Author Interviews
2:18 pm
Sun May 13, 2012

Lessons In Counterterrorism From The Octopus

Originally published on Sun May 13, 2012 4:52 pm

In 2002, Rafe Sagarin was working in Washington, D.C., as a science adviser. It wasn't long after the Sept. 11 attacks, and Sagarin started paying attention to the security measures on Capitol Hill.

"I'd watch these other Capitol Hill staffers and I noticed that they'd just put their hand over the keys in their pockets so they didn't have to waste 30 seconds putting it on the conveyer belt though the security screening — and that didn't set off the alarm when they did that," Sagarin tells host of weekend All Things Considered Guy Raz.

"It just made me think, adaptable organisms" — like terrorists — are "going to figure out a way to get around this," he says.

So Sagarin, a marine ecologist, turned to what he knew. His new book, Learning from the Octopus, tells how we can learn from organisms in nature to improve our security systems.

Interview Highlights

On why he focused on the octopus:

"Most adaptable systems, and the octopus is a great example, have a decentralized organization where a lot of almost independent parts are allowed to sense and respond to the environment. So the octopus doesn't use that great brain to tell arm one to turn purple and arm two to turn blue as it swims over a coral reef, but rather millions of cells spread across its body are each individually responding to that change in the environment and then giving camouflage to the octopus as a whole. That combination gives you a lot of what you need to be an adaptable organism."

On what the military can learn from the octopus:

Sagarin says the U.S. military took a long time to adapt in war zones to the challenges posed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which are still among the biggest killers of our troops.

"You had the Department of Defense, which planned for and predicted a certain kind of war, which turned out to be not the war at all that they were fighting. And it was all those soldiers on the ground who are acting as these semi-independent sensors — just like the skin cells on the octopus — who almost immediately recognized that the IED threat was the big problem. It took the Department of Defense, with a centralized, top-down control system, three years to bring up armored vehicles to Iraq, during which 1,300 soldiers died due to IEDs."

"Those soldiers on the ground had to adapt in the meantime, and one of the things they did which they did, which is very important and seen throughout nature, is develop symbiotic partnerships. And they were developing partnerships even with people that were previously shooting at them, and it was through these partnerships that they started to get the intel about the IEDs and who were the bomb makers ... and you see a big drop in IED deaths before these up-armored vehicles come into Iraq."

On the benefits of decentralization:

"There's a very simple thing we can do in wherever we work that can shift us into this mode of having more sense of how the world is changing and having more ability to respond to it. And that is shifting from a mode of giving orders to issuing challenges, which is when we say, 'Here's a problem we're all facing; who among you can solve this problem best?' And every time we've seen a challenge-based attempt at problem solving, you get many more potential responses and potential solutions. You get them much quicker and much much more cheaply than the model where a small group of experts decides or a single contractor has decided to develop something."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Back in 2002, Rafe Sagarin was working as a science advisor to Congresswoman Hilda Solis. She's now the Secretary of Labor. It wasn't long after 9/11 and Sagarin started noticing how some of his colleagues were dealing with the heightened security measures on Capitol Hill.

RAFE SAGARIN: I'd watch these other Capitol Hill staffers, and I noticed that they just put their hand over their keys in their pockets so they didn't have to waste 30 seconds putting it on the conveyer belt. And that didn't set off the alarm when they did that. And it just made me think adaptable organisms, if you're talking about an adaptable terrorist, is going to figure out a way to get around this.

And I started to think about organisms in nature which are constantly adapting and started to think, well, what can we learn from all that adaptation in nature about how to make better security systems?

RAZ: The animal he turned to? The octopus. Rafe Sagarin's new book is called "Learning from the Octopus," and it describes how secrets from nature can help us avoid disasters. And when we spoke, I asked him why the octopus?

SAGARIN: Most adaptable systems, and the octopus is a great example, have a decentralized organization where a lot of almost independent parts are allowed to sense and respond to the environment. So the octopus doesn't use that great brain to tell arm one to turn purple and arm two to turn blue as it swims over a coral reef, but rather, millions of cells spread across its body are each individually responding to that change in their environment and then giving camouflage to the octopus as a whole. That combination gives you a lot of what you need to be an adaptable organism.

RAZ: These things are intuitive, such as that amazing video that came out a year or so ago of an octopus using coconut shells to protect it as sort of this armor. The octopus just does those things, but you're suggesting that we focus our thought process on a range of possible options and reactions?

SAGARIN: It's not completely intuitive. It does have a cognitive mind that thinks about these things. The coconut shells is a good example where it had to piece that together, but it also has these more automatic things. And we as humans have that, as well, but we're sort of too clever by half by trying to plan and predict and make perfect solutions to our security problems, when in fact, all of nature, including the octopus, don't spend a lot of time planning. They just try to solve problems in the environment as they arise.

RAZ: There's an example you talk about with the U.S. military, the issue of IEDs, improvised explosive devices, which, as you point out, they're still among the biggest killers of our troops in Afghanistan and the scourge for many years in Iraq. What's your argument for why the military has not adapted to that threat?

SAGARIN: Yeah. Well, there, you see two sides of adaptability. You had the Department of Defense which planned for and predicted a certain kind of war which turned out to be not the war at all that they were fighting, and it was all those soldiers on the ground who are acting as these semi-independent sensors, just like the skin cells on the octopus, who almost immediately recognized that the IED threat was the big problem.

It took the Department of Defense with a centralized top-down control system three years to bring out up-armored vehicles into Iraq. Those soldiers on the ground had to adapt in the meantime, and one of the things that they did is develop symbiotic partnerships even with people that were previously shooting at them.

And it was through those partnerships that they started to get the intel about the IEDs and who were the bomb makers and that sort of thing. And you see a big drop in IED deaths before these up-armored vehicles came into Iraq.

RAZ: We often hear, and it seems pretty self-evident, that humans are actually very adaptable, that we - it might take us some time but we do eventually figure it out. And I'm wondering what example can we sort of take from the natural world and then apply to our experience and say we're just not doing that.

SAGARIN: Well, it's really about this decentralized organization. That starts it all, and there's a very simple thing we can do in wherever we work that can shift us into this mode of having more sense of how the world is changing and having more ability to respond to it, and that is shifting from a mode of giving orders to issuing challenges, which is when we say here's a problem we're all facing. Who among you can solve this problem best?

And every time we've seen a challenge-based attempt at problem solving, you get many more potential responses and potential solutions. You get them much quicker and much, much more cheaply than the model where a small group of experts decides or a single contractor is decided to develop something.

RAZ: That's Rafe Sagarin. He's a marine ecologist and author of the new book "Learning from the Octopus." Rafe Sagarin joined us from KUAZ in Tuscon, Arizona. Rafe, thank you so much.

SAGARIN: Thank you so much. I've enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.