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RSA Conference 2010: Al Qaeda 2.0 and the rise of the robots

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Thursday at RSA ended with a lecture by Dr Peter Warren Singer from the Brookings Institute. And coming after the dry and somewhat predictable speech from FBI director Robert S Mueller (the third, no less) it ended the day's proceedings with some ethical dynamics. It also effectively ended the conference, as while things happen on the Friday, the important stuff tends to play out from Tuesday to Thursday. 

Warren Singer's lecture focused on the growing use of robotics device and drones in warfare. As I said in my preview, the Merseyside police are experimenting with a CCTV drone but what came out of this talk was something else. What we are witnessing, insisted Warren was a technological and sociological revolution as profound as the invention of the automobile and the internet. 

Robotics may well come to change our lives domestically but just as the internet was first developed for the military, it is the military that is advancing the state of the robotic art. And nothing advances technology faster than warfare. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where IEDs are daily claiming human lives, are seeing increasing use of robot devices to track and destroy lethal weapons. The pictures that accompanied the talk showed all sorts of super advanced machines, including unmanned flying machines that are being developed to drop bombs and survey enemy positions. 

As expected, most of this stuff is being developed by and for the United States, but as Singer made clear, a technological lead doesn't last long in warfare - just ask the British after they invented the tank. The German Army simply copied it, thus inventing a new kind of mechanised warfare.

In the internet age, maintaining a technical edge will prove harder. Modern warfare depends on IT and code. The internet exists for America's (and by extension its allies') enemies to exploit software that may be developed far from the US homeland. Warfare, he said, was going open source. As an example he said that the editor of US Wired managed to build himself his own drone for less than $1,000 by sourcing code and instructions directly from the web. 

Your enemies can use the same technology very quickly. In the 2008 conflict with Israel, Hezbollah fired off 400 unmanned drones against Israel (and no prizes for guessing who supplied them). In Iraq, an IED was detonated remotely from the comfort of an insurgent's home. There is, he said, an iPhone app that can control a drone carrying two pounds of payload. Two pounds of explosive can do a lot of damage. That's not going to feature in any fashionable Apple ad any time soon.

The point is robotics can be used by anyone with the same ingenuity used to develop IEDs. Imagine that applied to drones and internet available source code. Suicide bombers don't have to be suicidal anymore. This is Al Qaeda 2.0 said Warren Singer. More chilling was this final thought: what happens when US cyber tanks are hacked and reprogrammed to attack their masters? If that sounds a little too close to Skynet and the Terminator movies, then that's probably because it is. We are entering a new and uncertain age. 
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