Smart weapons for civil conflicts

Is technology too important to be left to the engineers?

I have long thought so, and was reminded of that when I read a profile, in today’s NYT, of a software engineer who has become rich by creating various data-mining apps:

AT 7 years old, Gilad Elbaz wrote, “I want to be a rich mathematician and very smart.” That, he figured, would help him “discover things like time machines, robots and machines that can answer any question.”

In the 34 years since, Mr. Elbaz has accomplished big chunks of these goals. He has built Web-traversing software robots and answered some very big questions for Google, along the way becoming a millionaire several hundred times over.

His time-machine plans, however, have been ditched for something he finds more important: trying to identify every fact in the world, and to hold them all in a company he calls Factual.

“The world is one big data problem,” Mr. Elbaz says…

I guess that people who read (or write) such profiles tend to admire their tech-geek subjects — principally for their wealth and prominence, although the tech geeks themselves, like artists, tend to admire the aesthetic qualities of their own inventions, as well as their ability to surmount technical challenges and “change the world.”

I, however, read such a profile and think: This man is not to be admired; his inventions help businesses and governments to control people; and the fact that he sees the world merely as “one big data problem” shows that (among other things) he cannot be trusted to calculate the real social effects of what he does.

The older and grayer and more curmudgeonly I get, the more pessimistic I am about all these tech geeks. They want fame and fortune, and to get it without guilt they seem to become willfully clueless about their adverse impacts. I certainly don’t buy the “invisible hand” argument that their individual strivings for wealth or tech-geek fame bring long-term benefits to society; mostly (think: Angry Birds) they seem to just soak up other people’s time and health and money.

To me the only good news from the geek world nowadays comes when they develop technologies that can counter or thwart the effects of corporate/government tech. Increasingly I find myself putting new technologies into one or the other of these two categories: Authoritech and Libertech, I call them – although I suppose a government-biased labeling would be something like Libertech and Terrortech.


Tap-apps: As you become more and more tightly wired into Internet/telecom networks, government (which has almost complete access to all these networks) becomes more and more able to track your writings, purchases, locations — even thoughts, for most people’s Google histories record in near-real-time what’s been on their minds. Sophisticated data-mining apps (related to what Elbaz has done) are an important part of all this, but arguably the greater “weapon” here is the easy physical access to the vast world of stuff that can be mined.

Quantum decryption: If spy agencies don’t yet have working quantum computers for cryptanalysis, they surely will have them soon. A quantum computer could make brute-force type code-breaking quick and easy.

Microbots: Isn’t it cool that engineers can make birdlike or even insectoid robots that can maneuver in tight indoor spaces? Certainly these things could be extremely useful in battlefield and crime/hostage situations (if anyone can figure out how to make them flyable by lightly trained personnel). They’ll have the power to get very close to “bad guys” without alerting them, in order to send back intel and/or serve as homing beacons for incoming missiles. Obviously, governments that are already authoritarian will use these things more widely, i.e., against their own civilians (and I suspect that American robotics companies will be only too happy to serve as suppliers to such governments). But even in the USA, the law enforcement and antiterror folks probably will find excuses to use them just about everywhere.

Orbiting drones: Drones that fly above small-arms range, and maybe stay aloft 24/7 with solar power and batteries, will have a similar “eye of Sauron” effect. The government will argue that this makes towns safer – “it’s for your own protection” – and I’m sure that many people will go along with that. But there’s a more subtle threat from all these authoritech devices: If you know that government officials have – or could have; you can’t be sure – lots and lots of information about you, you might think twice before saying or writing anything negative about them. Authoritech drones also won’t necessarily be limited to using visual cameras. Thermal IR and radar would give their users the ability to “see” into buildings. In principle, combining data feeds from two or more of these could give a user a real-time 3D image of you, in the “privacy” of your home, doing … whatever it is that you’re doing on the couch there with your secretary, while your wife is away visiting her parents in Tucson. Incidentally, there is a recent legal provision that allows private individuals to operate their own small drones, but I suspect that once the gossip industry starts using these devices to spy on Hollywood celebs, that privilege will be snuffed out.

Thought-readers. Researchers have been using functional MRI for years to try to “see” what the brain is thinking, and they’ve had some significant successes. I guess that at some point there’ll be technologies to enable this sort of neural eavesdropping without the need for huge MRI magnets.

Face readers: AI systems that can recognize human faces — about as well as we humans do it — are here. And they can reside in server farms while a vast network of cameras, including airborne cameras from spy drones, feeds them raw data. Unless you are disguised, your presence within range of such cameras won’t remain a secret. Welcome to the real “global village” in which everyone knows what you’re doing (oh that’s right, you already told them on Twitter anyway).

Pain rays: By now the wonderfully named “Active Denial System” is almost a has-been technology. It was developed over a decade ago, as a truck-mounted microwave transmitter whose beam is tuned to heat molecules commonly found in your skin. Unlike a microwave oven it uses a frequency that penetrates only the outer skin layers, but if for some reason you couldn’t escape it, you could get burned horribly, even fatally. I’m sure that military-tech geeks will come up with better stuff in the future, but this already seems pretty effective for crowd control type applications – or, hypothetically, as a torture device. It’s been deployed in Afghanistan for the past two years, and American police forces (of course) now want to use it too, with more portable transmitters.


Hack-tech: Would-be rebels and other dissidents don’t have the same physical access to networks as governments do. Some groups (e.g., Wikileaks) get access via sympathetic parties inside government. My guess, though, is that hacking technology will become increasingly important; and I imagine that it won’t simply operate through the web. Hack-tech will include physical devices – information parasites – that attach to free-roaming robots and AI systems, defeat their security measures, and extract data or otherwise subvert them.

Quantum key distribution: This is a technique that, in principle, allows a sender and receiver to exchange decoding keys, in a way that would reveal any third-party intercept of the key.

Covert communications: Devices to transmit/receive data that’s not just encrypted but is also undetectable by normal eavesdropping methods. I’m not an expert in this area at all, but I imagine systems that attempt to hide optical or acoustic or radio-frequency signals in the ordinary background “noise” of urban or maybe even rural settings.

Dispos-a-bots: Walking and flying robots sold for housekeeping, home-care or recreational use will presumably be “modified” for untraceable use in thefts, assassinations, covert placements of listening devices, hijackings, bombings, etc. – by insurgents as well as for-profit crime gangs.

Counterbots: Bots designed to seek and destroy authoritech bots. I imagine big-beaked pelican-like birdbots that gobble up government insectoid spybots.

Spoofsuits: High tech optical/microwave cloaking that makes people and vehicles invisible to all but the most sensitive multispectral sensors.