The clip below may look like a trailer for the new Call of Duty video
game, but it’s not. It’s a powerful promotion by the U.S. Army
demonstrating their Future Combat Systems network, a
collection of troops, robots, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and
satellite-guided visualization systems all linked in real-time. The
video presents an impressive war scenario that really gets the
juices flowing (great for recruitment, annoying to pacifists), but
also serves as a great vision of what’s about to be possible on and
off the battlefield in the very near-future.
The interactive real-time, super-detailed graphical interfaces
of combat zones are nothing short of amazing and remind me of many
of the video games that I’ve played. When implemented, it’s obvious
that such systems will provide U.S. troops with an edge over
virtually any conceivable opponent (which is why they’ve been made
public, I’m sure). The coordination capabilities such a system
affords are formidable, resulting in battlefield optimization that
truly will save many lives while more effectively taking
Last night on CBS’ 60 Minutes Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Bob Woodward cryptically let it be known that much of the recent U.S. success, or lack of failure, in Iraq should be attributed to a “new operational capability” that enables the identification and monitoring of enemy leaders of various ranks and affiliations. Woodward likened this breakthrough to the advent of the tank, which transformed war as it was deployed.
Check out the video for yourself, and please pardon the ad:
As one of the guys who broke Watergate, Woodward’s credibility is impeccable. He cites conversations with members of the Joint Chiefs and President George Bush himself as sources, but does not describe further what this new operational capacity might be.
So, if indeed this is not disinformation, what might this futuristic technology consist of? Super-fine satellite imaging? Microscopic aerial “bugs”? Micro-seismic audio sensing? An aerial drone sensor net? A new laser array?
Let’s hear your best guesses futurists. That is, unless you are actually in the loop, in which case please don’t spill the beans here…
I can feel my relationship with nature changing. The other day a big ass bumble bee was hovering around my face for a prolonged period of time. I mean we were having a stare down. I’m relatively sure that it was a real bee, but it spent an unusual amount of time right in my face – flew away and then back several times. It felt like there was some intelligence and intention behind it’s activities. Like it was gathering information.
Now before you label me as paranoid (at least wait until the end of the post), consider all of the increased surveillance activity that we know is going on and think about what we might not (take Bob Woodward’s cryptic interview reference from last week as an example).
Advances in robotics, miniturization and cost reduction in video cameras are transforming the economics and viability of surveillance. The increasing number and granularity of commercial satellite technology platforms, aerial drones, advances in facial recognition and image processing are increasingly enabling visual quantification of everything that happens in outdoor space. This is a trend that will only accelerate, driven primarily by security threats and the increase in destructive capabilities of small groups of people and individuals.
For large metropolitan cities, there really is no choice in the matter. London has already embraced extensive monitoring of public spaces and New York City has undertaken an ambitious project which includes the Ring of Steel. Though interfaces like Google Maps and Google Street View are currently static, they will eventually become real-time as the world moves towards becoming an unscripted 24-7 reality tv program.
So how do I know if that bee was real or surveillance. Well, short of swatting it and finding out for sure, I don’t. But I do believe that pretty soon these will be just another weapon in an increasingly large arsenal of behavior mapping and large scale societal surveillance.
At present, the United States government spends hundreds of billions of dollars in an effort to keep this country safe at home and defeat its enemies abroad. Much of the money is well spent but, often, I can’t help but feel we are wasting precious resources fighting “the last war.” As I argued in this piece a few weeks ago, we should instead be “studying the first six months of the next war.”
To end this end, I’d like to introduce you to a revolutionary new technology which could, in the words of the chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force, be a real “game-changer.” The Air Force calls the technology Micro Air Vehicles (or MAVs) and they are small, robotic drones (roughly the size of small birds) that could conceivably follow a terrorist back into a cave in Afghanistan and eliminate him.
The Economist reports that a Humvee-mounted laser is already being used in Iraq to detonate roadside bombs which have plagued the military over the years. And yes, it’s named after the Greek God of lightening.
The Zeus laser (I am inclined to say cannon for all you Final Fantasy fans out there) possesses a range of 300 meters (just shy of 1,000 feet) and has been successfully used in Iraq. Although they only possess one Humvee equipped with the laser, plans are in effect to make more.
Why is the military laser-crazy?
Lasers are the dream weapon for the military. You can fire them from incredible distances with pinpoint accuracy and have the potential to be a game-changer in any battle. Advanced lasers could be used to detonate RPGs or missiles before they get to the target, they can punch through walls, and could potentially blow up ICBMs before they get too far off the ground (Reagan’s infamous Star Wars plan). There’s no ammunition concerns, just power, and despite being totally un-serviceable in the field, the lack of moving parts makes the possibility of breaking very slim.
The US Navy recently spent 7.5 million dollars on developing an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) generator. The by-product of a nuclear blast, an EMP fries anything electronic within its reach. In a worse-case scenario, a massive nuclear bomb could be detonated over the Atlantic seaboard, knocking out electricity in cities like New York, Washington DC, Boston and Philadelphia. This could be used as a pre-emptive strike for an invasion, to blind radar to incoming missiles or for some other nefarious purpose. Knocking out electronics for a few weeks might just be enough to send our culture into complete chaos. In effect, we’re hard at work building such a weapon to test its effects on potential military and civilian targets so as to better prepare in case of attack.
Our culture has become incredibly dependent on electronic gadgets and information networks. Land-lines have been replaced by cellphones, the postal system by email and social network websites. Is there any doubt that even just ten years down the line our dependence will grow even more? Our reliance on electronics certainly isn’t going to diminish, it’s going to increase exponentially. With that in mind, how much damage could an EMP do in the near future?
If there’s one thing a science fiction movie will guarantee you, it’s that friendly looking robots will be friendly, and evil looking robots will kill you. As we get closer and closer to an age where robots take a more important role in our lives in both the civilian and military sense, I somehow doubt the builders of military robots will follow the unspoken laws of mass storytelling. With international PR increasingly becoming more important, will military robots all be made to look like death-machines? Or will they take on a more harmless look of, let’s say, Pound Puppies?
Although the image of an army of killer puppy robots equipped with the latest artillery might cause one to smirk, it may not be too far off. Friendly-looking robots, much like friendly-looking humans, are more likely to be perceived as harmless than your standard military death-machine. WALL-E, armed with fifty pounds of C-4, can get places where the army’s latest killer robot couldn’t.
With robots continually achieving a more human look, it would make sense for the military to eventually design robots that like children instead of Terminator’s famed T-101 cyborg. And with robotics jumping in leaps and bounds all the time, suicide-ready humanoid robots are that much closer to reality.
Even if a rocket-laden robot tank could strike a lot of fear into an enemy, friendly looking robots have a greater chance of avoiding attacks as well as slipping into enemy lines. Face it, Skynet went wrong in making Arnold their model of robot — it should have been puppies.
A general returning from the Russian battlefront has overthrown the U.S. government and is calling herself dictator for life. Democracy has been crushed beneath the weight of America’s military engine. In every major city the National Guard has assumed control, weeded out dissenters, and executed former public officials. You, having seen Red Dawn over fifty times, grab a gang of friends and escape into the forest with a vast array of munitions you had stashed in case of such an emergency. Your rebel group sets up camp in a cave where you plan to organize your resistance and hopefully assist in overthrowing the martial government. You post lookouts and spend time working on a sweet patch for your team jackets.
Then an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flies overhead, locates your entire group via infrared sensors and blows you all to Kingdom Come.
This is not a totally implausible future scenario. If military advancements in technology continue to get better, which it will, what hope does armed citizenry have against advanced weapons systems and automated robotic armies?
In a famous essay titled What Good Can a Handgun Do Against an Army? written by Mike Vanderboegh of the Alabama Militia, he decries that although military technology is advancing, a simple pistol can make all the difference. His theory, much like the movie Red Dawn, is that with a pistol you can kill your way to better weaponry. Killing one soldier with a pistol will get you a rifle or “perhaps you get very lucky and pickup a light machine gun, two boxes of ammunition and a haversack of hand grenades.” From there you could use the grenades to attack larger targets which yield even more supplies. A pistol will get you a rifle, a rifle will get you a machine gun, and so on until you eventually start capturing tanks, constantly upgrading your way through the enemy.
The Army recently awarded a team of UC Irvine researchers a $4 million dollar grant to study the foundations of synthetic telepathy, a new practice that monitors brain patterns and mental images via a central computer which then deciphers the information, transforming it into actual machine-readable data. In other words, your thoughts would be captured and translated by the computer which, much like Twitter, would then distribute them to others you’re wishing to contact.
The practical implications of this technology, when fully operational, are amazing, as are the military applications. When it comes to war, one of the few constants throughout the centuries, be it in Roman times or even today, is the lack of quick and reliable communication. Effectively deployed synthetic telepathy would basically eliminate the inefficiencies of communication in the field. Any army in possession of this kind of technology would enjoy a tremendous advantage.
Commanders in the field would be able to look at a map, decide which units should be deployed where, what their function would be, and instantaneously send messages to relevant sub-commanders or even individual soldiers with their orders. Instant responses from teams in the field reporting locations of mine fields, mobilizing enemy forces, or potential weak positioning points would afford any commander equipped to receive and process this information in real-time such a strategic advantage that opposing them would seem almost futile.
We’ve seen some amazing robots recently. There’s the robotic tuna fish that will hopefully revolutionize the submarine world, there’s the super-realistic cod developed in Japan which still creeps me out, and of course let’s not forget the giant robotic spider that made Liverpool it’s home until it was herded into a tunnel by flamethrowers, hopefully never to be seen again (that thing still gives me nightmares).
The idea that these robots could be used by the military is very realistic. And while robotic fish are a great choice (imagine thousands of silent torpedoes, swimming around the ocean, looking for enemy ships), a giant spider might not be such a great choice. It’s an easy target, doesn’t hide very well, and despite the terror of facing one, you could outrun it easily.
So what things in the world should the military imitate in their desire for the perfect robotic weapon?
Children:My personal favorite. The idea that a simple child could be a deadly robot just makes so much sense to me. I mean, why would you think that five year old huddled in the corner in fear is actually programmed to rip your throat out?
Hornets: Already feared by all, the technology involved in making a hornet capable of delivering a poison sting, or possibly performing recon on enemy sites is too great to pass up. You could let a million of them loose on the countryside, spanning entire continents, looking for any sign of enemy activity (or even spying on other countries in peacetime).
Bats: It’s been tried before in World War II with live bats strapped to bombs (it didn’t work, go figure), but robotic bats would be stealthy and unnoticed. Their primary use would be night surveillance since any other creature flying around at night would be incredibly suspicious. On top of that, they could roost during the day, recharging their batteries with the Sun.
Snakes: Snakes are stealthy, can move efficiently on the ground, and have incredible senses. Now this could mean you could use it for surveillance, crossing a mine field,even silently taking out guards. Don’t forget there are sea snakes too. The only problem you’d run into is if you tried to invade Ireland, whoops.
Shane McGlaun over at DailyTech reports that US government officials are looking into a space-based method of transporting small groups of troops anywhere in the globe within two hours. “The goal of the program is to be able to insert a team of 13 soldiers anywhere on the globe in two hours.” Although many have described this as plain fantasy, the surprising thing is that officials are looking to start a program such as this as early as 2019, giving actual implementation a start date of 2030. (Check out the original doc here)
Is this a viable option?
It would be pretty handy to have ground forces anywhere you need them in just a few hours. The second an Embassy came under attack or an invasion of a friendly country started, a unit of special forces would be there to help keep a lid on things in the knick of time. And if you think a force of only thirteen wouldn’t be able to do much, you might want to check out some of the latest stuff the military is working on for the future.
The US Military is currently trying to obtain bat-sized drones capable of finding enemy combatants in rough terrain like tight streets or valleys. “Aurora Flight Sciences plans to demonstrate a vision-based guidance system that combines optical and sonar sensors and allows a micro air vehicle (MAV) to navigate through a cluttered urban environment.” Their goal over the next few years is to make it small enough (able to be stored in a 6 inch tube) so that soldiers can carry them around with them, able to deploy them whenever needed at the drop of a hat.
If you’re one of the two people who didn’t manage to see Dark Knight this year, you’re going to have a hard time conceptualizing what the display might look like. (Since we can’t display Dark Knight video without getting sued, here’s the next best thing I could find, go to the 1:00 minute mark)
As with all military technology, you wonder if there will be local uses for such a technology. Being able to tell exactly where in the room a hostage-taker is, searching for lost hikers in the wilderness, even finding the exact trajectory of baseballs for later analysis and perfected training.