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A Robotic 9/11

February 13, 2016 - 23:48 -- Admin

Last year I was hired to craft a long term vision for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on how autonomous robots should be used to radically improve how the US military fights wars.  

This year I will be sharing my thinking with you.

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The current revolution in robotics is due to rapid advances in the ability of robots to think.  

This means that most of the big improvements we'll see in the use of autonomous robots in warfare will be due to finding new uses of this attribute more than any other.  Let's explore this a bit.  

It's now possible to turn a simple low performance drone into a weapon that is nearly as effective as a precision guided missile (PGM) that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.  This is accomplished through the creative substitute inexpensive and sophisticated machine thinking for expensive mechanical performance.  

In other words, the smarter the drone is, the better it can mimic the performance of the much more expensive PGM.

This is already possible today with inexpensive, commercially available drones.  Low cost drones are now smart enough to approximate the performance of an expensive surface to surface missile system with a little creativity.   Let's dive into this a bit. 

From a mechanical perspective, consumer drones aren't that impressive:

  • ~1-2 pound payload
  • ~20 min flight time 
  • 20-40 miles per hour flight speed

However, these drones are already very smart:

  • They can fly themselves.  They can take-off, fly enroute, and land autonomously.
  • They can precisely navigate a course based on the GPS waypoints you designate.
  • They can now (a recent development) use digital cameras to find, track, and follow objects.  Some can even land on objects they find based on a description of that object.  

Even this basic capability is more than enough to turn a basic drone into an extremely dangerous first strike weapon. Here's a scenario that pits ten drones against a major airport:  

  1. Ten drones would take off autonomously in 1 minute intervals.
  2. Each would follow a GPS flightpath to a preselected portion of an airport.
  3. Upon arrival, a digital camera would identify the nearest wing of an aircraft.
  4. The drone would land itself in the middle of that wing.
  5. A pound of thermite in the payload would ignite upon landing.  
  6. The thermite would burn through the wing, igniting the fuel inside...
  7. Most of the airport and nearly all of the planes on the tarmac are destroyed.

Here are the takeaways:  

  • Even the simple robotic platforms of today can be extremely effective as weapons.  At current rates of improvement in machine intelligence, the situation will get much more interesting very, very soon. 
  • It's possible to creatively trade inexpensive machine smarts for expensive mechanical performance.  
  • We need to figure this out before the bad guys do.  However, figuring this out requires a deep insight into the dynamics driving this forward.