Interview with Taryn O’Neill, AOMD Podcast Episode 014 – Natasha Bajema

Interview with Taryn O’Neill, AOMD Podcast Episode 014

Welcome to the episode number 14 of the Authors of Mass Destruction podcast. My name is Natasha Bajema, aka WMDgirl on Twitter. I’m a fiction author, national security expert and your host for this podcast.

  • If you’re interested in science &technology, in reading good fiction, or want to write fiction based on technology, you’re in the right place.
  • Before we get started, a few notes:
    • The views expressed on this podcast are my own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
    • The AOMD podcast is proud to be part of the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network. Check us out at
  • My headline for this week comes from War on the Rocks on May 13: “Countering WMD in the Digital Age: Breaking Down Bureaucratic Silos in a Brave New World” by Natasha Bajema. I’m so excited to get my first piece in WOTR!
    • I kick off the piece with a pretty scary scenario:
    • Imagine reading a news article that begins: “Terrorists delivered a biological weapon at a local sports stadium using a drone swarm, unleashing widespread panic and mass casualties.” The article reveals that a terrorist cell claimed credit for the attack, declaring it launched the drone swarm using a smartphone. Law enforcement officials determined that the group purchased off-the-shelf drones, leveraged a free, open-source swarming program, and used a DNA desktop synthesizer and information acquired online to produce the genome of a dangerous pathogenic virus. The group claimed it managed to insert the virus DNA into a cell and scale it up in a garage biolab. Authorities have no leads on the exact location from which the terrorists remotely launched their attack since the drones do not emit communication signals emanating from the drones. The terrorists left no evidence of their physical presence at the stadium — indeed, they may have planned and executed the attack from miles away.
    • I’ll unpack this scenario in just a minute.
    • My article is about how the relationship between the digital and physical worlds are changing. The boundaries are blurring so to speak. But what does that mean?
      • As a GenX-er, I often find myself caught between two generations that have profoundly different and incompatible understandings of the world we live in. And both don’t seem to get it. WARNING: I’m about to make generalizations that do not apply to everyone.
      • On one hand, we have the boomers. They continue to dominate positions of leadership in this country. Many of them do not understand digital technologies; it’s like a foreign language. Many of them eschew digital technologies completely.
      • Anecdote: A few weeks ago, I briefed an advisory committee to senior leaders in government on what I’m calling the “digitization of WMD”. One of the most senior members, an extremely distinguished scientist, held up a pen in the middle of my briefing and asked me what it was. I said, “that’s a pen.” “Do you use one?” he asked. “Not that often,” I replied. “Well, this is what I use. I avoid using computers as much as possible.”
      • I smiled to hide my discomfort at the notion of wanting a badge of honor for not using computers but being in the position of doling out advice to senior leaders in government.
      • If you want to see the stunning gap for yourself, all you have to do is watch the testimony of Mark Zuckerberg before Congress on the role of Facebook in the elections situation in 2016.
      • On the other side of the equation, we have the millennials who are for the most part, digital natives. They were born into the Internet era and have never experience what life was like without digital technologies. They don’t have a firm grasp on the prior constraints of the physical world and so they don’t fully understand the profound changes in society, business and government that are coming about as a result of rapidly advancing digital technologies.
      • Anecdote: I had a conversation this past week with a super smart millennial about emerging technologies and WMD. And she didn’t understand what I mean about the blurring of boundaries between the digital and physical worlds. She kept saying that they’ve always been bound up together. After all, digital information is transmitted through physical infrastructure and is read and used on physical devices. How can the boundaries be blurred?
      • I’m talking about the human experience with the digital and physical worlds.
      • As research for my TV series, I started watching Veronica Mars, which is about a teenage private investigator who works for her private detective dad and solves cases in her local community. Season 1 came out in 2005.
        • They have flip phones
        • They have video rental stores
        • They have certain physical locations with wired Internet connections
        • Today, we have smart phones, video streaming and wireless connectivity everywhere
      • When I talk about the blurring of boundaries between the two worlds, I mean that we can interact with the digital world almost seamlessly today. I remember when I had to use pay phones, landlines, dial-up connections, etc. Digital natives do not.
      • The point I’m making in the article is that WMD technologies are old. They are VERY old. Chemical weapons were developed during WWI. Biological weapons between WWI and WWII. And nuclear weapons during WWII. Most of our tools for mitigating the threats posed by these weapons were developed before the late 1990s. Before the Internet, the rise of digital technologies and the level of connectivity today. And yet, we have not adapted our understanding of the threats or our approaches to defend against them since the Cold War. We still think of WMD as a physical problem. Slowly but surely, there are aspects of WMD that are becoming digitized.
      • Let’s go back to the scenario:
        • Terrorists launch a bioattack from a smartphone using drones as delivery systems
          • Today, bad guys can leverage digital pathways to cause physical effects remotely
          • By using an autonomous program to direct the drones to their target, there are no signals between the drones and the smartphone after launch. Digital pathways reduce the risk of detection
          • In the article, I talk about physical to digital conversion technologies like gene sequencing. You’ve heard of 23andMe and You probably know someone who’s sent in their DNA to have it tested. When DNA is sequenced, it is converted into digital information.
          • In the future, bad guys may not have to gain access to a physical sample of a dangerous pathogen. If they were able to get the digital genome information, they could produce synthetic DNA and then inject that DNA into a cell to create the dangerous pathogen
          • Do I think this is easy? Not at all. But it’s now a possible scenario we need to think about.
  • Let’s get to my interview. This week, I talk to Taryn O’Neill. She’s a director, producer, writer and actress living in LA. We talk about the rise of digital technology in the film industry and the importance of getting science and technology right in our stories.

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