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How can technology help to mitigate Black Sky Hazards?

5 min read

Zero Pressure podcast host Helen Sharman discusses how the world needs to be much better prepared than it is now for a serious, inter-related disruption to our utilities, communications and services: otherwise known as a ‘Black Sky Event’.

It’s not a matter of if but when our world will experience a ‘Black Sky Event’, where a complex chain reaction of paralysing disasters arises from the failure of one key piece of infrastructure due to a man-made attack or natural hazard.

That’s the hard-hitting message from the main guest in episode two of the second season of the Zero Pressure podcast, hosted by the UK’s first astronaut Dr Helen Sharman and presented by Imperial College London and Saab.

Avi Schnurr is the CEO and President of Electric Infrastructure Security (EIS), an organisation that researches the issue, and educates and trains senior executives, key government and non-governmental organisation stakeholders across all sectors.

In the podcast, Avi tells Helen that there is a “100% probability” that our highly interconnected world will experience a Black Sky Event over the next few decades.

He advocates the use of older technologies such as radio, plus new developments such as AI for the establishment of emergency communications and chaos management systems for decision-makers in all sectors to integrate with their own systems and knowledge, so that they know what to do and can respond together to solve a challenge we might face in the future.

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Our world: an integrated organism that lacks an immune system

Avi likens the tightly integrated industrial society of today’s world to an organic system, where each part of the system operates only if all the others are functioning. That integration is great for efficiency purposes, he says, but we haven’t developed the accompanying immune system that exists in a biological organism, making us extremely vulnerable to external threats.

And whereas biological organisms improve and develop resilience through evolution, that only works through a mass die-off, a prospect which the human race simply cannot accept. 

“The infrastructures that we know and love, that keep us alive and happy, have become so intertwined that the disruption of any one infrastructure on a significant scale could cut the chain tying themselves together, and you could have cascading failures,” he warns.

These threats can take many forms, both man-made and natural. Cyber and ransomware attacks or highly destructive weapons can be used to target infrastructure. Natural threats include geomagnetic storms (such as seen in 1862 and 1921), asteroids, high-morbidity pandemics, earthquakes or even extreme weather events. These can all cause havoc, perhaps by first causing a national power grid to go offline. “Everything requires electricity,” says Avi, “So you would immediately have cascading failures spanning all other infrastructures.”

Regardless of which piece of infrastructure was hit first, it would still have the same result of affecting the others – the internet going down would affect financial markets and in turn the power grids in the US, which watch the markets and bid to provide power, would become inoperable. It’s all a vicious cycle where electricity cannot be restored without water, fuel or transportation, and yet those other infrastructures would also not be operational.

But we do have straightforward solutions

It’s not all doom and gloom. Avi adds that there are some straightforward solutions available to us; it’s just that by and large we haven’t implemented them yet.

We can build an emergency communications system that is very widely deployed to all sectors and leaders and interconnected in the private, corporate and government spheres in each nation. But it can’t be connected to the national telecoms systems which will crash if the power grid goes down.

Instead, Avi advocates for the use of technologies such as radio as an essential part of a hybrid capability, as well as a chaos management system that means decision-makers have some sense of what they must do at various stages of the crisis.

“The level of chaos because of the huge number of interdependencies and the disruption that is going to be occurring everywhere will make situational awareness very hard to do,” Avi explains. “We need some machine assistance,” he adds. “We’re going to have to need a really good chaos management system…ready in advance.”

The question is whether we could create digital twins of our present interconnectivity, or whether we provide a common network that brings different actors together without them surrendering proprietary information. 

Ultimately, while Avi Schnurr appreciates Helen Sharman’s point about humankind needing to explore other planets such as Mars to ensure human continuity, he believes that we need to focus on preserving and protecting what we have here on our planet.

“Earth is my favourite planet!” he says, “and sustaining human life on Earth is a huge priority.” We all need to be aware of the Black Sky Event issue, and discuss it to create a critical mass of opinion to push for change.

“We have the technology but not the willpower. Willpower comes from each and every one of us.”

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This podcast in Imperial College London and Saab’s Zero Pressure series is available on most podcast platforms including Spotify, Google and Apple.

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