"Slaughterbots": drones, some futures, and education

It’s a vision of a possible future.  Tiny, friendly-looking drones fly out of a truck and buzz across a college campus.  There they work their individual ways into a classroom and explode against several students, killing them.


That’s a scene from “Slaughterbots”, a short video from the Future of Life Institute outlining one possible direction for drones and related technologies.  It is chilling, provocative, and well done.  Watch:

Let me comment on the video in detail, then look into this as a futures document, followed by some more ideas.

0:05 – a good representation (and maybe parody) of the TED/Steve Jobs presentation style.  Bonus points for the techbro CEO/spokesperson.

0:55 – added to the tiny drone are facial recognition and sensors.

1:15 – throws killbot into the audience.  Cute move.

1:35 – note the anti-human stance, the love of command.

2:06 – boosterism: “they cannot be stopped”.  No mention of counterforce.  I’ll get to that below.

2:22 – “thinking big”: more Silicon Valley language, supporting the key feature of scaling up.

2:50 – we cut jarringly away from the TED talk to a series of news video clips.

2:55 – “we have a distribution network” is spoken over images of other distribution networks.

3:03 – it’s barely there for less than a second, but you can glimpse a group of slaughterbots forming a giant swastika.

Slaughterbots video, swastika glimpse

3:04 – U.S. Senators assassinated.

3:29 – key feature: no signature on a slaughterbot attack.

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3:46 – slaughterbot arms race.

3:56 – short story about bots killing university students in Scotland, presumably over a protest.

5:00 – claim that personal firearms can’t stop the bots.  People encouraged to stay indoors – in general, or in response to an attack?

5:04 – slaughterbots named by a British-accented tv news announcer.

5:12 – the attackers, who launch a small swarm from a van.  They are white men, and otherwise unmarked.

6:07 – the higher education attack is apparently worldwide, with nearly 9,000 students killed.

6:21 – some commentator argues that slaughterbots are chilling freedom of expression and dissent.

6:40 – back to the lethal techbro, who emphasizes data and social media.  “You can target an evil ideology.”

7:09 – the fiction ends, and one of the creators, Stewart Russell, a Berkeley computer scientist, reflects on what we’ve just watched.  He emphasizes AI and giving machines too much autonomy.

7:42 – directs us to a supporting website, http://autonomousweapons.org/ .  The site seems to prefer the term “killer robots”.

So how does this fare as a futures document?  Pretty well.  It quickly portrays a near-future scenario, fleshing it out with visual and oral storytelling.

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  It balances technical discussion with strong emotions (a mother watching her son killed on live video).  It steps back at the end to help frame reactions.  Tonally it aims to instill fear and reaction, perhaps embodying my aphorism: the best way to predict the future is to prevent it.

I naturally have questions, and want to push the story even further ahead.  I wonder how these slaughterbots would play out.

To begin with, there are technical obstacles to realizing their existence.  As Lawfare points out, it isn’t cheap to build assassin drones that small right now.   There are limitations on battery life; a slaughterbot controller would have to deploy the things relatively close by.  And facial recognition is better, but still flawed.  So these critters aren’t tools of the present, but of the near to medium term future.

Moreover, while the video’s frantic tv talking heads shriek that there’s no stopping them, defeating drones is a growth industry today.  People are trying out guns, lasers, and even predatory birds.  Drone versus drone combat is emerging as a new combat arena.  And there’s always the hacking option.

As for anonymous killerbot attacks, we have to consider the wide world of surveillance.  We can assume not only growing state and corporate data- and media-gathering, but also individuals using mobile devices to record anything that moves.    Imagine a state security apparatus asking Google for help in tracking down telling searches, or victims’ families crowdsourcing popular surveillance.

So why does the film’s main example take place in universities?

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  The killing could be the act of a repressive regime or international organization opposed to some rising student movement.  Perhaps it represents hostility to anti-racist activism or protests against rising fees.  Is the video’s use of a campus designed to suggest slaughterbots will repress learning, or because for some school represents a safe space in some sense?

But let’s take this a bit further.  How else might these “slaughterbots” play out in practice?  What kind of futures could unfold?

Killbot versus killbot People and organizations, terrified of the whirring assassins, could stock up on defenses.  Those might include: anti-slaughterbots, designed to seek out popular designs and block or destroy them; face disguises (masks, hoods, appliances); area denial tools (metal nets, sonic generators); bats and sticks.  Some could set up versions of panic rooms, with surfaces too think for the little killers to penetrate, or surrounded by Faraday cages or limited EMP generators.

Debris Once prices fall and these scale up in numbers, would-be killers may have to deploy larger and larger swarms to get past defenses.  Imagine thousands whirring and whapping at each other in a teeming metallic cloud.  Parts will break off, and individual bots plummet to the ground.  The aftermath will be a pile or field of metal and plastic bits, giving rise to professional disposal companies and popular irritation.  It might resemble a coarsely grained version of Neal Stephenson’s idea of post-nano toner. (HT Rob Henderson)

Hidden and delayed killbots The video shows aircraft and vans dumping slaughterbots for immediate and fairly visible use.  What happens when a bot-minder decides to get stealthy?  Imagine concealing bots amid foliage in a rural area, or in junk in a city.  They could stay hidden for hours or days, if they manage power correctly, only to spring out on a timer, pre-arranged signal, or analysis of the immediate situation.  Like mines after 20th century wars, killbots could last for a while, lashing out after the mission’s timeline has come and gone.

Suicide by slaughterbot Suicide is an act of violence most societies refrain from examining, but it remains a significant part of human existence.  When will the first person enter their features into killbot software, and wait for the end delivered by airborne explosive?  Will some attempt a bot version of suicide by cop, deliberately egging on a bot-owning force (police, gang, etc) to goad an attack on themselves, perhaps donning a face mask of a known criminal?

Stories These killbots would have a fantastic presence in stories of all kinds.  At some point people will imitate the snapping explosive sound in conversation, and all kinds of media (music, games, movies, VR) reproduce or sample the sound for dramatic effect.  Kids will tell each other stories about slaughterbots, who will then enter urban legend (the possessed bot! the invincible bot).  Slaughterbots will enter language, acquiring nicknames, becoming nicknames for gangsters and sports figures, playing a role in proverbs (“irresistible as a slaughterbot”).

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At school At some points schools of all levels will have to ban students from building slaughterbots.

Meanwhile, campuses will have to choose to either ban or support faculty research into the technology.  It’s a new twist on an old problem.

In policy Governments will scramble to develop and promulgate laws about killbots.  Some will seek to ban them outright, while others make room for their own implementations.  Naturally an arms race will occur, with states and companies vying for advantage, influence, and market share.

That’s enough for now (bzzzzz).  Do you think (bzzZZZZZ) slaughterbots are (BBzzzzZZZZ) possible?  If so, (BBBZZZZZ) where might they go nexBANG

(thanks to friends on Twitter and Facebook for conversations about this video)

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8 Responses to "Slaughterbots": drones, some futures, and education

  1. CurtisMO says:

    Toss in some emergent behavior and time travel, and we’ve got a James Cameron movie. Thank goodness time travel isn’t possible. As far as the bots in the video go, it’s possible to DYI with a handful of COTS drones from Amazon, an iPhone, a few snippets of open source code, a box of 22 LR, and a little skill with a soldering iron. Add a 3D printer, and you’ve got an instant army. Governments have known for a while how to defend against these, but universities and public spaces are clueless. The Neal Stephenson reference was spot-on: our minders might be able to fend off the buzzing hordes, but we’ll have to slog through the detritus.

  2. Joe Murphy says:

    Let’s think about a few more educational uses for small autonomous flyers (slaughterbots is such an ugly word)…

    A small fleet of flying cameras could entirely change exam proctoring. Feed the data back to a central processor and learn to look for cheat sheets or copying. Enact sanctions in real time… no, not with assassinations, just with a mist of fluorescing dye perhaps. Or a big blotch of red ink. Though at the end of the semester we might get a request or two for very small loads of explosives…

    We could apply a similar device for party security. If a person’s posture and gait look over-intoxicated, follow them and page human security with the specific GPS data. If a person were to try to take advantage of that intoxicated person, they could be… incapacitated. Use facial recognition to identify who’s underage and dose them with a drug to fight intoxication, or just induce nausea.

    If the batteries were up to it, drones could be hugely useful for athletics. Monitor temperature and dehydration for every athlete on the field. Remove some issues of boundaries and ball placement from human referees – we’re already doing this with stationary cameras anyway. Follow athletes around and make sure they go to class. Monitor meetings with “family friends” who are totally not agents or marketing reps. And, you know, if a student takes a meeting which might impact their eligibility, you could make the meeting… stop.

    I mean, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s the running and screaming…

  3. Dave Higgins says:

    The second thing that struck me when I encountered this video (after how well is was done as a film), is that at least one of the groups most likely to be able to hack drones intersects with the group most likely to communicate using strongly encrypted apps rather than ordinary social media; so the integration with social media that made them supposedly great at suppressing protest while it was still at the talking stage would do nothing against one of the biggest opponents of a surveillance state.

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  6. Phillip Long says:

    News reports from Aug. 4th and again in the Aug. 5th NYT claim and then counterclaim that President Maduro of Venezuela was attacked during a speech by drones carrying C4 explosives. They didn’t amount to much apparently, but the video of Maduro’s speech was interrupted by an explosion, his security detail are seen running for cover and the camera is abruptly turned off.

    Within 24 hours new reports circulate that it was just a propane cannister in a nearby apartment that blew up causing the BANG that resulted in the resulting disturbance. No assination attempt just aging poorly maintained cooking infrastructure due to the sanctions on Venezuela.

    What’s the reality and what’s false news? Too soon to tell, but unmanned autonomous vehicles are here to stay, and given we’re humans with a penchang for self-destruction, they will be used. I am skeptical, however, that they will have any significant revolutionary disruptive impact in the long term. Perhaps in the short term they will be cause and inflame insecurity and fears. That is perhaps the much more worrisome aspect of all of this. We react to legitmate but overblown concerns with knee-jerk legislation or decrees that push us toward the authoritarian state the current POTUS is actively pursuing.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Drones do have some interesting advantages.

      Cost – they are available for poor folks and nations. Alternatively, can be produced by wealthier actors at immense scale for cheap.

      Size – easier to sneak around than, say, helicopters.

      Precision – done right, drone strikes can minimize collateral damage.

      I’m always waiting for more advantages and forms.

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