Finish reading the latest techno thriller from Daniel Suarez, Kill Decision, and you’ll probably find yourself (as I do) stopping and paying a bit more attention to any kind of media attention given to drones. Drones are a hot topic right now — the latest issue of Wired magazine has drones as its cover story (written by Chris Anderson, Wired’s Editor-in-Chief and GeekDad.com’s Editor Emeritus) and even the latest issue of Make magazine has a hands-on DIY article on building and/or modifying miniature drones. War coverage has made the Predator and Reaper drones easily recognizable, and who can forget how much news was made when Iran held a press conference to show off a downed US-operated Sentinel drone? Iran claimed to have shot it down, but the more likely reason (and the official US response) was that the controls were electronically jammed or there was a systems crash of sorts. And it’s this idea of electronic jamming and losing control of a drone that brings me back to the subject of the new book and a key question it raises: Should drones be given full autonomy in the theater of war, removing the kill decision from a human operator and instead installing it in a drone in the form of programming?
This is Suarez’s third novel, and if you haven’t read either Daemon or Freedom(TM), his first two novels that told the story of a crazed (and dead) game designer who declares war on the current state of the world by creating an advanced software application capable of recruiting foot soldiers, purchasing weapons, investing in new technologies, and basically using the Internet as its backbone while it unleashes attacks on organizations, individuals, and even entire countries: Are you crazy? I’m not sure whether to tell you to put reading Kill Decision on hold until you’ve read the earlier two novels or not, but I can tell you that all three books should be on a geek reader’s Must Read list.
Anyway, back to Kill Decision. Right now, we see drones on the news operating solo — a human operator hundreds or even thousands of miles away flying one remote-controlled, safe and secure away from the enemy. But what would happen if instead of one drone, there were hundreds or thousands of them, working together, aware of their position relative to one another, capable of communicating and assigning tasks among the group? And what if all of these drones had decision-making capabilities programmed in, capable of making life and death decisions without consulting a human operator? And what if these drones were all made from off-the-shelf parts that could not be easily traced back to a buyer with any particular affiliation or even country? How would a government or military react to an attack from a source that is autonomous, overwhelming in numbers, and completely deniable in terms of ownership?
These are all questions that are raised in the pages of Kill Decision. The story is about a small group of individuals who discover that a series of terrorist attacks on US soil are being carried out by an unknown organization using inexpensive (relative to fighter jets, that is) technology that has been weaponized, programmed to kill, and has no perceivable pattern for its attacks. To make matters worse, the technology is being controlled by software that is both cutting edge and completely unknown to much of the world. And when the people responsible for this cutting edge tech discover that their research, software, or technology is part of this conspiracy, they are immediately targeted and killed to tie up loose ends. The story is part chase and part escape, from one side of the globe to the other, as those aware of the secret behind the attacks begin to realize not only which players are involved but also their motives. Suarez has created a special team composed of military and research experts who each bring their own specialties as well as their own secrets. It’s a great mix of characters.
As with Suarez’s other books, you end up with what I’ll call a mini-education in various subjects as you read through his books. He definitely does his research (and provides the books and journals he references at the book’s end) and I often found myself jumping to Google to verify if something he had written was based on fact or completely made up. What scared me the most was just how much of his story is based on fact. Take, for example, his expert on Weaver ants. Her research and software model are part of what make up the swarming behavior exhibited by the various drones attacks. To understand (and explain) exactly how these drones communicate and behave with respect to one another, you’ll get a crash course in ant behavior and pheromones. And believe it or not, Suarez manages to not only make pheromones entertaining, but he also totally pulls it all together throughout the book by showing you exactly how non-technology-related items (such as ant behavior) are related to killing machines such as drones. And it’s not just ants and pheromones… plan on learning a bit about visual comprehension (by machines), public relations, autonomous sniper rifles, cargo containers and ships, and ravens. Yes. Ravens. I don’t want to ruin it, but you’ll love it. And much more.
Just when I thought I’d pegged something as purely fictional, I’d learn I was completely wrong. (And you’ll see just how wrong I was if you read the interview with the author at the end of this review.)
At Maker Faire in San Francisco a month ago, I got a close-up look at a number of drones sold by 3D Robotics (also founded by Chris Anderson). I was completely fascinated, and am still considering purchasing one to build with my oldest son. The stability and quality of the four and six engine drones sold to hobbyists for between $500 and $1,000 is astounding. I cannot help but picture hundreds… thousands… of these things being used to patrol the skies, both here and abroad. As the cost comes down, the processing power goes up, and the ease-of-use (in both configuration and control) approaches that of a mobile phone, I have to agree with the author that the likelihood of drones ever going away is zero. One of the closing messages that I got from the book is just how important it is right now to get a grasp on this technology and implement some legislation (locally) and treaties (internationally) that could help reduce the risk of proliferation of a technology that is within any individual’s or any country’s grasp.
Kill Decision is an eyes-wide-open, eyebrows raised, head shaking warning. The book may have come to a satisfactory end for me, but the real story is unfolding as you read this, with technologies both real and under development. And as I wrote at the beginning of this review, I now find myself paying a bit more attention to mentions of drone technology development. I also find myself thinking about an inevitable flock of drones in the Atlanta sky, wondering if I’ll feel safer… or more exposed.
I’d like to thank Daniel Suarez for both the review copy of Kill Decision and for taking time to answer my questions about the book and a few other topics. His responses are below. The book will be released on July 19, 2012.
Kelly: The good guys in the book are completely against the idea of drones having autonomy — in your research, did you come across any valid reasons for the support of this technology? I know that standard drones can have their communication jammed, but are there any other reasons why the US military might want to allow machines to have their own decision-making ability when it comes to warfare?
Suarez: As you note, remotely piloted drones can be rendered useless through signal-jamming, so if drones are to remain useful on the 21st century battlefield, they’ll need to make some decisions on their own. One key area where I can see drones having legitimate kill-decision authority is when fighting against other drones. I expect some drones will be built as specialists in hunting particular models of enemy drones — or popular models on sale in international arms markets. They might also be reprogrammed with new target profiles over time as new enemy machines come on the market.
By the way, some nations and non-state groups won’t be at all reluctant to build machines capable of making a human kill decision, but I suggest there are sound reasons why democracies should not empower machines with human kill-decision authority. First and foremost is the risk of concentrating too much political power in unseen, unaccountable hands. At present, war-making in a democracy is an endeavor that requires the cooperation of many other human beings — which acts as a restraint against any single person’s worst impulses from being carried out. Already some claim that the burden of war is not shared by enough of the population, and that too few citizens know or care what’s going on overseas. This would only get worse if machines were doing all the fighting for us. Likewise, machines are likely to follow any order — even an unlawful one.
Kelly: You use the swarm activity of ants as the basis for drone intelligence, and I’m curious why you selected ants over more traditional swarming insects such as bees or wasps. Do these insects differ in how the colony communicates and directs its activities?
Suarez: While bees and wasps are fascinating social insects in their own right, they didn’t have the vicious streak I was looking for in my fictional war machines. Bees tolerate the existence of many other species within their large domain. Direct attacks on the hive are dealt with, but bees don’t conduct long-distance wars to extirpate neighboring bee hives. Weaver ants, on the other hand, are ferociously territorial, suffering almost no other species — or even non-colony members of their own species — to exist within their domain. Given the chance, they will relentlessly attack any living thing they encounter, either to eat it, destroy it, or both. By instilling the behavior of a weaver ant onto a flying platform (and giving it guns instead of mandibles), my drone builders created a flying killer far more ill-tempered than even Africanized honey bees.
Kelly: The ravens in your story were great, and you’ve got me wondering now about their true intelligence. Did you discover any surprising information about ravens during your research that made it into the story and would be surprising to readers as being 100% true?
Suarez: I developed both a fascination and profound respect for ravens in researching this story. One of the most surprising things I discovered was how ravens have long shown interest in humans — so much so that they can recognize and remember individual human faces for years. Professor John Marzluff of the University of Washington has done pioneering research in this area with both crows and ravens — a good example of which can be seen in this PBS video clip about crows (and bear in mind, ravens are the crow’s smarter cousins, evincing even more powerful facial recognition skills).
But why would they need to do this? I delve into this in my book, in some detail, but suffice it to say, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years.
Briefly, another fascinating surprise was the propensity of ravens to mimic human sounds, much like parrots or lyrebirds do. Again, it seems to have been developed to interact with other species, not just each other. It’s one of the reasons the raven has been known as the trickster or as a god-spirit in many unrelated cultures throughout human history.
Kelly: As someone who has seen a lawnmower-sized drone with cameras and GPS programmability, I could easily picture a swarm of hundreds or thousands of these devices acting as a single force. Have you seen any practical applications first-hand when it comes to multiple drones working together?
Suarez: The answer that immediately comes to mind are the nano-quadrotors at the U of Penn GRASP Lab. However, when I started writing this book that hadn’t hit yet. I was inspired instead by reading books like Wired for War by P.W. Singer along with many other articles and essays on swarming behavior in robotics and ant colony optimization. With processing power, storage, and memory along with programmable controllers (like the Arduino) coming down in price and increasing in power every year, the time is ripe for swarming drones to take the stage in many civilian and military applications. Actually, I’m quite excited at the many purposes to which civilian drones will be put in coming years (environmental monitoring, search & rescue, delivery, security, photography, etc.).
Kelly: Does it worry you or give you comfort to imagine the US military investing in this technology? Do you see drone-swarm technology as potentially life-saving tech on the battlefield or as something that could get out of hand or even out of control?
Suarez: It’s a bit of both. What I do in my fiction is explore potential realities, in this case as a cautionary tale. Do I have concerns about the proliferation of autonomous combat drones? Certainly. Do I think there’s any stopping the development of combat drones? No. I think as long as civilization remains, drones will be with us from here on. With many nations developing drones — some of those authoritarian or dictatorial governments — I think it’s vital that democratic nations have not only the best drones, but that we also have the best legal framework for their just use. In short, we need to inoculate our institutions against the power-concentrating potential of robotic combat weapons. Checks and balances as well as civilian oversight must be baked in. Distributing power across multiple, accountable people is, after all, a key requirement of democracy.
Kelly: You’re good about taking existing technology and extrapolating just a few years’ jump rather than turning your stories into hard-core science fiction tales set in 2050 or even 2250. What other technologies are you paying attention to at the moment that you see as possible game-changers, either in the military or private sectors?
Suarez: I’m working on such a thriller at the moment; however, I never publicly discuss works-in-progress (I find it takes away from the doing part). If it makes you feel better, not even my mother knows what my next book is about. 🙂
Kelly: As drone technology continues to drop in price and complexity, do you see any dangers with the technology when it comes to allowing hobbyist access to it? With hobbyist drones hovering (heh) around $500 to $800 for a top-of-the-line device, is it inevitable that the technology will be modified for crime? Will be be hearing about thieves using drones as reconnaissance or even backup for robberies?
Suarez: I’m not all that worried about hobbyists abusing this technology — or individual criminals using drones in burglaries or violence. What concerns me is their potential use by trans-national criminal organizations, terrorist groups, and nation states. For example, even at $500, I don’t know many hobbyists who would risk having their drone seized or destroyed just to cause some mayhem or a prank. That’s like throwing an iPhone through someone’s plate glass window as a joke — not a common problem.
Organizations, on the other hand, might use autonomous drones in problematic ways — such as illegal or dangerous operations. I don’t think it’ll be long before we read about narco-traffickers using swarms of $800 drones to transport sub-kilo narcotic payloads across borders. At $30,000 per kilo, if half a shipment gets waylaid, that’s still a major profit (and all without humans risking a border crossing). Likewise terrorists and governments could use weaponized swarming drones to carry out deadly covert operations with little or no risk of being identified afterward. I think the specter of truly anonymous warfare — where one can’t be sure who launched an attack — is nearly upon us, and autonomous drones will help make that happen. In such a case it will be very difficult for a nation to turn its firepower on those responsible, which could result in increased, low-intensity conflicts throughout the world, and relentless targeted assassinations.
Kelly: Do you think legislation may be needed to block the actual development and/or use of autonomous drones in the theater of war? Do you think we’ve passed the point of no return when it comes to actual drone technology use in the military?
Suarez: I think it’s vital that we ratify an international treaty on robotic warfare and do so well before things get out of hand. It’s actually in the interests of all nations and soldiers in uniform that we codify what is and is not legal when it comes to using robots in war. I think it’s even in the interests of major drone manufacturers that such laws be developed; that way they’ll know how to develop machines that meet the legal standard and thus avoid future litigation and liability. Have no doubt, combat drones are here to stay, and just as we’ve formulated rules for human conduct of war, so too must we form rules for conduct of robotic war — particularly when humans might be the targets, and without hope of matching the speed, endurance, range, and firepower of robotic opponents.
Kelly: There’s a slight hint that the story isn’t over, but I’m wondering where you’d go from here? Do you have plans for a follow-up or will Kill Decision stand on its own? (That said, I really like Odin and his team, and you’ve got a great set of characters that are just primed for another story, drones or no drones.)
Suarez: I do have a continuation of the story in mind — because of course, in real life the drone story is also far from over.