Why We Should Be Worried About Tiny Robot Spies
DARPA has been trying to develop tiny spy drones for years. Once perfected, they will be a powerful new weapon against groups like ISIS, but they’ll also mark the end of ever being able to go offline.
Six years ago, I was a daily news blogger for PCMag’s sister site, ExtremeTech. I was recently reminded of a story I covered back in the day that , in retrospect , marked the beginnings of an important and still-unfolding technological trend: a hummingbird-shaped drone developed by the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
I titled my hummingbird write-up “DARPA’s Robot Hummingbird Takes War on Nectar to a New Level.” That “witty” headline completely sidestepped the fact that this drone was being developed as a tool of urban warfare; these tiny robotic spies were intended to slip behind enemy lines.
The functioning 6.5-inch “nano hummingbird” was never in any danger of being mistaken for an actual hummingbird, mostly because when in flight, it sounded like an army of flying lawnmowers. Still, when you consider that this bot was on the wish list of an agency with near-bottomless resources and a not-too-shabby track record of achievement, improvements were inevitable.
So why did DARPA want a hummingbird drone? Roboticists often look to nature for design inspiration. In this instance, the engineering team was attempting to recreate the versatile, all-direction aerial acrobatics achieved by real hummingbirds in nature.
The drone used two rapid-fire wings to obtain stop-and-start maneuvers in all spatial directions and even hover in mid-air. The device was an early attempt to create the perfect invisible spy tool: One that could a) avoid detection and b) maneuver around a complex and unpredictable environment.
DARPA’s Nano Air Vehicle (NAV) program was retired a few months after the hummingbird’s debut, but it was a success from the agency’s point of view because it now had a rough draft of the bird-sized spy drone researchers had hoped to achieve. And what military wouldn’t want a squadron of tiny spy drones — particularly as the nature of warfare has shifted from open battlefields to block-by-block pitch battles?
Living Cyborg Super Spies
In the years since the hummingbird drone roared through the skies, numerous developments have been made in micro-robotics by DARPA and other interested parties. One fascinating line of research eschews the full-robot paradigm altogether and instead embeds tech directly into a living insect’s brain and body. In effect, these engineers have created living cyborg super spies.
Because of the simple nature of insect brains, scientists can commandeer control of their bodies to a certain extent. Recently, tech bloggers went a gaga over a sci-fi-tastic “cyborg dragonfly” project under development by Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The “DragonflEye” project uses “steering neurons” inside the genetically modified bug’s spinal cord, which allows scientists to control where the bug flies. The biomedical tech utilized in this project may one day be used to help disabled people regain control of their bodies, but the military and surveillance applications are a potential game-changer for the entire world.
These cyborg insects are far more versatile than any human-built drone (big or tiny) and don’t require any bulky batteries (the DragonflEye tech actually utilizes tiny solar cells to power itself). But, perhaps more important, the cyborg insect is quiet and would only arouse as much suspicion as an actual dragonfly.
The technology is in its early days, for sure. But once it is perfected, it’s not hard to imagine how capable micro-bots (cyborg or otherwise) could completely reinvent civilization. This isn’t an oversell. Ubiquitous robotics will make it nearly impossible to ever be completely offline — even if you were far from your phone or laptop. And that’s a frightening prospect.
Fear of future robot insect spies may come off as the paranoid fantasies of someone who’s watched a little too much Black Mirror. Fair enough. I do watch a lot of TV. However, as someone who has also observed technology develop over time, I know that what is impossible one decade can become commonplace the next.
Imagine trying to explain to someone in 1997 who just got their first home broadband connection what it’s like to use Google Maps Street View on your pocket computer. Hell, imagine try to explain the finer points of Pokémon Go to someone with a flip phone in 2005.
While hardware takes more time to develop than software, robots of all sizes have made some huge strides in recent years. And history has repeatedly demonstrated that technology doesn’t simply improve incrementally, it accelerates logarithmically. Consider that only six years ago, experimental spy drones were the size of a hummingbird and now they’re the size of a dragonfly. I don’t think it’s too hard to imagine that — at some point in the not-crazy-distant-future — they will be the size of a fly, a gnat, or even something far smaller. Indeed, one of the most promising fields of biomedical research is the creation of nanomachines that can maintain and repair the human body from the inside.
As tiny robots approach perfection, civilization inevitably enters a post-privacy world where the concept of going “offline” is rendered obsolete. Not to say this will all be bad — this sort of technology will be invaluable in the fight against truly despicable movements like ISIS, which embed themselves into civilian population centers. But technology can only be as moral as the humans who use them. We shouldn’t assume that the power of omniscient surveillance won’t eventually be used for the wrong reasons — we only need look to recent history for some examples.
The NSA has developed a wide array of cybertools that provide its agents with near-boundless access to all the globe’s information. It undoubtedly does a lot of good work to protect the nation’s interests from foreign governments and assorted terrorist entities around the globe. But in 2013, it was revealed by the NSA’s own internal watchdog that its agents routinely used their access to spy on spouses and ex-lovers. Now imagine if these agents had access to all of their partner’s offline activities as well.
In the wake of the public disclosure of these so-called “LOVEINT” incidents, as well as the revelations of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, the federal government felt compelled to implement some limits on surveillance (which, we should note still fail to satisfy many privacy advocates). However, nation-state spy agencies may not be the only thing we need to consider. The recent outbreak of so-called WannaCry ransomware was built on stolen NSA cybertools. But keeping these tools out of the wrong hands might not be solely a security matter. It might come down to cost.
While I believe this omniscient surveillance technology is inevitable, the economics of are still ill-defined — will it be available only to governments, corporations, and private elite citizens? Or will it be like the video drones and home surveillance cameras of today, which anyone can purchase on Amazon?
This new era is probably only a decade or two away, but it will create a whole new paradigm for which many of us are not prepared. Today there are precautions you can take to protect your privacy when you’re online (use two-factor authentication, end-to-end encryption, and strong passwords). But in a future when a monitor could literally be anywhere, civilization will have crossed an important line. And there won’t be going any back. Enjoy the future, everyone!
Originally published at www.pcmag.com.