”
“Yes, it would be. The Chinese have no interest in giving up control of Yan Shi, but could they prevent the software from being stolen?”
The Colonel looked out his window. The Criterion was banking and descending.
“Why me? Why not abduct the professor and take out the computer?”
“Those details are being handled by whiter agencies.”