Sunday, September 2, 2012

Tiny robot assassins

You are taking a shower and see a spider.  Which of the following is it:

  1. A real spider.
  2. A robot spider sent over to get naked pictures of you - and maybe went to the wrong address.
  3. An assassin spider sent out by an enemy (ex-spouse, business rival, et cetera)
This is the scenario being laid out, by Gabriella Blum a the Hoover Institute.

Invisible Threats
Gabriella Blum, Hoover Institute, August 2012 (hat tip: MR)
This is the future. According to some uncertain estimates, insect-sized drone s willbecome operational by 2030. These drones will be able to not only conduct surveillance, but to act on it with lethal effect. Over time, it is likely that miniaturized weapons platforms will evolve to be able to carry not merely the quantum of lethal material needed to execute individuals, but also weapons of mass destruction sufficient to kill thousands. Political scientist James Fearon has even speculated that at some more distant point in time, individuals will be able to carry something akin to a nuclear device in their pockets.
Assessing the full potential of technology as it expands (and shrinks) requires a scientific expertise beyond my ken. The spider in the shower is merely an inkling of what probably lies in store. But even a cursory glance at ongoing projects tells us that the mind-bending speed at which robotics and nanobotics are developing means that a whole range of weapons is growing smaller, cheaper, and easier to produce, operate, and deploy from great distances. If the mis-en-scene above seems unduly alarmist or too futuristic, consider the following: Drones the size of a cereal box are already widely available, can be controlled by an untrained user with an iPhone, cost roughly $300, and come equipped with cameras. Palm-sized drones are commercially available as toys (such as the Hexbug), although they are not quite insect-sized and their sensory input is limited to primitive perception of light and sound.
My son has more than a few hex bugs.  They are a neighborhood favorite as they seem to expand their interest out to a wide range of age groups.  They are not yet as dangerous to the unaware as Legos.
The spying part of the deal of course could be troublesome.  But truthfully, most of us on the Internet are already being spied on to a large degree, it is just that most people are not that interested in our individual behavior except as it determines our buying behaviour. 
As for the lethal side of the issue, I think the author make as a fine point.
While many kinetic weapons are relatively cheap and easy to make, the weapons that  allow for long-range strikes—airplanes, missiles, and the like—are neither cheap nor easily obtainable, and are therefore limited to developed states’ arsenals. Developing states and non-state armed groups often have access only to mortar rounds, anti-aircraft, anti-tank, and other short- and medium-range rockets. Few armed groups have access to longer-range munitions, and none that I know of has its own aircraft. True, it is already possible to fly an airplane into a building; but it is hard to do it repeatedly, especially from outside the state’s boundaries.
As  a device to kill your neighbor, I doubt they are that much less traceable than a handgun.  As a device to kill large groups of innocent people they have some potential.
Robot lego- a painful combination - now we just need to make it smaller (from here)


PioneerPreppy said...

Ahhhh "Screamers" in the making eh?

russell1200 said...

Pioneer: Yes, it I understand what you mean by a "screamer".