Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What a Bunch of Bots Might Do


by Leinad Zeraus (Daniel Suarez)

OK, I read this book almost two years ago in its first printing. You can tell by the author’s name that was on the front cover – Leinad Zeraus. The next printing in hardcover (following its success) has his proper name on the cover. I mentioned to Mr. Suarez that I planned to write review following a talk he gave at the Long Now Foundation in August, 2008. I had read the book several months previously after Peter Schwartz (GBN) recommended it to me. It was easy to become engrossed in the book and the story, particularly if you have been involved with the growth of the Internet, virtual worlds, software development, wireless technology, and, of course, video games. I could put a check mark by each of those so I naturally read the story with the skeptical eye of the ‘insider’ looking for both insights I hadn’t put together yet and the attempts to stretch the truth too far. After all, we are talking about software bots taking over a chunk of the world through the Internet. How real is this possibility, now or in, say, this century?

I’ll give you my short answer. Not Today, of course, but . . . it’s worth taking a look further out. After all, don’t we have a DOD Cyber (security) Command now?

First, I would say that Daemon is a technology tour de force in terms of the technologies that are nicely woven into the story. I took to making a list in a second reading of the book and here is a sampling –

Rootkit, Wireless Internet, Spread Spectrum RFI (radio frequency interference), Dark Net, Hack Test, Robot Humvees (think DARPA Grand Challenges as a real world – it works!), automated voice response (AVR), ULF (ultra low frequency) acoustical weapon, UHFA (ultra high frequency acoustical) pin-point sound, steganography, fuel-air bomb, fiber optic cameras, crystal door keys, SQL injection attack, UWB (ultra wideband) receiver, MRI mind mapping, multinational web crime groups, DDOS (direct denial of service) attacks, and my list goes on for another page and a half.

Second, as a technologist I found that most of the uses of technology are reasonably credible save towards the end when you must park the skeptical brain off to one side for a while. Early on, for example, you can imagine a fuel-air bomb created by forcing fuel through a lawn sprinkler system. And only a real fuel-air bomb designer could share the bits of ‘art’ that are essential to get the explosion described in the story. On the other hand, towards the end when bullet spitting robot cycles race through a control complex and attack protagonists in the open, well, maybe I’m skeptical today. But there are also numerous robot companies developing lethal autonomous-capable machines for military action, so much so, that a robot ethics code for such machines is a new topic of research. We are beyond Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws.

Third, there are parts I found intriguing like the infamous Heinrich Boerner in the video game virtual environment and how he leads our protagonist Jon Ross further into the conflict between the bots and humanity. As a casual gamer, the description of that was definitely in sync with how one might engage in a multiplayer online game. I did find some parts disturbing such as how our social media can be abused by propagating embarrassing events to a global audience. We can be cruel in our self-gratification but what is new there?

All-in-all I found Daemon to be a provoking novel about technology and mankind. If you follow Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity concept, this will give you another possible story line of how our distributed AI offspring might both bite the hand that created it and, hopefully, help us overcome our inherent bounded rationality. I recommend reading the novel and listening to Daniel Suarez’s talk on the Long Now Foundation website. And I hear there are plans for a movie. I’ll be among the first in line I suspect.

Man and Machine in Combat

Apache – Inside the Cockpit of the World’s Most Deadly Fighting Machine
– by Ed Macy

I was captivated by this true story of a British Apache helicopter pilot’s career and experiences flying missions in Afghanistan in 2006. What impressed me with Ed Macy as a person was his focus on achieving his desire to fly in the military and especially the new Westland AH Mk1 Apache helicopter. A good summary of the challenge is given by this excerpt from the front cover overleaf –

“. . . the deadliest, most technologically advanced helicopter on the planet. As strong as a tank . . . the helicopter is remarkably fast and nearly impossible to shoot down. . . . [With] weapons and cameras, the Apache pilot can spot prey from miles away . . . And it is the toughest aircraft in the world to fly – only the top 2 percent of pilots make it . . . hands, feet, and even eyes need to operate independently.”

If it wasn’t clear that this was a true story of one man’s experiences, one could easily read it as a fictional novel filled with a character with beyond human capabilities. The action is palpable and the sacrifices Mr. Macy made to be a superior pilot in the face of danger are sobering and inspirational to reflect upon.

I have to admit having a passion for the virtual worlds of video games, human augmentation, and flight simulators so it is of particular interest to me how an Apache pilot becomes one with the machine. This is essential in order to manage the complexity of the controls, split-vision monocle, and the visual sensors that include low-light and infrared imagers. The daylight camera, for example, can magnify 127 times. There are over two hundred switches many multifunctional. The monocle over the right eye forced left-right eye independence as an efficient way to cram more information into the brain. “A dozen different instrument readings from around the cockpit were projected into it.” This alone is a significant learning obstacle to overcome.

Note Mr. Macy’s description starting with the example of driving your car -

“After you’ve driven it for a while, you don’t have to think; you just end up at home without having thought of driving one. It was the same with the Apache, but on a grander scale. Halfway through the first tour . . . I didn’t need to think how to fly and shoot because my fingers, arms and legs were working in perfect harmony with my mind. I was no longer strapped to the Apache, the Apache was strapped to me.”

And “. . . the unimaginable demanding need to multi-task . . . only a very small percentage of human brains could do everything required simultaneously to operate the aircraft.”

The powerful imaging capability makes enemy engagement much more personal than is typical for the military aviator. Mr. Macy often could see the enemy as if up close and personal such as a sniper could. And this capability offered a similar surgical precision in limiting collateral damage.

Partially reliving Mr. Macy’s experience helps you appreciate the challenges of conflict with powerful weapons and the discipline necessary to manage multitudes of information while making instant life and death decisions. In this world with a growing cadre of unmanned, remotely-controlled, airborne vehicles [UAVs}, the video-game mind-set intrudes the perspective of the remote pilot I suspect. The personal life-death risk is much removed to be replaced by the career-risk proxy. Sure, the adrenaline may pump as in the video game, but deep down you know that you will still be breathing tomorrow. It is certainly not so for Mr. Macy with the Apache strapped to his back.

I will add this title to my collection of true military experiences that include
“Into the Mouth of the Cat – The Story of Lance Sijan Hero of Vietnam” by Malcolm McConnell and “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10” by Marcus Luttrell.

After the RESET.

One Second After – William R. Forstchen

I picked up “One Second After” after a quick browse caught my interest for a beach read while vacationing in Maui. Here’s the challenge – some unhappy with America group manage to launch a few electromagnetic pulse [EMP] nuclear weapons to burst high over the U.S. The resultant high energy electro magnetic pulses overload almost all of our modern electrical equipment and devices so essentially of our making-life-livable (in modern terms) devices and infrastructure are useless. Cars don’t run, electricity doesn’t flow, food doesn’t get to the supermarket, hospitals are blacked out, no TV or iTunes, forget facebook, tweeting, and email. It’s over!

So what would you do? What would the country do? And what would our supposedly unaffected neighbors like Mexico, China and Canada do –help out or take advantage? The last question is largely left to almost a footnote at the end of the book, but it seems likely to be more ‘taking advantage’ than ‘helping out’ – but that is not the point of the story.

The real point of the story is to highlight how much we take for granted. Take food for example. Recently a friend of mine mentioned that not long ago that his three pre-teen kids became aware that hamburgers and steaks came from cows. Suddenly hamburgers and steaks were no longer eatable. And I overheard a family member observe, I hope tongue-in-cheek, that we could just go to the store to get milk if the dairy farms went bankrupt. Now that does seem a bit far-fetched.

Recently I did a short research paper on the future of sustainable agriculture in the American Midwest. I came away with a dismal conclusion – the talk of locovores and year round Farmers’ Markets like that pioneered in Newbury County, Ohio, by Rob Marqusee, will run into the problems of labor shortage, incentive shortage, and the focus of local politicians on what they see as faster ways to grow both blue and white collar jobs in their community. So, in brief, it’s not so easy to go ‘back to the future’ and build resiliency in our social infrastructure should its brittleness be attacked by those who don’t like us or we simply run into a tipping point of our own making.

“In One Second After” Mr. Forstchen covers the main questions of how one fictional family deals with the instant unraveling of society, the lack of effective national and state government responses, the coalescing of the local communities to ration limited resources, fend off migrating citizens in search of a temporary home, and defending against outright raids to take anything the community might have of use.

Sometimes brutal, fatalistic, and harsh the story does cause one to reflect during this economic downturn of 2008-2009 where our real strengths are and what does it take to survive economic and social collapse. What I miss in our national discourse today is in our spirit of offering a helping hand, where is the recipient’s clarity of reciprocal responsibility to add to the strength of the community? And will we, in the pursuit of entitlements for everyone except the rich (who must pay their fair share of course), know when we have killed the golden goose? Such questions are not casual in “One Second After.”

Mr. Forstchen caused me to think about these issues and how little we appreciate the intertwined complexity of the systems that cocoon our daily lives. I’ve thought more than a bit about such a collapse catastrophe but not to the point of stocking a year’s food supply and adding an AR15 in a gun locker. You should take a look at “Patriots – A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse” by James Wesley Rawles for that. I suspect we are more exposed to collapses of the type described by Jared Diamond in “Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” where we will foolishly just allow ourselves to clutch our lifestyles so tightly that we drive our resources use beyond the tipping point. Then we go the way of the Rapanui people of Easter Island (See Collapse, pp107-111).

How would you respond to the giant “RESET!” challenges raised by Mr. Forstchen? You will be forced to think about it – if only a bit.