Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Agents of the Crown

Cryptome has compiled several articles on the MI5-funded "serial killer" Mark Haddock, a police informant ostensibly hired to provide information on terrorist attacks by the Ulster Volunteer Force:

McIlwrath added "Mark Haddock should have been in jail instead of being protected, but Special branch were now making sure he was being kept right. It makes me physically sick to think that I was sitting in my car paying this man tens of thousands of pounds to find out who was doing all the murders to find out that it is him who is doing them himself. I couldn't believe that people who were agents of the crown were committing murders, and a blind eye was being turned to it."
For some reason, this strikes me as an ideal introduction for Defense Tech's feature on microdrones:
[I]t’s not surprising that British SAS troopers should decide that rather than just spying on Taliban with their WASP micro air vehicles, they should be able to take them out. Sticking a small C4 charge on these toy-sized craft is a relatively crude approach, but one that should effectively convert them from silent spies to stealth assassins. And at $3,000 a time they are by no means the most expensive weapon around.
David Hambling suggests that swarms of microdrones could form a robotic network that would use "collective intelligence" to launch attacks, perhaps even synchronizing themselves like starlings:
A single insect-sized MAV carrying a few milliliters of napalm would be a dangerous nuisance, especially indoors or inside a vehicle. Several dozen of them would be lethal, especially when they can locate stored fuel or ammunition. Just program them to look for those distinctive ‘danger inflammable’ signs.
And hope that the enemy doesn't decide to stick them on dummy tanks, boulders, hospitals, or the houses of political enemies.

Hambling also envisions swarms of incendiary thermite-bearing "termites" that would infest enemy bunkers, and, like suicide bombers, choose effective sites at which to immolate themselves.
With their collective intelligence they can identify the complexes vulnerable points, and by combining together, they can destroy most things.
Hambling considers such species of drones to be "too indiscriminate to be used in an urban environment." But as the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo reminds us, what's "indiscriminate" to one person may be a moral necessity to another. Arthur "Bomber" Harris made this quite clear when he said, "I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier."

The idealist's vision for incendiary drones and their ilk is one of autonomy and decentralization, based on the advent of "intelligent machines" that can distinguish between friend and foe. I don't think that vision is realistic, although the attempt to achieve it is sure to result in all sorts of data-driven, quasi-predatory weapons. Still, as Russ Richards of Project Alpha says:
It will be difficult to overcome the resistance to replacing human pilots, soldiers, sailors, and Marines with robots. Or, to allow machines to make decisions.
And rightly so. After all, as the story of Mark Haddock demonstrates, it'd be a real shame if "tactical autonomous combatants" ended up killing people indiscriminately.


Anonymous said...

defense tech is either great porn or the fodder for nightmares, depending on your point of view...

seen too much sci-fi to feel good about autonomous killer robots, but what i find most disturbing about stories like this one is the underlying fantasy that if we just keep at this war thing long enough, by gum one day we'll find a way to make it a neat and tidy affair.

at least for our guys.

Phila said...

defense tech is either great porn or the fodder for nightmares, depending on your point of view...

I think Noah Shachtman's analysis of military issues and weapons systems is excellent. The larger questions it raises are a bit beyond the site's scope, if not humanity's scope....

Interrobang said...

That story about the informant turned serial killer is eerily familiar -- it reminds me of the House of Death murders, which were perpetrated by an ICE/DHS informant.