Watch out! The computers will run riot

The intelligence agencies, determined not to be caught on the hop as they were by 9/11, now speculat

London, 2010: in a city brought to its knees by cyber-terrorism and the deliberate contamination of its water supply by Islamic militants, thousands of the newly jobless roam the streets creating civil unrest. The armed forces are powerless. Scotland and Wales secede from the UK and establish their own standing armies. England is alone and uniquely vulnerable. The Islamists, armed with sophisticated chemical and biological agents, move in for the kill.

This is not the improbable plot-line for a lavish Hollywood movie. It is the brainchild of boffins labouring on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. It is the very British equivalent of a new discipline called "wild card" theory, the latest innovation within military intelligence circles.

Wild card theory puts futurological boffins together with military spooks to brainstorm about high-impact, low-probability disasters - those that are technically possible but extremely unlikely to happen. On the pages of his magazine the Futurist, one of the world's leading future-thinkers, Edward Cornish, expounds the merits of the new approach. A wild card, he explains, is an unexpected event that has extremely important consequences for any particular individual or group. Wild cards "have the power to completely upset many things and radically change many people's thinking and planning" - rather as Saul's conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus did.

The analogy is well chosen, because in the past two years futurologists have undergone a road-to-Damascus conversion of their own. Most of them failed to predict the post-2000 recession. Many concluded that there was, so to speak, no future in futurology. But the attacks of 11 September 2001 threw up a new employer with deep pockets: the intelligence agencies. Getting hired by new bosses, however, requires a change of focus. The Panglossian enthusiasm that impressed private companies is passe. The future is in creative dystopia.

Take Peter Schwartz, whose 1999 opus The Long Boom: a vision for the coming age of prosperity was briefly feted and then quickly remaindered as the world economy slid into recession. His latest tome is called Inevitable Surprises: thinking ahead in a time of turbulence. "We may not be able to prevent catastrophe," he warns, "but we can certainly increase our ability to respond, and our ability to see opportunities that we would otherwise miss." Schwartz claims that, as a member of an official commission, he anticipated terrorists crashing planes into the World Trade Center two years before it happened.

In America, the market leader in "wild card" theory is John Petersen, head of a powerful American think-tank called the Arlington Institute, which receives much of its funding from the US military. Petersen, a former disc jockey and rock promoter, is an old hand when it comes to thinking outside the box. A couple of years back, he was championing wearable computers and the building of aeroplanes out of spider webs. Petersen defines wild cards as "punctuations in the systems. They disrupt the equilibrium." Sometimes, he notes, "they are the result of a series of events that, in and of themselves, have not produced any noticeable change - but, suddenly, boom! A wild card emerges out of the blue."

Petersen's oeuvre features plenty of boom, particularly since 11 September 2001. As well as dealing in run-of-the-mill disasters - the collapse of the United Nations, an attack by nuclear terrorists on the United States - Petersen is happy to discuss the possibilities of a second coming of the Messiah, the discovery of extraterrestrial life and even an outbreak of altruism all over the world.

The occupational hazard for futurologists has always been that their predictions may prove wrong. But in a game of wild cards, it is hard to see how they can lose. When the predicted disaster fails to show up, the futurologist can take credit for preventing it.

The turn towards wild cards has been sanctioned at the highest echelons of government. In July, a US congressional report into 11 September concluded that, with the right combination of "skill, co-operation, creativity and good luck", the intelligence agencies could have prevented the attacks.

After this indictment, the intelligence agencies have tried to make their own luck. When the spooks are not playing wild cards, they are frittering away money on gambling syndicates. The most recent scheme dreamt up by the Pentagon's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency was to establish an online trading market in which punters would be allowed to place bets on future terrorist attacks and collect if their numbers came up. The idea was pulled only after someone pointed out that al-Qaeda militants, in a kind of insider trading, might themselves place a few dollars on their plans for atrocities. In Congress, Democrats called it "an attempt to trade in death".

The futurists and gamblers, however, face tough competition from the movie business. At the CIA, spooks now participate in brainstorms with scriptwriters who specialise in disaster movies. In a curious reflexive twist, the CIA was disconcerted to find, in a recent seizure of al-Qaeda material, that Osama Bin Laden and his chums had been watching the same films as them.

The trade in horrid futures is not confined to the US. A consultation paper published in March by the Joint Doctrine and Concepts Centre, a Ministry of Defence think-tank, gives pride of place to a list of "high-impact, low-probability events" and warns us to expect "uncomfortable conclusions". But neither the MoD nor Qinetiq, the firm to which the job of thinking up the wild cards was contracted, would allow me to examine the methodology behind their scenarios. All we know is that, as well as the isolation and meltdown of the UK at some unspecified date, these latter-day Nostradamuses imagine the outbreak of a new, virulent infectious disease that quickly kills millions; computers that come alive and run riot; a global collapse of the financial system; a war between the west and Islam; and a Russia-China-India alliance to oppose US military might.

In retrospect, the terrorist attacks of 11 September may have identified weaknesses within intelligence gathering. According to US intelligence sources, for example, the CIA had failed to penetrate al-Qaeda with a single agent. But despite the shadowy consultants who emerged to tell us they saw it coming, there was never any way of predicting exactly what happened on 11 September. The idea that those attacks could have been prevented by second-guessing the terrorists is a symptom of a culture that finds it cathartic, in the face of random tragedy, to find someone capable of shouldering the blame.

Wild card theory is not intelligence gathering but morbid speculation. Worse, it flatters the terrorists, as if they run a kind of military-industrial complex of their own. In fact, they are operating out of a cave in Pakistan, barely able to check their e-mail.

For some time, American political economists have been investigating why the public is so concerned with low-probability occurrences with potentially tragic consequences. European sociologists, loath to stoop to conceptual clarity, have tended to file the same phenomena under the heading of a "risk society". But the terrorist attacks of 11 September have redrawn the terrain of the politics of risk. There was a time when the conservative and the libertarian right liked to pour scorn on scares about the environment and about public health. Now they are busy working up their own scares about Muslims and terrorists.


Wild cards: how the terrorists could strike (maybe)

Deadly panic
Killing people is often expensive. It is . . . cheaper to allow them to kill themselves. Find some harmless powdery material - talcum, chalk or whatever. Then find an equally harmless, but obnoxious and unequivocally foul-smelling, odorant which is not familiar . . . Mix them together in 100lb lots and fly over . . . the Pasadena Rose Parade, a big sports event, a New Year's celebration or similar activity, releasing this harmless powder. In . . . panic, people would kill themselves attempting to flee through the limited number of . . . exits.

Mad dogs
When nerve gases for military use were first developed, it became clear that we had to protect troops in the field, with . . . little time to act. Antidotes encapsulated in small cylinders, perhaps a half-inch by two inches long, were supplied to troops . . . Slam the end of that cylinder against one's thigh and immediately it would self-inject it through the clothes, right into the body. Those spring-loaded injectors are manufactured in large quantities. There is no great secret about them. If they could not be procured, they could even be manufactured . . . in a basement or a garage . . . Load them with rabies virus. In six or eight cities around the United States, have a handful of . . . low-skilled conspirators go through the city and greet people, comment on their dogs, how attractive they are, reach down and pet them, and in a very friendly way slap the dog with the injector. That's it. By co-ordinating the time in which this is done with the incubation period for rabies, one would find, throughout the country, micro-epidemics of rabies in multiple cities, making people frightened of their dogs.

Dangerous chemicals
It is not difficult to plot the movements of a chemical company's trucks through a metropolitan area . . . Work out the routing, then plan to hijack five or six of those trucks, laden either with fresh chemicals or chemical waste, head to the centre of the city and, as the vehicles get within a half-mile, open the release valves and let the obnoxious, perhaps dangerous, material spread through the city centre.

Extracted from "Were I Bin Laden", an essay written for the World Future Society by the futurist Joseph F Coates