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We Enter the Age of Cyborg Insects, Robo-Rats

18th February 2013

Remember this?

... let's also agree that we are at a technological and civilisational turning-point.

For now these high-precision UAV/drones and their supporting networks are still controlled by a handful of states. Good. But the technology will leak and get cheaper and better. Not so good.

In due course the terrorists themselves will get their hands on the kit that allows them to launch remote micro-attacks against us.

These days we can just about stop the IRA lobbing a mortar bomb into the garden of No 10 Downing St. How do we plan to stop a terrorist drone the size of a small soup-plate armed with a lethal poison dart wafting quietly over St James's Park and hovering in the trees near the Trooping of the Colour, waiting to zoom down using its face recognition technology and stab King William as he takes the Royal Salute? Or a flock of them zig-zagging over London, nipping to and fro and bumping off random civilians?

Things are going to change a bit.

Here are two more fascinating and chilling pieces about this technology.

The first looks at the intellectual and commercial momentum behind development in this sector:

At least 50 other countries have drones, and some, notably China, Israel, and Iran, have their own manufacturers. Aviation firms—as well as university and government researchers—are designing a flock of next-generation aircraft, ranging in size from robotic moths and hummingbirds to Boeing’s Phantom Eye, a hydrogen-fueled behemoth with a 150-foot wingspan that can cruise at 65,000 feet for up to four days.

More than a thousand companies, from tiny start-ups like Miser’s to major defense contractors, are now in the drone business—and some are trying to steer drones into the civilian world. Predators already help Customs and Border Protection agents spot smugglers and illegal immigrants sneaking into the U.S. NASA-operated Global Hawks record atmospheric data and peer into hurricanes. Drones have helped scientists gather data on volcanoes in Costa Rica, archaeological sites in Russia and Peru, and flooding in North Dakota.

So far only a dozen police departments, including ones in Miami and Seattle, have applied to the FAA for permits to fly drones. But drone advocates—who generally prefer the term UAV, for unmanned aerial vehicle—say all 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are potential customers. They hope UAVs will soon become essential too for agriculture (checking and spraying crops, finding lost cattle), journalism (scoping out public events or celebrity backyards), weather forecasting, traffic control. “The sky’s the limit, pun intended,” says Bill Borgia, an engineer at Lockheed Martin. “Once we get UAVs in the hands of potential users, they’ll think of lots of cool applications.”

... The Air Force has nonetheless already constructed a “micro-aviary” at Wright-Patterson for flight-testing small drones. It’s a cavernous chamber—35 feet high and covering almost 4,000 square feet—with padded walls. Micro-aviary researchers, much of whose work is classified, decline to let me witness a flight test. But they do show me an animated video starring micro-UAVs that resemble winged, multi-legged bugs. The drones swarm through alleys, crawl across windowsills, and perch on power lines. One of them sneaks up on a scowling man holding a gun and shoots him in the head. The video concludes, “Unobtrusive, pervasive, lethal: micro air vehicles.”

But mechanical drones are already so yesterday. #Yawn.

Why not go for real flying cyborg-bugs, live insects attached to micro-technological marvels that allow the bugs to be steered remotely?

One of Maharbiz's students called up their custom-designed "Beetle Commander" software on a laptop. He issued the signal. The insect's wings began to flap. The empty white room the researchers used as an airfield filled with a buzzing sound, and the bug took flight. The beetle flew on its own – it didn't need any further direction from human operators to stay airborne – but as it cruised across the room, the researchers overlaid their own commands. They pinged the basalar muscles, prompting the beetle to weave back and forth through the room, as if flying through an invisible maze...

Imagine, Maharbiz tells me, an army of beetlebots, steered to the scene of an earthquake. The bugs could be outfitted with temperature sensors, guided through rubble and programmed to send messages back to search teams if they detect any objects that are close to human body temperature; rescuers would then know exactly where to search for survivors. Whatever the application, future insect commanders will have options that go beyond beetles. Maharbiz is working on a remote-controlled fly, which he anticipates being especially difficult to build. "The fly is so small and the muscles are so packed and everything's so tiny," he says.

Then there's the robo-rat:

As a demonstration, the researchers simulated the kind of search-and-rescue task a robo-rat might be asked to perform in the real world. They rubbed tissues against their forearms and taught the rodents to identify this human odour. They constructed a small Plexiglas arena, filled it with a thick layer of sawdust and buried human-scented tissues inside. When they released the robo-rats into the arena, the animals tracked down the tissues in less than a minute.

The scientists also discovered that the rats that received MFB rewards found the target odours faster and dug for them more energetically than rodents that had been trained with conventional food rewards. As Hermer-Vazquez recalls: "The robo-rats were incredibly motivated and very accurate."

Read them both. And be staggered.

I am helping work up some ideas for a speech on human rights. These developments have so many game-changing ramifications for privacy, control, transparency, security and the rest that it is tempting to say that we as a species are entering totally uncharted territory.

Every norm or principle laid down in all the UN and other human rights charters for the past 100 years plus rests upon unstated assumptions about how things work. These assumptions were unstated because everyone agreed that certain practical limits actually applied.

The idea that a cyborg-bug equipped with a poisonous dart might zig-zag down any street in the world threatening to kill a political leader or foment mass terror in a skyscraper by flying through an open window or crawling through an air vent was literally unthinkable.It could never happen. No rules needed to be contemplated for this situation, as it could not exist.

Yet it's now happening. These technologies now exist. And will get cheaper and more widespread in leaps and bounds.

A crazy regulatory arms-race between the state and crowd-sourced inventors and technologists will not solve the problem - the state will always lag behind the technical possibilities.

How does one begin to work out how a world like this will function, when every operational assumption about security and privacy risk management (and thus the intellectual foundation for all our human rights) collapses almost overnight?

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