Cyborg Insects

by Kenneth Anderson

Technology marches on, and here we have a demonstration video, on YouTube and Wired’s Dangerroom, showing how a flying beetle can be implanted with miniaturized neural electrodes that allow the human operator to stimulate muscles that cause it to fly to the right or left.  The applications to the battlefield, counterterrorism, etc., are obvious.  (Thanks to National Journal’s Shane Harris for sending the link.)

These little cyborgs will eventually, I presume, be deployed, first for intelligence gathering at both the tactical level of, for example, urban battlefields.  Once a way is figured out to load them with a camera or, perhaps, utilizing their own visual inputs, they can be used to figure out who’s the bad guys in an apartment or building.  The possibilities for discriminating targeting go up  lot.  Later, someone might figure out a way to attach a little bomb, so fly up to target, have a human operator make a positive id and then boom.  There’s a strategic use of these cyborgs – to gather intelligence using thousands and thousands of these all processed through a central computer to help identify where terrorists are training or where bin Laden is located or many other surveillance tasks that cannot be accomplished now that everyone knows not to put things where they are visible from satellites.

But all that’s still as an unmanned surveillance device or even weapon controlled in real time by a human controller.  The question then becomes, can the human control be relaxed – and turn it into a genuinely autonomous cyborg?  I have said on the one hand, very hard and huge issues.  But, on the other hand, let’s not prejudge the technology of a hundred years from now, particularly by adopting categorical rules of war that might turn out to be unsustainable because they are false with respect to their technological assumptions (e.g., “any unmanned weapon is inherently indiscriminate”).

One of several problems is that a military with fewer scruples than the US or NATO might develop and decide to introduce autonomous firing robots to the battlefield with decision-logics that the US would consider to be inadequate from a legal-ethical-rules of war view.  The US might consider itself several generations of technology away, and unsure whether it would ever judge the systems truly battlefield ready – while an opponent might introduce the weapons immediately, with perhaps a simple but legally inadequate autonomy circuit that says, detect incoming fire, respond in that direction.  In that case, the US would have to develop counters to a weapon that it was not willing to deploy itself.

In conversations with military planners and others, I’ve been told this isn’t really a big technological problem.  That’s because, I’m told, the US simply has the possibility of dropping bombs on the offending robots and, poof.  Problem goes away.  No special technology response needed.  But I have a feeling it’s not that simple.  There may be collateral damage issues in simply dropping a bigger bomb or any kind of bomb.  But the far more important worry is that the autonomous firing weapons robots with impure ethical circuits might very well not be big, vehicle sized battlefield robots – easily identified and destroyed on the battlefield.  Rather, they might be whole swarms of these kinds of cyborgs.  Independent and tiny and in enough quantity, very dangerous.  If that’s what you’re trying to counter, dropping more kinetics is not likely to have the same effect.

The little autonomously-firing insect cyborgs turn out to have certain characteristics, that is, of dispersed and hard to target guerrillas and insurgents, who mass only at the last moment, and are exceedingly hard to identify and target.  Responding to that kind of threat requires, I imagine, the development of new technologies specifically as counters to specific kinds of robots and cyborgs.  And the really crazy thing is – and I hope robot strategists have taken this on board – it is not only possible but, in my estimation, likely that the US will have to be prepared to counter these technologies long before, generations before, it is prepared to field its own versions of them.

(If I could figure out a way to embed the YouTube video clip, I would!)

YouTube video of cyborg flying insect. (Okay, why doesn’t this embed the clip?)

http://opiniojuris.org/2009/09/25/cyborg-insects/

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  1. […] The View From LL2 A blog about international law, economics, politics, and more. « Reason #8,010,112 Why I’m Not A Libertarian I think I shall use this technology to become a supervillain. Henceforth, you shall refer to me as the Insectoid Assassin. September 27, 2009 International law is coolest when it is pondering how to handle cyborg beetle assassination-bots. […]