Author: Lisa DeYoung
An Operating System for the 22nd Century – N Square Fellowship -

An Operating System for the 22nd Century

In early April 2023, N Square held its sixth annual Innovation Summit, featuring the work of the latest cohort of N Square innovation fellows, a diverse mix of academics, activists, military instructors, and experts in finance and media. While past cohorts have presented multiple projects and prototypes at their summit, this cohort organized its work around one big speculative question: What might a world in 2095 without nuclear weapons look like? What would need to be true? What would we need to overcome, invent, or do differently to get to a new framework for global security? Over the course of several months, the fellows pushed the boundaries of what’s imaginable today in order to punch through to a vision of a far different future. The end product of their speculative work was a kind of guidebook exploring and detailing a new operating system for the 22nd century.

At the Innovation Summit, which was held online, the fellows described the operating system as a framework of structures and systems that organize global efforts to maintain planetary and human security, focused on four main elements: a new security architecture, new policies and forms of citizenship, new ledgers and accountability, and new agreements and signatories.

The summit featured three panel discussions. In the first panel, fellows introduced the OS and discussed the first element: a new security architecture. Fellow Aditi Verma, an assistant professor in nuclear engineering and radiological sciences at the University of Michigan, explained that in order to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons, security needs to be redefined as the intersection of human and environmental security. She also said that equitable and participatory design of the requisite technology for that redefined security is essential.

On page 15 of the Operating System these speculative images help us imagine how high tech and low tech methods for sustainable food production might work together to build more resilient food systems in the future.

Julia Gorbach—filmmaker, creative director, strategist, and founder of Wild Minds—talked about decentralization and the intersection of nonhuman species communities, digital communities, and cultural communities. What if, for example, the digital group Afropolitan became sovereign? Learning how to communicate and sustainably coexist within a spectrum of community types will be a feature of the future these fellows envision.

“We’ve been looking at the world through a human-centric lens and there are so many different species that coexist with us,” Gorbach said. “So if today, in 2023, people are able to know when a plant is thirsty and when they should water it, think about what [the future] looks like when we also have nonhuman species who have sovereign power.”

Lyndon Burford, N Square’s network weaver and cofounder of Path Collective, added that a decentralized future requires greater transparency. Humans depend on ecosystems for food, clean water, and air so it’s important to understand how those ecosystems are being impacted. Burford suggested viewing coexistence in a similar way to how we think about sharing air and rivers.

“River systems flow from one nation’s territory into another. The air passes from a nation’s airspace into another and they recognize that inherent interconnectedness,” Burford said. “If we move to a system where we have a greater awareness of these types of flows of water or air, we’ll have to also move it into a political system whereby we recognize that in our agreements and make space for that with each other.”

In the second panel, the fellows discussed other ways the world needs to change for this new operating system to be possible. Lieutenant Colonel Brian Novoselich, chief of staff at West Point and an innovation fellow in this cohort, said those changes include enabling societies to secure themselves not just militarily but also fundamentally in terms of meeting basic human needs. He highlighted some of the ways that current threats impede the path to a more secure future.

“If you look at disrupting national elections, persistent cyber threats to national infrastructure, and the degradation of trust in the idea of truth, not only do we have substantive challenges on the horizon for human welfare, but now we have challenges to the very societal structures that have been put in place for nations to mitigate those threats,” Novoselich said.

The fellows imagined the physical representations of new agreements and new signatories that would be required for managing intersecting threats in the future. On page 29 of the Operating System we see an example of a civic building designed to welcome signatories for new climate agreements.

Burford suggested that mindsets will shift gradually as people see the increasing intersection of challenges. He gave an example of inkblots coming together on a sheet of paper. “As the inkblots spread, they start to intersect. Any one of these [challenges] might not be enough to shift thinking in dramatic ways, but as they start to intersect, populations of real human beings start seeing these things coming at them from different directions and realizing that the systems that we’re trying to think in today are not working, because there are all of these new challenges arising.”

The changes that need to happen can be overwhelming to think about, noted Katherine Collins, head of sustainable investing at Putnam Investments and another member of the fellowship cohort. She emphasized the importance of having hope and being able to switch from the head to the heart when dealing with these concepts.

“I think of hope as something that’s increasingly important in a lot of our settings. Hope not like sunshine, puppy dogs, and teddy bears hope, but a tough kind of hardened hope,” Collins said. “If you’re thinking of Pandora’s box after all the evils of the world play out, it’s what is left at the bottom—it’s this battered-up tiny creature with wings.”


Finally, in the third panel, the fellows talked about using the operating system as a tool for provoking different ways to think about security, a lens for observing and making sense of emerging conditions, and a guide to contextualizing current efforts.

The fellows designed the operating system to be accessible to diverse audiences, hoping to draw more people into sharing and contributing to it without having to be security experts. “Invit[ing] people from all different parts of the world, all different industries to come and play together” might be a challenge, Gorbach said, but everyone should have a hand in designing a more secure future. “When it comes to security, we’re all impacted.”

The fellows included Leo Blanken, Jeanne Bourgault, Jess Brown, Lyndon Burford, Katherine Collins, Julia Gorbach, Brian Novoselich, Kiki Nyagah, and Aditi Verma.


  • Explore the fellows’ operating system for the 22nd century.
  • Watch the Innovation Summit recording (below).

The Negotiator

Michelle Dover has a perspective on nuclear weapons that few others have. She grew up a short drive away from the Hanford nuclear production site in Washington State. Plutonium manufactured in her community was used in the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in 1945. For Michelle, growing up in the shadow of one of the most toxic radioactive sites on Earth meant nuclear catastrophe was a backdrop to life. Now director of programs at the Ploughshares Fund, one of N Square’s founding funders, in Washington, DC, Michelle has dedicated her career to reducing that threat. In this interview, she talks about the field of nuclear nonproliferation, how it’s changing, and what gives her hope for the future.

Q  How did you get into this field?

A  It was a bit of a winding path. I grew up near the Hanford nuclear site—one of the legacy Manhattan Project sites—so nuclear threat was always in the background for me. I’ve always been interested in how conflict is pervasive in human interactions, in both the positive and negative sense. Differences of opinion and differences of interest permeate our lives from the individual to the state level. I was always more interested in how things were resolved, so I didn’t end up at law school. The skill that I needed was negotiation.

But I really came into the field through the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). They sent me to a course at the Monterey Institute and I met the most fascinating people. When I finished my graduate work, I was accepted as a Nonproliferation Graduate Fellow at the NNSA. I worked on international safeguards—including the policies of the international inspectors that go into different nuclear facilities, the agreements between countries on the types of technology they’re allowed to use, and the way they approach analysis.

Q  Who was the Secretary of Energy then?

A  Dr. Steven Chu. Many people were excited to have a scientist running the Department of Energy. It changes the tone of conversation, knowing that he understood the science behind things. My impression was that civil servants were happy to have somebody who understood and appreciated the work of the scientists within the complex.

Q  Is that also what excited you about the people you met in the nuclear field?

A  When I was taking the course at Monterey Institute, I remember talking to scientists from Livermore National Laboratory who had done some really interesting technical work. I had assumed that work was what they’d be most proud of—but the thing they were really most proud of was going into places like Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union to help secure nuclear material and engage Russian scientists. I really respect that dedication to the issue and the sense that whatever small part you play, you really are contributing to making the world a safer place. That is one of the key features that I see in people who work in this field.

I did my graduate work on a phenomenon called epistemic communities. They’re tight-knit groups of people, typically based in science, who share a common language and a common set of opinions about how the world should operate. When this phenomenon was described in the early 1990s, the arms control community was a key study. It’s a group of people who refer to themselves as a community, and, once you’re in—once you can speak the language, once you can articulate what some of these shared values are—I’ve found it to be very supportive. This strong network gives them a very powerful impact on policy.

Hanford N Reactor
Photo Credit – United States Department of Energy.

Q  Does that make it harder, though, for the public to understand nuclear issues?

A  One of the things that we run into is how to translate this for the broader public, and how not to turn them off. I offer up my own background as an example that you don’t need to be a nuclear scientist to have a say in these issues, or even have a career in this field. You need nuclear scientists, and you also need people from other backgrounds, perspectives, and disciplines. I think that’s the best practice when you’re talking about policies that affect everyone.

For the public, it’s not just about making nuclear issues meaningful for them—it’s also about giving them agency. People find this topic important, but they don’t think they can make a difference because it’s something that’s controlled by faceless bureaucrats. It’s always a challenge in a highly technical field to figure out what to convey to the broader population, and what they will find interesting or useful. But there’s a broader world out there that does care, and people do have important things to say on this. So, how do you give them a chance to do that? And how do you give them the tools and knowledge that they need to have an informed opinion?


Q  How do you do that?

A  My perspective is informed by growing up near a Manhattan Project site. It was frustrating to know that one of the most highly contaminated sites in the US was a 20-minute drive from my house. I felt powerless. I was told this radioactive material would far outlive me and future generations. But I didn’t see policymakers addressing the issue unless someone raised it in a really public way. And you need that—you need the public to say that this is an issue that’s important. The public wants to see a world in which we’re trying to reduce nuclear threats, where we get rid of weapons through negotiation or engagement and not through military action. But unless you are telling policymakers that these are your values and your principles, and this is what you think should happen, they’re not going to make it a priority.

Q  What role do you think popular media has in creating a common understanding of the threats posed by nuclear weapons—or even in influencing policy?

A  There’s the lore that President Reagan saw the movie The Day After and that was a wake-up call for him on the effects of nuclear weapons. Talk to anyone in the field and they usually have an opinion on Dr. Strangelove, War Games, The Hunt for Red October. You just start listing off the movies and you realize that nuclear weapons, how we relate to them, and what we think of them has been a theme in our popular culture. Public consensus is shaped by that. Nucleus, one of the groups that has worked with N Square, has done some really interesting work on how people between the ages of 15 and 35 view the world. It’s not so much that they think the apocalypse can be stopped, it’s that they think the apocalypse is inevitable and that they will survive it. They point to examples like The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner or other dystopian novels where the apocalypse has happened, but the focus is on how you survive. It’s an interesting take on nuclear weapons, because does that mean you think it’s impossible to reduce nuclear threats or to eliminate them? How do you move that focus to before the event arrives?

I think Hollywood can help with that. Do you know that the president will only have at most about 12 minutes to decide whether to launch nuclear weapons in the case of a potentially incoming strike? Do you know how many weapons are out there? Do you know who has them? Do you know how much money it takes to maintain them? Do you know under what conditions we are actually going to use them? Hollywood can play an important role in communicating the basic facts about these issues.

Michelle Dover at Hanford B Reactor

Q  How did you end up at Ploughshares Fund?

A  By chance—a colleague sent me a note about an opening. I was aware of what grantmaking looked like but I had never really thought about the role that foundations play in supporting civil society. When I got to Ploughshares, I found they were doing amazing things. Ploughshares funds in a few different areas. We’re aiming for a world free of nuclear weapons, and we see three main approaches to that: get rid of the ones that already exist, prevent new groups or states from getting them, and then address the underlying problems that drive states to proliferation to begin with. We pride ourselves on trying to be as nimble and responsive as we can be, despite the fact that foundations can be slow to respond.

I came at a time when Ploughshares was focusing a lot of its work on diplomacy with Iran. I watched the debate over the deal that summer and saw so many policymakers speak about the deal in the Senate. For those who supported the agreement, they were listing the work of groups in civil society as having factored into their decision, sometimes citing specific experts. For me, it was such a powerful example of the role that civil society can play. The way I see it, we may be playing on the margins in some ways, but they’re really important margins.


Q  What innovations in the field are you most excited about?

A  Some of the most interesting innovation involves bringing in voices that haven’t been heard before, or voices that may have been there but were not given a prominent place at the table. The work that some in the Navajo Nation are doing to tell the story of the impact of uranium mining, and the international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, are good examples. There’s a lot of energy in that type of work that is really powerful.

In the technology arena, democratizing access to information is a game-changer. Instead of having to hunt down routes for ships, there’s satellite imagery you can buy, and there are large amounts of data that are available to anyone if they have the time and they’re smart about how they spend it. I think of innovation as, “What are the new ideas that we’re applying to this space?” Somebody told me once that the most creative space is the space between fields, and that’s where we’re seeing some of the brightest innovation.

Photo Credit – F Charles Photography

I also think that cultivating networks of people who are working on—or could be working on—nuclear issues is itself a key innovation. At Ploughshares Fund we work hard to cultivate a network for our grantees so that they’re not working on their projects in isolation and can draw on a broader field of people working on this issue. And, of course, that’s the central idea of N Square—to facilitate and support this kind of connecting the dots between different kinds of experts to create a new kind of community working these problems together. It’s been fun to sit in the room at N Square convenings and see people from completely outside the field saying, “Wait a minute. How many people work on this issue? How many weapons are there actually in the world? How big is this problem?” People are able to draw connections that are not otherwise obvious. I’ve appreciated the perspective that this problem is solvable, which brings me hope.


Q  What else gives you hope?

A  I’m a strong believer that change is possible and that civil society can influence that change. It can be a force for reducing threats and increasing peace. And I don’t just mean peace as an absence of war, but as a place where you can achieve your potential. With nuclear weapons, we’ve gone from the peak of almost 70,000 weapons to 15,000. We can keep going. If we’ve gotten this far, movement is possible.

If you look at the bigger picture, you see that there’s so much that we’ve already done to reduce the chances of another Cuban Missile Crisis. Is there more that we can be doing? Absolutely. But the point is that we’ve seen that movement before. We’re at a place where, at least in the US, we’re questioning who we want to be. In looking at the current grassroots mobilizations, I’ve been reminded that we are in the midst of a values-based movement, where what you stand for matters in some cases more than the issue. From a conflict resolution point of view, that’s a positive discussion to have. We have an opportunity to demonstrate what we value, and that’s what drives my work and what gives me hope.

Q  One of the limitations in this field is that not that many people fund this work. How can the field attract more funders?

A  Foundations each have their own personality and mission, but we also have places where our missions align. I’m a part of groups like the Peace and Security Funders Group, where I can engage with foundations that are outside of the nuclear field but are still working in peace and security to hear how they’re thinking about problems. Bringing in new foundations or new types of funding requires thinking outside the box about how your projects fit with others’ goals. It also requires making the case of why it’s important and why you think providing resources will make a difference. We do our best to reach out to potential new donors to make that case, but it will require a field-wide effort. The good news is that we’ve seen some new individuals either become engaged or re-engaged with the topic since the 2016 election. In terms of very large new institutional funders, I really haven’t seen much, but that’s something that we’re going to keep plugging away at. N Square, which helps make these connections, is part of this outreach effort.

Q  What do you think the nuclear threat field will look like in 10 years, and what could the future look like if everything goes well?

A  You’re going to see a field that preserves the important lessons we’ve learned. There is a very strong mentorship component in this field and a transfer of knowledge that I’m confident will continue. The field will be more diverse and more inclusive. There will be people from different fields and walks of life who have a say on some of these issues. There is even a chance that multilateral treaties could be negotiated. Maybe that’s a hope, but given how much globalization has affected relationships between countries, I think it’s a reasonable one. I believe we can truly make a safer and more secure world, and that working on reducing nuclear threats opens up more space to tackle the other problems. If we can keep addressing it, we can make room for collaboration and cooperation on a variety of issues that affect us all.

Photo Credit – Patrick Dover Photography

Five Minutes to Save the World

The first words you read when you enter the Nuclear Decisions game ( set the tone for what’s to follow: “You receive information that the US might be under nuclear attack. You have five minutes to ignore or respond to the threat. The clock is ticking. What do you do?” With these words, players enter the game—and get put on the clock—assuming the role of a military officer charged with determining whether nuclear-armed ballistic missiles are, or are not, heading for the US mainland. A mistake in judgment, in either direction, could be catastrophic.

Produced in partnership by the game design firm Playmatics, the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), N Square, and Public Radio International (PRI), the first “module” of the Nuclear Decisions game launched in late May 2018—the result of its own breakneck decision process. Just three weeks earlier, N Square had learned that the season finale of the CBS series Madam Secretary would feature a nuclear crisis storyline that some in the N Square community had helped bring to the show. Ideas were quickly floated for how to convert that moment into an opportunity to draw viewers and others into deeper conversation about nuclear decision-making.

“We knew that there was likely to be a cliffhanger ending, and we assumed it would be that missiles would be coming and you don’t know what will happen next,” says Nancy Gallagher, a public policy expert who heads CISSM and served as a lead author of the game. “We thought, maybe we can give people an idea of the complexities of how we could have ended up in this situation in the first place—and get them to consider what decision-making at a policy level looks like around nuclear weapons.”

Decision Game Module One:
While covering the night shift at NORAD, you receive data from U.S. early warning satellites that several ballistic missiles were just launched from locations within Russia.
Image credit – DoD

N Square quickly built a team around this idea. Playmatics founder Nick Fortugno, a fellow in the N Square Innovators Network, had a history of designing timely and serious games, including a recent experimental news game created with ProPublica exploring the experiences of asylum seekers. Gallagher, who had served as executive director of the Clinton administration’s Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Task Force, had extensive experience conducting opinion polls and simulations about global decision-making—both efforts geared at understanding and influencing public discourse around nuclear weapons. Together, and with the help of colleagues, they turned their focus to creating a game that would marry their talents and capture the Madam Secretary moment.


For Fortugno, the fact that US policy and operating procedure requires decision-makers to evaluate the verity of a possible nuclear attack within five minutes had to be central to the game. So a ticking clock became a key feature. Given their own time pressures, the team didn’t have the bandwidth to create a deeply multimedia experience—but they also didn’t want to, says Fortugno. “Multimedia wouldn’t communicate the complexity of the situation as well as text,” he says. “We wanted to overwhelm the user with information—to give them the chance to read it, but also to realize just how much information there was, and how complex and even contradictory it was, and how unsure they would feel even after taking it all in.”

In the game, players have access to factual information and advisors with different perspectives to help them navigate each decision—but that doesn’t make their task any easier. Creating that part “tapped into the experiences that I had when I was working in the State Department, trying to put myself in the shoes of multiple people with different political perspectives and think about how they would think about a given question,” says Gallagher.

Decision Game Module One:
The preliminary tracking data suggests the missiles are targeting some of the 399 ICBMs stationed at three military bases (Warren, Minot, and Malmstrom Air Force bases), which span North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and Montana. These silos are hardened to protect the missiles inside them, but could be destroyed by a direct hit.
Image credit – DoD

As the deadline approached, the game still needed a host. So the team reached out to Jodi Gersh, head of Public Radio International’s Engagement Lab and also a member of the N Square Innovators Network. Ultimately, PRI agreed to host the game, promote it on the air, and use it as a springboard for enhancing its own coverage of nuclear issues. (Case in point: this new PRI piece about the growing market for personal bunkers, hazmat suits, and emergency rations in South Korea.)

The Nuclear Decisions game launched on time in May—but that wasn’t the end of the game building. Since then, three more five-minute decision modules have been added, with two more still planned. Users play each one in succession, with the choices they make affecting how the story unfolds. Each new module explores a different facet of nuclear policy and how it might contribute to the buildup toward a crisis. “How did we end up with these really vulnerable ICBMs?” explains Gallagher. “Why is it that we don’t have many channels of communication with the Russians? And why do we have this policy that basically relies on other people believing that we’re going to incinerate millions of their civilians?”


Players may find themselves in the shoes of a member of Congress, an average voter, or others weighing dilemmas and making decisions that raise or lower the risks of nuclear war. In all cases, there are no clear-cut, easy, or right answers. “We wanted people to understand it’s not just the president who makes this one really big decision,” says Gallagher. “It’s Americans at any number of different levels, including somebody who works for the military, or somebody who works through the State Department, or civil society activists, or just regular citizens.”

Decision Game Module One:
ICBMs travel at about 15,000 mph, so one launched 6,000 miles away could hit a target within 30 minutes. Current U.S. policy and operating procedures require you to make a decision within five minutes about whether this is a real attack or a false alarm.
Image credit – Sara Santini

The citizens part is important—because actively engaging a broader public in the conversation about the challenges of nuclear decision-making is the game’s ultimate goal. “It’s easier for people to become active on climate issues because they can do concrete things to make a difference, even if it’s changing their light bulbs,” says Gallagher. “It’s harder to think about how you can give people any kind of feeling of agency around nuclear weapons.” But she does see promise in the power of games like this one to spark new public discourse. “My 12-year-old nephew played it, and it led to a conversation with him that I never would have expected about what some of the policy issues were.”

“Telling stories in new ways can itself draw people’s attention and help them absorb your message,” says Fortugno. “With this game, users are agents rather than perceivers—they have to make decisions about nuclear weapons instead of passively reading about it. That kind of agency creates understanding in a way that other things can’t.”

Play the game:


Incubating Peace

Over the past decade, the world of philanthropy has been significantly influenced—disrupted, even—by a large infusion of new money. This money is coming from new and often young philanthropists who have acquired it largely through dynamic, risk-taking entrepreneurship. These new entrants into the traditional field of charitable giving bring with them a decidedly private-sector attitude about risk and results—and a willingness to break traditions. Failure is not just OK but valued for the learning it fosters. So are partnerships with an array of institutions and people that extend beyond the world of nonprofits.

One Earth Future Foundation (OEF) embodies these dynamics. Founded by Marcel Arsenault and Cynda Collins Arsenault in 2009, OEF has a simple but audacious mission: to catalyze systems that eliminate root causes of war, effectively eliminating war as a means of resolving disputes by the year 2100. Central to OEF is its Future Labs department, where new projects and programs aimed at enhancing human collaboration in the interest of peace get developed and tested. One of these programs is the SAFE (Shared Awareness, Fusion, and Engagement) Network, which seeks to harness non-classified data analytics to reduce the risks associated with nuclear weapons. Jon Bellish, who runs OEF’s Future Labs, has been an N Square Innovators Network fellow since the network began. In this brief interview, he talks about OEF’s vision for creating structural changes in society, why he joined the Innovators Network, and why OEF has decided to help fund one of the network’s first pilot projects.

Q  What makes One Earth Future’s founder, Marcel Arsenault, different as a philanthropist?

A  Marcel is willing to be disruptive, but not for it’s own sake. Rather, he sees what he believes are missing elements to philanthropic endeavors and looks to address them. For example, he would be totally OK going to Davos and criticizing the way private philanthropy has been going about some aspect of its work. But he wouldn’t trash the whole system. Instead he’d say, “Private philanthropy is essential to our future. Here’s how we can do better.”

Q  Can you talk a bit about the SAFE Network, and why Marcel and other folks at OEF are so passionate about the program and the approach it envisions?

A  SAFE stands for Shared Awareness, Fusion, and Engagement. It is a project that will use open data from a range of sources and pair that with a network of people who can analyze it and decide if there is a risk of nuclear proliferation or crisis. If there is a crisis, an elite set of trusted third parties—international diplomats, nuclear security and operations experts, and former military leaders—will be called into action in order to deescalate tensions before it’s too late. All of these trusted third parties will have strong credibility with global leaders and a decidedly non-nationalistic role. The shared goal will be to prevent, then diminish, nuclear crisis from becoming a nuclear “use.”

We didn’t know a lot about the space when we began. But like all good designers, we don’t just dream something up ourselves and decide for everyone what they need or want. We go to the users or customers and interview them to learn what they need—and that’s what we did here. And we have the advantage of resources to bring. Ultimately, we determined that there was a potential value to deploying such a network and we have just done so. We’ll see if it gains traction.

Photo credit – One Earth Future Foundation

Q  How does OEF see changing or improving global governance for the better?

A  We are living in a new landscape. There are many more relationships today than just nation-to-nation. We see more and more relationships between cities and nations, states and nations, cities and cities, etc. Not only are the levels of engagement more diverse, but the rise of tribalism has made multilateral approaches essential, and at these different levels. OEF’s central answer to what is needed comes from what we see as the three basic ways in which humans interact. The first is hierarchies, where someone has authority or power over you and therefore can make you take certain actions. This has been the typical approach in international relations. The second is markets. Since the Industrial Revolution, markets have been a powerful tool for effecting change, essentially coercing people to do things because they see it as being in their economic self-interest.

The third, though, is networks. In a network people can be influenced to do things because they identify as part of a group. They are connected in some way, and there is a strong sense of a shared goal and therefore shared value when actions are taken. We as a society are the least good at this approach, at least when it comes to making and implementing public policy. Networks can build trust, and yet they are not yet as powerful as markets or hierarchies. But most life outside officialdom and markets is through networks.


So OEF’s approach is to increase the emphasis and value of networked coordination as part of this equation. This is a little in the weeds, but it’s really networked coordination and not networks that’s key for OEF. Some of our best work happens within institutions—helping different parts of NATO work together differently, for example. I think SAFE will do at least as much to bring networked coordination within hierarchies as it will to create new networks per se.

Getting better at this is a key part of OEF’s theory of change. For example, nuclear arms control treaties came into being in part because of a network relationship. Sure, they are managed in a hierarchical system, but presidents and their advisors are part of a small, elite network and relationships at that high level are powerful. Nobody coerced these leaders into entering the treaty. These same treaties can later fail because the network component that existed when it came into being fades when new powerful players enter the stage and wield that power in a hierarchical fashion among nations. Witness the current administration’s track record of leaving a series of treaties more for ideological reasons than efficacy. There is no network to help defend them.

Q  Are you worried about proving that the SAFE Network is a viable approach?

A  What I think OEF and N Square share is the sometimes dicey position of not having to prove something works or has market value but rather demonstrates evidence that it can. Potential donors or partners like to see something new or innovative that has enough of a test track to give confidence and therefore gains partners or donors. That being said, I don’t think private-sector approaches always map well to non-private-sector endeavors. Marcel may disagree, but I actually think there are clear limits to where the private-sector tools and sensibilities translate.

But there are funders and philanthropies that understand the parts that can translate—the Omidyars, Skoll, Marcel, Gates, Soros. We can have a much bigger part of the philanthropic world taking this approach—risk-taking for a couple of years, refining and learning for two or three more years, then going to more traditional funders to say, “We are ready, and we know this works.” If we got more serious about measurement and evaluation, we could be far more effective as a sector. Ultimately, we could solve problems in ways that governments are not allowed to because of political or institutional constraints. That is the value of philanthropic investment in networks and collaboration—bridging the gaps we see with a more holistic approach to problem-solving.

Q  How did you learn about N Square, and ultimately decide to join the Innovators Network?

A  My first interaction was with a dinner in San Francisco with folks from N Square. At that point our work in developing the SAFE Network was about eight months old. Our big question at that point was, “Will this die if no one uses it?” You guys introduced us to the team at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. They had been doing similar work using open source tools. So there seemed to be a great opportunity to learn from them and to determine if there were synergies between us. N Square was actually modeling the way OEF does things—giving some modest resources for a small group to try new stuff. The way N Square nurtured relationships and utilized talent was also something we took note of. Essentially, your approach is to test specific things in order to learn from them, and to be prepared for failure. That work, though, is what fundamentally builds a network. That was impressive to us.

Photo credit – One Earth Future Foundation

Q  OEF is going to help fund “Datayo,” one of the first projects to come out of N Square’s own version of an incubator, the Innovators Network. You were on the team that prototyped and tested the project. Why did you decide to help fund it?

A  Datayo was built on two propositions: that information about nuclear weapons is inaccessible and siloed, and that recent advances in the quality and affordability of open data present an opportunity that didn’t previously exist in the field. Datayo will be an online, collaborative data lab that complies open data and presents it in a useable form. We hope that it can improve dialogue within and across governments, add value to the private sector, and open public conversations about these weapons, both in and out of the media. We are funding it because it supports our own SAFE project. I don’t personally do a “lit review” of grant investments like a standard program officer at a foundation. I don’t need to be a subject matter expert. If regular grantmakers looked at our process, they wouldn’t see typical “rigor.” Instead, we like iteration, testing things, experimentation. This helps us learn. We start out “stupid” and become less and less stupid as we try things. Eventually, we get smart about a specific topic or technique. Then we’re ready to design and even deploy something new.


Q  What do you think the nuclear threat field will look like in 10 years, and what could the future look like if everything goes well?

A  I see two competing forces that will play out over the next 10 years. The first is rising nationalism and geopolitical competition among nuclear armed states. As we saw last year between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, these risks are real and nuclear weapons are clearly implicated. The second, countervailing force is the potential for open data to open conversations in this space. I’ve compared it in the past to the Protestant Reformation. Just as the printing press created possibilities for individuals to interpret the Bible without the intervention of the clergy, open data can allow citizens to draw their own conclusions about the costs and benefits of these weapons without the intervention of the “high priests” of nuclear weapons. If we are successful, I expect we’ll see less awe and fear on the part of citizens and more accountability for those who make decisions about the development and use of these weapons systems. That’s the future we are betting on at OEF.

Photo credit – One Earth Future Foundation

The Risk Taker

For many foundation executives, the advantage of working in philanthropy is to be able to see above the trees—to look across the field, spot trends, and identify promising new approaches. While this certainly defines Carl Robichaud’s work at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, he also likes to work down on the ground, opening pathways through uncharted terrain. A program officer for International Peace and Security at Carnegie, Carl has dedicated most of his professional life to inventing new ways to tackle the threats posed by nuclear weapons—whether it’s working to develop the next generation of experts or creating new mash-ups of funders and innovators capable of addressing these threats collectively. In this interview, one of N Square’s founding funders talks about why nuclear is his issue, his work to bring new voices and new energy to the field, and why more philanthropists should fund work on civilization-level threats.

Q  How did you get into this field?

A  It was my junior year of college at Wesleyan and I signed up for a writing course with a visiting professor named Jonathan Schell, who had written many influential pieces on nuclear threat for The New Yorker. I had no idea who he was at the time—I signed up for the course because I wanted to be a better writer. But the class opened my eyes to this invisible world of nuclear deterrence. It felt like this was a crucially important issue that no one my age was focusing on. Jonathan was kind enough to serve as the advisor for my senior thesis, which I wrote on “virtual” or “latent” nuclear weapons.

Q  What happened next?

A  After Wesleyan, I received a Thomas J. Watson fellowship to travel and study abroad. But even as I moved into other jobs and issues, something kept pulling me back to the nuclear question. I worked for the Global Security Institute for a couple years, helping them build out their San Francisco office. GSI was founded by Senator Alan Cranston, a lifelong champion of nuclear arms control. I soon realized I was out of my depth, and that I wanted to continue my education. I ended up at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, where I studied public and international affairs. I saw value in being a generalist, and I studied a variety of issues: economics, politics, military force planning. My capstone project was on rule of law in Afghanistan. I also studied program and policy design, which is something that has really come in handy as a program officer at a foundation.

From Woodrow Wilson I took a job at the Century Foundation, where I started one of the first blogs on Afghanistan and edited volumes about nuclear issues, including a collection on Iran which was, at the time, the most downloaded series the Century Foundation had produced. This was in 2005, when there was a real opportunity to lock in Iran’s nuclear program at a much lower level than it is today. We missed that opportunity in part because we took a maximalist approach that resisted accepting any level of Iranian enrichment. We know how that story has gone. Ten years later we had another chance to make the best of a tough situation. The deal negotiated under the Obama Administration was a strong one that constrained all of Iran’s paths to the bomb. We’re going to regret walking away from it.

Q  Let’s jump ahead to your time at Carnegie Corporation of New York. How did you wind up in philanthropy?

A  While I was at the Century Foundation, we were doing a lot of work with corporation grantees, and this allowed me to get to know the team at Carnegie a bit and eventually opened the door to a position there. I had been looking at careers in philanthropy, which I thought might be a better fit for my skill set and personality than academics or advocacy. To be an accomplished scholar you need to have a strong internal motivation for recognition. Working at a foundation allows you to support progress regardless of who is getting the recognition.


Q  Much of your work at Carnegie is focused on finding different ways to solve wicked problems—mainly by expanding the field of funders and practitioners committed to tackling the nuclear threat. Why is this critical?

A  The sphere of people who worry about arms control and deterrence is small. We are stuck in old, stale debates, but the world keeps moving forward. We are seeing rapid advances in processing and remote sensing and artificial intelligence. There are also new weapon systems coming online, from cyber weapons to hypersonic missiles. This poses some real challenges, as technology may compress the speed with which decisions have to be made, reduce the certainty of information, and increase the risk of accident or miscalculation. In the 21st century, the fog of war is going to roll in fast and thick, and we need to prepare for that.

But these changes also provide opportunities. Our goal as a foundation has been to bring in outside experts in partnership with those in the nuclear space to better understand the impact of these technological changes. Through this work we’ve helped elevate a cadre of young experts that is interdisciplinary and intergenerational. These are people who are asking tough questions about how cyber intersects with nuclear, and how new space capabilities intersect with nuclear risk. That’s a contribution that I hope we’ll be remembered for.

Q  You’re a founding member of the funders collaborative that created N Square. Why did you want to participate in the collaborative? What was the opportunity and what were the risks?

A  There is a lot of innovation going on within the nuclear security space, but there’s also a strong status quo bias. Organizations are stuck in their current ways of doing things. We felt there was a real opportunity with N Square to create space for risk-taking and experimentation. N Square has been a small investment relative to our overall portfolio but it has already paid dividends by giving us and our partners new tools and approaches. It has made us better and more effective grantmakers and has brought new energy and new voices to the field. Our first couple years were largely about experimentation. Today it’s much more about building and sustaining a network of innovators. We’re just entering the third year of this new strategy. It’s gone well, but the proof will be in the results.


Q  What are you learning from this work about building networks?

A  Networks can do amazing things, but they require care and feeding. It takes time to identify potential network members, and then it takes time to make the network sticky. Talented people are busy, they’re in demand, and they have diverse interests. It’s important to use and to value their time appropriately. But when you’re talking about a diffuse process like reducing nuclear risk, finding that right value proposition is a challenge. You need to design projects and engagements that they deem worthwhile—where they see the benefits and the opportunities to make a meaningful contribution. So it’s more than just about bringing people together. The other thing is the social element. People are likely to stay involved in something when they’re with people they enjoy, having experiences that enrich their lives. You can’t underestimate the human element to building networks.

Q  What are you learning from your efforts to engage other funders in this work?

A  This area of philanthropy is not for everyone. It doesn’t lend itself to metrics or to being able to identify direct impact from your funding. It’s more appropriate for funders comfortable with risk and ambiguity, who recognize that if you can change the risk factor by just 10 percent on a problem that threatens hundreds of millions of people, you’re getting a lot of leverage. One of the strongest supporters of the nuclear security field behind the scenes has been Warren Buffett, who is known for his acumen in understanding risk and identifying value. A little bit of money goes a long way in this field. And these are truly existential threats that aren’t receiving the attention they deserve from philanthropists. If you’re a philanthropist who cares about the future of humanity it makes sense to focus some attention here. Nuclear weapons are too important to leave to the experts in the deterrence community, who already think they know everything they need to know about these weapons and their impact.


Q  Why do you think it’s hard to get not just funder engagement but public engagement around nuclear issues today?

A  Psychologically it’s really hard to keep it in the forefront of our minds that we’re so close to annihilation, that we control all of this destructive power, and that we’ve delegated responsibility for it to just a few leaders. In the US, there’s one person, the president, who controls these nuclear weapons and decides whether or not they are used. That’s an uncomfortable reality, so we push it to the back of our minds. These days, when North Korea tests missiles or nuclear devices we’re reminded of the risk. When there are tensions in the Ukraine or the Baltics we’re reminded of these risks. But once the crisis is over we quickly push it to the back of our minds again.

Q  Do politics complicate this as well?

A  They do. But at the same time, nuclear policy can be resistant to political decisions. The Obama Administration came into office wanting to dramatically reduce the number of nuclear warheads in the world. But they quickly ran up against bureaucratic resistance and a very stubborn status quo. The system is strongly biased against changing any component of US nuclear posture and policy. If President Trump decided to pursue a dramatically more aggressive nuclear policy, he would run into opposition from the bureaucracy as well. And even if US politics changed and US leaders decided to go in a different direction, they can’t do that without partners in Russia or in China. President Obama and his military advisors were willing to go down to 1,000 deployed nuclear warheads, but President Putin didn’t want to, so we got stuck again. Even if you had a political movement in the US in support of sounder policies, there’s a check on that because other countries have their own political and bureaucratic constraints. So there are major obstacles to limiting the role of nuclear weapons and reducing the size of nuclear arsenals.

Q  N Square is incubating a number of projects through the Innovators Network, including the Open Intelligence Project. Can you say more about that?

A  A researcher interested in the proliferation challenge in North Korea or Iran now has access to commercial satellite imagery and algorithms that were, until very recently, the sole domain of spy agencies. And there are new open source tools coming online all the time. The Open Intelligence Project, as we are calling it right now, draws on public-private partnerships to leverage these new tools and help experts become more effective. And it has applications that go far beyond nuclear security issues. I can’t say much more at this stage, but we are very excited to see where it goes.

Q  How do you think this work can be sustained?

A  Our goal is to see these approaches to innovation embedded in core institutions within the field. It’s great to see organizations like the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the Stimson Center, or the Middlebury Institute investing in innovation and building teams that reflect a diversity of expertise. That’s the type of culture change we want to see—and that’s what would ultimately make N Square’s work sustainable. N Square was never meant to continue indefinitely. We believe that the principles that inform its work can live on through leaders in the field and through the next generation of experts, scholars, and advocates who have been introduced to this different way of thinking.

Q  What do you think the nuclear threat field will look like in 10 years? What could the future look like if everything goes well?

A  Nuclear issues are salient again because the nuclear threat has increased. The issue has once again become hard to ignore. My hope is that we can draw on this increased relevance to build a community that is creative, diverse, inclusive, innovative, and—most importantly—effective. If the field can adapt to new circumstances we can play a critical role in human safety and security.



Open Source Sleuth

If you want to know more about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, you should talk to Melissa Hanham. A senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Hanham spends her days scrutinizing open source data—from satellite images and seismic readings to social media—to uncover new details about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. And she usually finds them. Her keen sleuthing abilities have made her a leading expert on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction procurement and proliferation networks—as well as a sought-out beta tester for new technologies designed to make the previously unseen visible. And did we mention she’s only 37 years old? In this interview, Hanham, an active member of the N Square Innovators Network, talks about the nature of her work, shares her vision for every day citizens acting as nuclear threat sensors, and reveals her thoughts on the future of nuclear weapons.

Q  How do you describe what you do?

A  I usually say that I study North Korea. If people really press, then I say I study weapons of mass destruction and how they spread. And that’s much more true, because it’s a diverse network of proliferation chains all over the world that helps make North Korea’s program go.

Q  How did you get into this work?

A  When I was about nine, I was watching the news with my dad and saw the Tiananmen Square protests. I saw a man standing in front of a tank, trying to block it from moving forward. Eventually he climbed on top to stop its progress. I don’t know what happened to “tank man,” as he came to be known, but it probably wasn’t good. Anyway, my dad explained what was going on, and I remember feeling a strong sense of injustice and a desire to prevent conflict. Those feelings stuck with me.

I studied international affairs in college, then started looking for a job in conflict resolution. My mother, being one of those power mothers, wanted to help my career. She’s a really smart lady, a biologist by training, but she didn’t quite get what I was studying and what conflict resolution was. She said she knew someone who knew someone who was influential in international relations. It turned out to be Richard Perle, one of the architects of the Iraq War, sometimes known as the Prince of Darkness. I rolled my eyes at her and was like, “Um, Mom, this guy’s never going to listen to me. He’s never going to give me career advice.” But she pestered me, so I gave her my resume, which listed things like that I had a minor in “women, gender, and sexuality” and had interned for a Democratic congressman.

I never expected to hear back from him, but I did. He was very polite and very forthright, but he wasn’t encouraging. He said, “Conflict resolution has doubtful use in the real world.” I realized right then that the people I had to reach weren’t liberal hippies. The people I had to reach were the Richard Perles. And the Richard Perles of the world would never take me seriously if I focused my career on conflict resolution. I would always be in this sort of sidelined category.

Q  So what did you do next?

A  I headed to Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs to study international security with a capital S. It was there that I studied some of the most serious and I would say traditional approaches to nuclear war. I learned about Realism. I took it very seriously. After Columbia, I joined International Crisis Group, an NGO that does research on conflict situations, at their field office in Seoul and later Beijing. Living in Seoul was really interesting, because it was very close to a potential conflict. But the South Koreans are stoic; they don’t get nearly as agitated about this prospect as people do in the West.


Q  Were you there in 2006 when North Korea tested its first nuclear device?

A  Yes—and it was another turning point in my life. Our office got so many calls from the press that our phone system crashed. But I remember looking out the window at noon and seeing people streaming out of their offices to eat lunch, just as they did every day, as if nothing unusual had happened. It was surreal. In the days following, I had to write a report about the incident. I speak Mandarin, so I looked up press accounts to see the official reactions from different countries in the region. But the thing I found really, really fascinating was: what did they explode? I remember acting like a detective, taking all the little bits of open source information that were available to identify the location of the explosion, to understand previous nuclear tests, and to piece together what it was that they had exploded. I found it deeply intellectually satisfying. It’s still my favorite thing to do—puzzle together pieces of open source information in order to understand what’s happening or how something works.

Q  Open source technologies were pretty primitive back then. How much could you actually sleuth out?

A  Well, Google Earth had just become available. It was not widely known in the policy community yet but it was like magic to me. I could find where the explosion took place, and I could understand the landscape and the topography. I could also look up wind patterns. After that first explosion, a small amount of what are called radionuclides escaped the tunnel where they did the test. Over the next few days, different sensors in South Korea and the US put out little bits of information about what was released. I could look up how the US and China and Russia and India and Pakistan had done their nuclear tests and make some safe guesses. In this case, I thought it was probably some kind of gun-type implosion device, because that’s generally where most countries start. There was a big debate at the time about whether the device had fizzled. Most people just assumed that it had, but later the debate got much richer when people started considering whether North Korea had intentionally built a small warhead, and that it was always meant to be small.

Q  Would you have focused your career on North Korea had that detonation not happened?

A  I don’t know. Originally I was focused more on China. But North Korea became a niche where I could specialize and excel, so I kept going. It’s rare for me anymore to look for a secondary source. Almost everything I do is an original source, and that to me is so powerful. It’s like doing puzzles. You have to be really disciplined. You have to make sure that you’re not finding what you think you’re going to find. And then you have to know the limitations of the tools. You need to understand that there are error bars around doing something like taking a measurement from a photo when you don’t know its origin. It may have a different focal length or the image may have been doctored in Photoshop. There are lots of caveats.

Q  Nowadays, when North Korea conducts a nuclear or missile test, how do you find out about it?

A  Typically it will happen early in the morning there, which is late afternoon or early evening in California. Most of the time I find out about it on Twitter. If it’s a nuclear test, then the very first thing I look at is seismic data. Underground nuclear testing often presents just like a small earthquake. I can look at the US meteorological service, at Japanese and Korean and Chinese seismic systems, and at what the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organization puts out as well. I actually have an alert set up on my phone to let me know whenever there is an earthquake in the part of the province of North Korea where they do their nuclear testing. But I still find out on Twitter first, usually.

If it’s a missile test, I look for information about where it was launched, how far it went, and how high it went—and from there I can make a good guess about what kind of missile it was. If it’s an intermediate or intercontinental ballistic missile, we might get a good sense of the acceleration and range. Most of North Korea’s missiles are road mobile, so they can be launched from anywhere. But they have some favorite places, and we remember those places. If the missile test was successful, we’ll usually get images the next day in state media. We might see a photograph, especially if Kim Jong-un was there, and he usually is these days. Then we’ll get photographs of them preparing for the launch and doing a launch. We may even get a video.

If there are photographs, we can confirm the missile type and whether we’ve seen it before. We can take measurements inside the photographs. It’s a bit tedious, and you have to be pretty careful, because a photograph is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional thing. But at the end of the day what you’re really doing is counting pixels. We can learn the length of something or its diameter. That’s important for missiles, because it can tell us how big the engine is and how big the fuel and oxidizer tanks are, if it’s a liquid fuel missile. If it’s a solid fuel missile, it tells us how big the motor is. And, of course, we want to measure for how big the warhead is. If we have a video, then we can measure how far the missile has advanced on each frame of the video. Once I have the acceleration, we can make good guesses about the thrust.

Q  Of all the kinds of open source information available to you, what’s most useful?

A  I think of open source as any kind of information that’s not classified or secret—so, in a way, everyone in our field is doing open source research by grabbing a library book. But the tools that are making a big difference in my research are the ones that have transitioned from being only available to governments, and only certain governments, to being consumable by the public. Satellite imagery is probably the best example. It used to be that only the Soviet Union and the US had satellites that could take images of Earth from space. And now it’s not just that more countries can do it, but that companies can do it as well. It’s still expensive, but it’s much, much less expensive than it used to be. Back in the ‘90s one image would cost thousands and thousands of dollars, and now it’s hundreds and hundreds. It creates a more level playing field. And it gives academia and civil society the opportunity to analyze the narrative that is being generated—say, about whether a certain country possesses weapons of mass destruction—and to look for compelling evidence about whether it’s true. That being said, I don’t think you should ever use a single source of information. The trick is to combine many types.

Q  Countries that have or want nuclear capabilities usually have some ability and certainly a strong desire to hide their proliferation activity. How much is visible and how much isn’t?

A  A lot is visible. Nuclear weapons programs are incredibly complicated and expensive, and you can definitely hide them some of the time. But you can’t hide them all of the time and you can’t hide them from everyone. Having open source researchers not just inside intelligence agencies but also in civil society means there are more people looking, and it increases the cost of having a secret or illicit kind of program. And our ability to detect change or identify objects—which is how we find much of this activity—continues to improve. Most of the time, when I’m looking at satellite images, I’m looking to see if something has changed. Did this cooling stack have steam coming out of it, or did it stop? Did the cars move? Did the gates open and close? When we think of satellite imagery, mostly what we see is light from the sun that is reflected as red, green, or blue into our eyeballs. And we see it that way because that’s what our eyes, our sort of homemade sensors, can see. But there are many more bands of light that our eyes can’t see that still can give us important information. I can use tools to process different wavelengths of light. Near infrared light can help me see healthy vegetation. Environmental and agricultural groups have been using this information for years to understand crop health and deforestation. But its original discovery was in the military to look for camouflage or to see when a missile has burned or disrupted the vegetation.


Meanwhile, there are more sensors in the commercial sector than ever before. We are starting to get access to hyperspectral information and radar now, though it remains expensive and there are few people in the open source world trained to use it. Synthetic aperture radar from Airbus’s Terra-SAR-X sensor means I can “see” without the benefit of sunlight. Clouds, fog, and night are no longer obstacles. Occasionally we can even see through a roof. We also have the rise of constellations of sensors and video from space. Companies like Planet now take images of nearly every place on earth every single day.

We also have new tools to analyze visual data. We are starting to use machine learning to understand and detect surface to air missiles around the world, for example. As a human I can do that, and I can be very systematic. But I would still be searching slowly across terrain for the specific pattern. And every day I would have many, many more images to search through. So it’s really powerful to know that soon machine learning will help us identify more and more objects.

Q  These capabilities seem especially important in the case of North Korea, given how idiosyncratic their nuclear program is.

A  That’s one reason why North Korea continually gets underestimated. They’re not doing it the way other countries did it. We keep trying to measure them with that same ruler, and when we do that it always seems like they’re coming up short. But they’re not. They’re just doing it differently. It may not be the most efficient or accurate way of producing a nuclear weapons program, but they’re getting it done. And they’re doing it despite sanctions, despite trade interruptions, despite their ships being boarded. They are using a vast and really crafty network of individuals and front companies all over the world to get the data, the design information, and the materials they need. They’ve done such a good job that they’ve got much of the manufacturing capability in the country already at this point—and it makes sanctions and export controls even more difficult, because there’s not much left to keep out.

Q  What about all those North Korean propaganda photos? Can you “see inside” them to tell whether they’re real?

A  Part of what North Korea desperately wants is for us to believe they have these weapons as deterrents—a way to ensure we don’t attack them. We always took North Korea’s photos with a grain of salt, but we could not effectively determine all the ways their photographs might have been falsified to mislead us. Now we have access to software called Tungstene that does some of that. Essentially, it is a series of mathematical algorithms that can be run over a photo file. Some are focused on how the photo compresses or how the light or noise flows through the photo. If someone has changed parts of the photograph and not the other parts, it’ll leave some mathematical traces. The software can’t tell us what was changed or why it was changed, but it will tell us this quadrant is not the same as these other quadrants of the photo. But it’s up to a human to puzzle out what is expected noise and what was introduced through alteration.

Q  Does North Korea know about your work?

A  Yes. North Korea also has active chemical and biological weapons programs, and in 2015 I wrote about a facility called the Pyongyang Biotech Institute, which Kim Jong-un had visited. North Korea announced that it was going to make organic pesticides, but all the equipment inside was dual use: it could be used for civilian programs to make biopesticides but it could also be used to make the bacteria that causes the disease anthrax. After that, KCNA, North Korea state-run media, called me out as riffraff and a trickster. Drawing attention to that facility seemed to annoy them more than what I’ve found about their nuclear weapons. But we are on their radar. The IP addresses at Middlebury are blocked from North Korean websites, but we still find ways. We’re trying to get a handle on how often we get cyberattacks and where they’re coming from, but I am definitely feeling it. I do not believe the thing I do is secret or should be secret. But something creeping into our academic field is intimidation through cyberattack. I don’t even like talking about it because I don’t want to invite more attacks, but I suspect a lot of researchers are dealing with it—or maybe don’t even know that they are dealing with it.


Q  At CNS you work with a team, so collaboration is basically built into your job description. But what’s your read on what collaboration looks within the larger weapons research analyst world?

A  It’s tough. There is a limited amount of funding in this space. I mean, you really can’t hug what we do. Peace is warm and fuzzy. But nuclear death? Not so much. So we’re all competing for the same funding, and that breeds a kind of competitiveness that can choke collaboration. I’ve also had ideas taken, which makes me reluctant to be as public with them. But my natural inclination, my spirit, is always to collaborate. Part of the reason I like working at CNS so much is that I’m not doing this by myself. I’m doing it with more than a dozen other people who can help me, even just by letting me bounce ideas off them. And more ideas make for more complete understanding. It’s not possible for one person to understand all the interdisciplinary pieces of any one thing. Almost everyone at CNS speaks two languages, and we have regional expertise from all over the world. We also have two physicists and a biologist on staff, plus lawyers and diplomats, and I can reach out to experts on all sorts of things in order to better understand a phenomenon I’m seeing or the place I’m looking at. The only challenge is the logistics of consuming all those ideas and weighting them appropriately in order to come to an understanding.

Q  Collaboration also seems challenging in a field that has some resistance to innovation and to working in new ways.

A  Nuclear weapons were almost mythical. There are a lot of very strong feelings about them that have been engrained for decades. The old guard is not ready for new people to enter. And on some level I get that. I don’t know that I fear and respect nuclear weapons the same way that someone who grew up in the ‘50s, ‘60s, or ‘70s does. I never ducked and covered, and I never worked in a national lab. I never held a piece of plutonium. That new people are pushing their way into the field and that they may not hold the same regard for original things doesn’t sit well with everyone. But I think broadening the pool of people who work on this is always a good idea.

Q  All these technologies you’re using—and that are continuing to emerge—for detecting and monitoring nuclear weapons seem way more sophisticated than the weapons themselves.

A  Nuclear weapons are not new technology anymore. They are not cutting edge in any way. Many states keep these weapons because they feel it ensures strategic stability and the status quo. But other weapons are being developed that either reduce the ability of a nuclear weapon to carry out its mission or offer a similar level of destruction. Hypersonic weapons, biological weapons, satellites, artificial intelligence, and cyberattacks are displacing nuclear weapons as the end-all and be-all of weaponry, because they either undermine the weapon or compete with it.

Q  You train and work with a lot of Millennials. Do they bring different perspective to this work? What can we expect from this younger generation as they take on this mythical territory?

A  The biggest challenge is having them know and care about nuclear weapons. They’ve heard of them. They’ve maybe seen them in movies. They know that they make very big explosions. But what terrifies me the most is when people talk about nuclear weapons as though they were just very large conventional weapons, which they are not. The young people I come in contact with, though, are self-selecting because they’ve chosen to study this at Middlebury. They’ve already chosen to care about weapons of mass destruction. Once they recognize what nuclear weapons are and what it means to have them increase in number or spread to new countries, then you have a really powerful ally. Millennials have grown up with technology and they’re very visual, so they can learn and move through this kind of information quickly. And because they don’t have the experience or the history that older generations have with nuclear weapons, they can bring a new kind of perspective.

Q  In 2016, CNS launched Geo4Nonpro—an experiment in harnessing the wisdom of the crowd to interpret the kinds of satellite images of known or suspected WMD sites that you comb through every day. What did you find?

A  We invited experts from around the world—science and technology experts, as well as experts in certain policy areas or regions—to interpret and annotate satellite images of areas where weapons of mass destruction are to be found. What we really wanted to know was: are we missing something? Would individual experts or the crowd as a whole see things that we don’t? We also wanted to test out the feasibility of creating a public platform for WMD verification. Every month we’d post batches of images of known or suspected WMD sites that posed questions or a challenge that might be answered by a human more easily than by a machine-learning algorithm. After a year, we compared how the CNS team did relative to the experts who participated.

We found some interesting things. The experts were more interested in sites that were in the news than ones that were not. This maps to what we know about crowdsourcing, which is that people are more willing to engage with things that are both relevant and familiar. We also noticed that most of their analysis focused on identifying objects rather than figuring out their meaning. In other words, they were accurate with their pins but not deeply analytical. Right now we’re taking the lessons learned from our first year and using it to tweak our approach. I think the main takeaways are that it was a good idea, but it would be better with better design. I am really happy to be launching a 2.0 version this year. I think people will find it much easier to use, and we will start sharing more kinds of data. Stay tuned.

Q  What’s the relationship between government and civil society when it comes to detonation detecting? How does the work you do relate to or dovetail with what government analysts are interpreting and assessing? 

A  Truthfully, I don’t know. The flow of information is one way. I am a Canadian citizen, and I can’t just call up a US intelligence agency and ask. But I do see some ways that civil society can be really useful. Having an open source debate in civil society can test out hypotheses and introduce new perspectives. I will never have the same exquisite capabilities or sheer number of resources of a government, but I can work nimbly and collaborate comparatively easily. Intelligence work is very interdisciplinary. Sometimes I need access to a physicist, a truck driver, a sheep herder—and the connected nature of social media means I can get their perspective. Breaking down silos of information can be really helpful. Open source research is available to the public and to governments, so it can be tested and shared across borders.

There are ethical considerations that we are still navigating. I hope that I never inadvertently harm someone by publishing my results. I hope that I never help North Korea troubleshoot a missile. These are things I worry about. Government analysts are tightly regulated. We are not. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with this research but it is not codified yet.

To me the most powerful part of open source is that you can create a more informed citizenry. Everyone has a stake in this. Nuclear war can be an extinction-level event. If this work gets done in the posts of Reddit or on the fringes of book clubs, so be it. You don’t like my data? You don’t trust my methods? Then show me your work. Let’s figure it out together. We’re no longer in a world where this gets decided in whispers and top secret documents, and we need all the help we can get. Maybe a skeptic will use some of the free software I use to verify what I’ve done to see if I make sense or not. I hope so. It’s better for everyone.


Q  You’ve spoken before about a future in which not just experts but regular citizens act almost as nuclear threat sensors, contributing in their own ways to what we know about the presence and even the intention around nuclear weapons. How do we get there?

A  I think we grow the existing capacity. If we start, at a very young age, cultivating critical thinking skills and a desire to learn and grow and meet others and accept that two pieces of information can coexist or that people can disagree, I think we can make a really powerful human sensor network. We’re used to relying on information to come from above, and then for us to learn it. But the way we acquire information is changing. It’s becoming much more dispersed. It’s not vetted by an editorial board or an elected official or a declassified intelligence brief. All of these primary sources—in the form of pictures and text and satellite images and video—are coming to us directly. But we need the critical thinking skills and the background information to understand what we’re seeing and to make sense of it. It can be really powerful to have hundreds, thousands, millions, or even billions of people looking at a problem together. We’re already seeing that in biology. But it will only work if we have the skills to do it together and the trust in one another.

Q  What’s your plausible best-case scenario for North Korea?

A  That the US and North Korea deter each other in the short term. There will be a period of very tense standoffs. But over time—unfortunately, a great deal of time—we will be able to negotiate a peaceful disarmament and resolution of the standoff. I don’t think nondemocratic societies can last forever, but North Korea has lasted far longer than anyone expected. I think in time that trade, culture, and exposure to the outside world will be pacifying, and that there is a place for North Korea in the world, maybe even as a unified Korea. But none of that will happen at the barrel of a gun. The most dangerous scenarios—a sudden collapse, a nuclear explosion, a misunderstanding or accident—those are the kinds of things that may happen if we push too hard too fast.

Q  Do you think the world will ever be rid of nuclear weapons?

A  My personal opinion is that nuclear weapons have outlived their utility and they are now more dangerous than they are useful. Keeping them safe and secure is enormously expensive, and their capabilities do not match national security goals anymore. I think probably we will be able to disarm. But there will always be a group that wants to have a nuclear weapon and we cannot erase the technology. And because we cannot unlearn it, we’re going to have to get ready for very complex and very difficult monitoring and verification environments. So, I think disarmament is possible—but not soon, unfortunately. I think I’m going to spend my entire life trying to come up with verification and monitoring capabilities so that eventually we can get to a place where states will agree to disarm and go to zero—and then remain at zero.