This video blew up on the internet last week.
A team of engineers at the University of Pennsylvania has built a fleet of flying robots. At first glimpse it is another in a long line of Gee-Whiz/Not too useful Robot designs. This idea is different from the rest however, because it is possible to envision an instant, revolutionary use.
Can we put cameras on them?
Can we send a couple thousand in to Syria?
Any regime that is actively killing its people denies it. They can get away with this because they control the territory and they control the information. Syria’s ruling regime recently accepted observers from the Arab League, to try to smooth over the 5,000-odd civilians it has murdered recently. The observers were supposed to guarantee the safety of the Syrian people, but they had to leave because the country got too violent. By definition, being around state violence is a dangerous pursuit. A flying robot costs less than an international diplomat, and is infinitely braver. These robots don’t look expensive. There is probably a Qatari or Silicon Valley billionaire that would be happy to pay for them. These little flying robots could quickly expose and document in real time any on-going massacres. This would make it harder for President Assad to kill people, and therefore harder for him to retain power. Who knows, perhaps Syria’s impending civil war could be averted, or at least sped up. We could do all this without dropping a single bomb.
What if the spy-bots were crowd-sourced?
Way back in 2002, web-comic artist Patrick Farley imagined an alternate history of the war in Afghanistan. Instead of bombing the Taliban, we sent in millions of spy robots, individually manned by common citizens. This is now a possibility.
What if the next time a Darfur-type situation develops, the UN could pass a resolution and send in a fleet of a million mini-helicopters? The robots could be manned by video-gamers world-wide. Instead of playing Call of Duty, they could follow real armed groups across European plains or African cities. Each potential murder could be documented, making it less likely to happen. Unlike other observation schemes, this one has the benefit of letting the murderers know they are being filmed. Hopefully this would make them less likely to carry out their plans.
Farley’s idea has endless potential. Our “duty to protect” could be satisfied without having to bomb or invade anyone. Another excuse for maintaining our excessive defense budget would be swept away.
This is all a fantasy. The robots are flimsy. The controlled conditions of a Philadelphia lab are not the jungles of the Congo. If they did work, they would be just as likely to be used by governments to spy on their people. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.
Rob is branching out into sci-fi blogging from his usual drug war stomping grounds.