WASHINGTON. — Now that high-tech weapons have helped solve a tough international problem, perhaps we can put even higher technology to work on more urgent domestic crises. The world looked on as smart bombs zapped the Iraqis, but scientific secrecy and modesty may make discretion more appropriate in some situations here at home.
I have been reading about what the scientists call ''virtual reality.''
Using computers, they can persuade a person's senses of sight, sound and touch that he or she is actually experiencing things that are only simulated. Computer graphics help surround the subject with an artificial world, so close to the real thing that it sets off voluntary and involuntary human responses.
Specialists in the field met in Seattle the other day and swapped ideas about the commercial possibilities of being able to see, hear and touch things that are not really there.
They talked about airplane design, for example. By wearing special gloves and goggles, a person can seem to be inside an aircraft cabin. By moving his finger, he can reconfigure the plane, enter the cockpit, sit in the pilot's seat and fly.
Air-traffic controllers could use similar goggles and gloves to manage busy airlanes. The controller would seem to be in the three-dimensional sky with the planes, making electronic contact by touching a simulated plane and directing it by simply pointing.
One program called ''Virtual Seattle'' makes the user think he is flying over the city. It also can give him the sensation of diving into Puget Sound and swimming alongside a killer whale.
The potential for military and civilian training in almost any field is enormous. The billions that may await the entertainment industry are beyond calculation. Some projected uses, like air-traffic control, promise more than merely improved ways of making profits. Others may have serious social impact.
Apparently the Seattle seminar did not go into the most personal possibilities envisioned for ''virtual reality,'' at least not in public sessions. But one aspect called force feedback carries immense promise for heightening the private sense of touch. The computer can guide a machine to offer just the degree of resistance a situation would offer in nature. It is so sensitive it can communicate the rough or smooth texture of a surface.
Force feedback is expected to help experienced surgeons guide the hands of students, among other things. And Milton Wolf, of the University of Nevada at Reno, predicts even more sensational sensations. By the end of the century, he says, computer sex will be with us.
Omni magazine reports that ''People will hook themselves up to a program similar to a flight simulator, call up their favorite sexual partner, establish their fantasy, and . . . '' Users will get feedback, it says, from ''biosensors attached to . . . resulting finally in . . .''
Mr. Wolf is quoted as saying, ''The evolution of man is going to be for many of us a relationship with our machinery that is extremely intimate.''
I can hear the outcry now from guardians of public morals, rushing to rewrite their bylaws, trying to keep up with the march of science. One of the questions sure to be asked is what possible public value such an advance could have.
While pondering this issue raised by Omni, I was browsing through the February Scientific American, a more serious magazine which has an infinitely more serious article about sex in the modern world.
In its usual detailed way, Sci Am reports that the spread of AIDS has been accompanied by a new epidemic of what we might call the classic sexually transmitted diseases.
Much of this is linked to the swapping of sex for drugs in urban slums, say the authors. Medical efforts to combat the problem are not enough, say the authors: ''they must be coupled with the identification and correction of the societal factors responsible for the global pandemic.''
The link between these two articles is remote and probably fantastic, but it was immediately obvious. I try not to seem flippant about anything so deadly, and I realize all the computers in the country cannot cure the human weakness that underlies drug addiction. Nevertheless I mention the two together, as if floating down a stream of consciousness on a psychiatrist's couch, because science has done so many clearly impossible things so fast.
In my children's lifetimes, we have learned to look into men's brains by magnetic resonance imaging, to use lasers for surgery without incision, to cure diseases that were unnamed a generation ago. ''Virtual reality'' seems far-fetched, but so did the 21st century, not long ago.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.