"If I had to get a new Ph.D. now, I'd get it in polymer engineering - the manipulation of matter."
At this point in the novel, many people fear contagion. For this reason, machines that make use of face recognition biometrics are used in place of human beings; the automated sentry is a biometric identification system. Ironically, face recognition is probably the oldest means that humans have of recognizing each other.
This is one of many places in the book where machines are used to sense danger. In a way, the automated Sentry is an analogy to the biological laboratory devices used in the story. The fact that "normal" people use mechanical devices to sense what other people are, and where danger is, forms an interesting counterpoint to the "virus children", who use their own capabilities to judge others.
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