Book Talk: An Illuminating History—and an Alarming Foretelling—of Technology

The Biodefense program at the Schar School has long been described as merging the policy side of the field with the technical. There could be no better example of that description in practice than the career of national security expert Daniel M. Gerstein.

Gerstein, who engaged Schar School students, faculty, and assorted audience members with a Wednesday lunchtime book talk at George Mason University’s Arlington Campus, earned his PhD in Biodefense from the Schar School in 2008. Since then he has served in various capacities, including as Acting Undersecretary for Science and Technology for the Obama White House.

His hour-long discussion on Wednesday—hosted by Biodefense program director Gregory Koblentz and moderated by Center for Security Policy Studies and Master’s in International Security director Ellen Laipson—dealt with his new book, The Story of Technology: How We Got Here and What the Future Holds (Prometheus Books). The text enumerates how rapidly accelerating scientific breakthroughs are virtually unmoored from the traditional binds of government oversight.

He knows because he’s been there—at one point managing a $1.5 billion Department of Homeland Security budget.

Gerstein touched on many topics in the fast-moving dialogue with the audience, including 5G technology (the U.S. “has already lost the race,” he concluded), social media and deep fakes, big data’s inherent vulnerabilities, cyber security, and artificial intelligence.

Asked if his book is a warning regarding the future of technology and its governance, Gerstein said no. But maybe yes, too.

“In fact, I’m very excited by technology. It’s done extraordinary things for humankind,” he said. “But I would say that never before have we had this much power available to individuals and non-state actors.”

Gerstein credits his PhD from the Schar School as being key to his success in his field, including his current position with the RAND Corporation.

“After I got my PhD I wrote a book on my dissertation on countering biological warfare, Bioterror in the 21st Century,” he said. “And based on that book, the Obama administration brought me in as a political appointee.”

In his career he has been in key positions at the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security. “I ran high containment laboratories, the ones that you read about in books,” he said. “Pretty fascinating, but none of that would had happened if I had not gotten a doctorate.”

His advanced degree provided him with insight that he applies “all the time. You have to understand the linkage between what goes on in a lab and the way policymakers think. Somebody in the middle has be able to look at it and say, ‘I’m not sure that’s going to work,’ or ‘have you thought about doing it this way?’

“As I got into these different positions, I realized my role is to communicate between the two ends of the spectrum. I became highly technical as well as understanding the policy side.”

Master’s in Biodefense students Madeline Roty and Marisa Tuszl found the talk not only informative but inspirational. They said that attending lectures outside the classroom enhances their studies and research.

Gerstein’s discussion, Tuszl said, “takes what we learn in class and applies it to the real world and situations we don’t know about. We learn the basics of the [subject] in class but having it explained in a different manner gives you a different perspective on a topic.”

Talks such as this “give me new ideas and things to think about,” Roty said.