The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

How Techies Can Help Us Avoid the Rise of the Warbots

The sad truth of technological progress is that it often leads to worse outcomes, often for long periods of time. The classic example is agriculture, which led to most people living shorter, more unhealthy lives with more dental problems (pain!) and harder births for women. Most of these people also were oppressed by harsh kings, nobles, or big men.

Communications technologies are often heralded, and they have their good sides, but every significant advance in communications from oral memory techniques and writing to the modern internet has been used to increase centralized control and enable closeer control of more and more people. Modern surveillance and immediate communications allow micro-control of individuals which used to require a slave driver right there on the spot. (Hi, Amazon warehouses and delivery drivers!)

Other results have been mixed. For example, gunpowder led to mass conscription armies, and conscription armies have tended to correlate strongly with more democratic and equal societies. (It is VERY robust that those who actually are necessary for fighting get treated well — from Athens and Rome to medieval knights to Swiss Pikemen.)

We’ve moved out of the mass conscription era into a “professional” military period, and this has corresponded with a loss of equality, but we are now moving into an extremely dangerous period: The rise of autonomous fighting machines. Turkey used them in the recent Azerbijan/Armenian war, and almost everyone is working on them.

Warbots mean you only need to keep a small techie class happy, and even they don’t really have a veto on how elites use the warbots. If they want to massacre protestors, there is almost no possibility of refusal.

The narrowing of the base of people necessary, and their removal from the actual fighting puts us in a dangerous place, where .1 percent + a small, well-treated technical group can dominate a society and win wars; they don’t need everyone else beyond the Warbot supply chain.

So what we need is an easy counter. Something like IEDs – a technology any decent techie can create without needing a ton of resources.

Most modern techies spend their entire lives working on questionable techs–how to serve more ads to convince people to buy shit they don’t need — tech that does no good in the world.

If you’re an inventor type, and you want to do good, here’s your chance: Figure out a counter to warbots that ordinary people can use.

(My writing helps pay my rent and buys me food. So please consider subscribing or donating if you like my writing.)


Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – June 20, 2021


Why Non-surveillance States Will Out-compete Surveillance States


  1. bruce wilder

    More and better warbots! [Irony tag]

    I am not sure that the first generation of effective warbots won’t be a more distributed if not exactly democratizing development. Drones are pretty darn cheap and the kind of algorithms that drive TikTok or drive Teslas can be remarkably stupid.

    What this tech is good at is targeting, but who is most vulnerable to being targeted?

    I have noticed that a number of tech wunderkind have expressed concerns about artificial intelligence reaching a dangerous singularity in the next five to ten tears. I do not think Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk is worried for my insignificant self.

    The easy military scenario to anticipate is that any highly concentrated nexus of firepower becomes vulnerable to highly dispersed, numerous threats. Against a drone swarm what can an aircraft carrier do, really?

    A very small number could dominate a very large number if the small number could monopolize its technical means, but can they? Command-and-control could be enhanced by clear channels and computational competence applied to mass surveillance. But, if computational competence, like the self-driving car, retreats to the horizon again and again while the channels grow noisier, what then?

    I don’t see this speculation as cause for optimism. In the contest between the base of the pyramid and the apex, the equilibrium is likely to be an immiserating one, even if the misery comes more from the top trying their predatory best and failing than from trying and succeeding.

  2. Bill H.

    Well, the biggest downside of warbots is not that a small coterie can control them, but that they make it far too easy, too risk free, to fight wars. When you can go out and slaughter the enemy with no risk of loss of life to yourself, there is no downside to starting wars over trivia.

  3. Joan

    The US already has kill-bots, used domestically. Remember the Dallas sniper was killed by one.

    Growing up in the South, I did disc-shooting as a child. Twelve and fourteen gauge rifles firing at a clay disc that’s flung into the air by a machine. The toy drones I’ve seen would make for simple disc-shooting. I find it hilarious when a child brings a toy drone to the park because they’re magnets for dogs and so easily taken out. Obviously we’re not up against the toys though.

    It’s summer; people sleep with their windows open. How easy it would be to have a toy-sized drone just go in and shoot people. What a world.

  4. Dave Dell

    Just have to develop small weapons that fry the chips. Nuclear pulse is, hopefully, off the table in this regard.

  5. Plague Species

    I do not think Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk is worried for my insignificant self.

    Well, I don’t understand why Musk is worried considering he firmly and emphatically believes we live in a simulation. Who’s to say he’s wrong? Simulation or not, it doesn’t change the fact it’s still just as real to us. We still feel pain. We still die, in a sense. We still love, laugh and cry, or most of do at least. We still smell and taste unless we have COVFEFE-45.

    What if the simulation was set up to test the idea of terraforming a real planet into Earth. The developers want to see how it would turn out and here we are. This is how it would turn out. The results of the simulation are submitted to the terraforming committee and it’s unanimous, this particular target planet called Earth should not be terraformed. End of simulation. End of us and all that is and was. The simulation result revealed it would be disastrous to terraform Earth and the effort would be a complete washout and waste.

  6. Astrid

    There’s a sellable movie script in there, about a dystopian future interrupted by a major Carrington Event.

  7. Ché Pasa

    From the time I first became aware of and came to know some of those in the Tech Sector in the late ’70s-early ’80s, I was struck by how slavishly devoted so many were to power and authority and especially money while simultaneously presenting as “rebels” and “world changers.”

    I came to the conclusion back then that there were no Good Techies. The internal culture did not allow for it. You only do what gains you power, authority and money. Goodness has nothing to do with it.

    Of course Warbots and the kind of dystopiana we live and die with are the result generations later.

    Playing War is what children love to do — they did when I was a child, and they still do, now with more sophisticated simulations thanks in part to our technical wizards. Back in the day, though, nobody got hurt, at least they weren’t supposed to, and everybody went on to don their war-paint and fight again. It was a game; it was not real.

    But those childhood games have (d)evolved into the real wars of today, fought largely from afar over nothing at all but the will to power, and fought on many planes from induced famine and mass migrations to endless Death From Above by unmanned drones. Unreal to those who play these games; all too real to the victims.

    It could be stopped if there were real internal tech rebels determined to do Good; but there still don’t seem to be any, and today’s internal tech culture seems more determined than ever to prevent any arising.

    Still, the systems are highly vulnerable…

  8. Willy

    Maybe if we planted a virus into the mother ship, then it would trickle down to all the other little bot-ships below? Of course, that would mean that somebody would have to fly into the mother ship.

    Musk implied that giving the plebes the option to live in an alternate matrix reality of their choosing will eventually become more cost effective than funding brick and mortar bakeries and colosseums. To that I ask, but then who would the warbots be able to conquer? I mean, waking up a bunch of conservatives living in a Christian gunslinger paradise dream world would only make them grumpy. Do you give them a buncha brick and mortar guns to make your conquering them interesting?

    Why does saving liberal democracy always seem to depend on limiting concentrations of power?

  9. Plague Species

    Soleimani was assassinated with a drone strike. I’m surprised more high level vips haven’t been since. When will Iran avenge his murder? Fat Donny is laughing at them from Mar-a-Lago. Fat Donny loves drones. Fat Donny loves Warbots. Fat Donny the pacifist likes to brag about America’s military might. Fat Donny’s apologists and supporters are walking contradictions.

  10. DMC

    Drones, as instruments of say assassination, have reached the point of cheapness simplicity and ubiquitousness, that they have become a game that literally anyone can play. A robust drone from Best Buy, a little bit of electronics and a pound of c4 and anyone is now in a position to play drone assassin. Systems requiring radar, radio communication, satellite control, or similar distributed systems, can be jammed or hacked. When someone figures out how to produce electromagnetic pulse without the use of nuclear weapons, then you have Mass area denial for electronically based systems. Conventional booby traps can be adapted for use against electronic systems. Mist nets are already highly effective against flying drones and as Astrid points out, anyone with relative facility with a shotgun should have no trouble shooting down most low speed drones. People have been doing this latter thing for some time now already. So all is not lost. If Afghanistan taught us nothing else, it should be that high-tech does not necessarily beat low tech properly applied.

  11. Mark Pontin

    Couple of points:

    [1] Most drones, if they don’t have AI, are jammable with the same devices people jam cellphones with. You can jam its link with its human pilot, maybe highjack it remotely, introduce a virus onto its systems. Even if it does have AI, spoofing its GPS navigation may be doable, so you can fool its flight controller to dive into the ground.

    Even the big military ones are jammable in principle. A stronger local transmission will always overwhelm GPS transmissions. Even with the big military drones, that’s a physics problem that’s hard to beat.

    The catch is that you need to be able to field that stronger local transmitter. You don’t hear much about it, but circa 2008-2009 the Iranians jammed a full-blown U.S. Predator or Reaper (can’t recall which) and brought it down.

    [2] Drones have actually been around for many decades — they date back at least to WWII, IIRC. When I was a kid, I recall seeing an episode of the old 1960s-era ‘The Avengers’ TV show (Steed and Emma Peel) where the villains were mounting bombs on radio-controlled model airplanes and assassinating folks. And indeed radio-controlled model airplanes are crude drones.

    What’s different in the last few decades is that we put computer chips into drones. Smartphone chips with GPS will work fine for any drone’s brain, except the big military kinds, so the barriers to entry are low. Thus, younow get things like the Houthi rebels in Yemen mounting attacks on Saudi oil plants, and such. Like this latest from late last month —

    And that’s the future. In the same way that we’ve seen insurgent/tribal militias repurposing flat-back trucks and the old Volvo wagons as “technicals” with mounted RPGs and machine guns on them, we’re going to see groups repurposing comsumer electronics to make drones and counter-measures against drones i.e. (more drones).

    So in time we may see homemade drones with projectiles, lasers, LEDs, and nets to blind cameras; with aerosol cans modified to serve as flying flamethrowers; with nanocarbon strings to shoot onto rotors; with chaff to disrupt near-field and optical communications; and so on. Each new offensive application will breed countermeasures. State and local enforcement will get early access to military technologies, but will face global networks of open-source hacker communities, who can buy the same hardware because it’s cheap. As I say, smartphone chips with GPS will work fine for a drone’s brain.

  12. Mark Pontin

    Ah. I see DMC made the some of the same general points while I was writing.

  13. Chicago Clubs

    I assume you’ve seen the 2017 short film “Slaughterbots.”

    That and the first half of The Shield of Achilles really made me think along the “well they don’t need us anymore so I guess we’re fucked” lines you touch on.

  14. Plague Species

    …and as Astrid points out, anyone with relative facility with a shotgun should have no trouble shooting down most low speed drones…

    Actually, it was Joan who typed that, but your Freudian Slip is warranted. For me, they are one and the same.

    Heretofore, I never realized skeet shooting was the purview of Southern Culture whereas in the Northeast and Midwest and the West they use coke bottles and cans for target practice instead.

  15. mago

    Not so PS. I shotgun blasted skeets as a youth and plunked many a can and bottle as well and I grew up in the dead of the West.
    Not to stray off topic . . .

  16. synoia

    Yes, one side will have Tech Killers. The Other will be the populace.

    Because one side will be the populace, their natural response will be assignation of the Lords of the Tech Killers.

    It’s just a repeat of the middle Ages.

  17. Joan

    On skeet vs. coke cans, I grew up in a suburb with an HOA that would not allow shooting cans in the backyard.

    Plague Species, could you be more civil, please? Thank you. Maybe I’m reading more into your comments toward me than is actually there, and in which case I apologize, but they sound quite rude.

  18. Plague Species

    Quite frankly, I don’t believe there will ever be much need for the Warbots despite defense contractors’ push to purchase them. War as we once knew it and understood it is a relic of the past. It is no more. War, if it can be called that, is now inward, not outward. Control of hearts and minds is the new battlefield and it’s already game over. The conquering is behind us. Now it’s just directing.

  19. Astrid


    PS has no interest in good faith engagement. Assuming he is what he represents himself to be and not a total troll here expressly to rile people up, he is here express his misanthropy in general and his endless loathing for Trump (and maybe me) in particular. He’s very much this principle operating in real life:

    “If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.

    Raylan Givens – Justified”

  20. someofparts

    Joan and Astrid –

    PS is a troll. I have been staying out of comments because of his tacky, stupid abuse. It looks like he is here to aggravate and target women in particular. Ignore him. Scroll past whatever he/she/it says. It is a troll.

  21. synoia

    War bots need instructions, over the air.

    If you’re an inventor type and you want to do good, here’s your chance: figure out a counter to warbots that ordinary people can use.

    Tesla Coil or Ruhmkorff coil aka RF Interference, could work if one cannot conjure a bolt of lightening on demand.

  22. Synoptocon

    I believe you are thinking of the loss of an RQ-170 Sentinel in 2011. There is no chance that Iran successfully downed that vehicle (IIRC, they asserted GPS spoofing via RPV which sounds like total poppycock given the sensor / avionics fit of the RQ-170 platform, to say nothing of its speed and LO characteristics).

  23. Willy

    ”Against a drone swarm what can an aircraft carrier do, really?”

    The same thing Israel does against swarms of homemade missiles, I suppose. Could the drones be made so tiny that they can’t possibly all be accounted for? Perhaps. But I’d think it’d take a helluva lotta mosquito sized drones to punch a hole in all that armor.
    Maybe the targets would be more strategic. Maybe they’d recognize admirals and commanders and all their left tenants and inject them with a fast-acting micro-poison.
    Ah, but these ships would be remotely controlled you say, or maybe even automated. Which takes us back to getting the technological jump on the enemy de jour. Maybe we need more robot surveillance flies on the walls of enemy war rooms. But who is this “we” you say?

    Indeed. I think Ian’s concern is over who gets to control such concentrated power, or more specifically, control over that culture which carefully engineers ensuring such control over concentrated power. Or something like that. Should our robot surveillance flies look for proto-megalomaniacs found weeping at statues of Alexander the Great before it’s too late for the Gauls not to mention our entire Republic?

    Speaking of Trump (as PS and others often imply), no surveillance fly would’ve taken McDonald Trump seriously. Not even the military over which he was supposed to be Commander in Chiefing did. But a helluva lotta sub-IQ folks sure did.

    (Is this what TDS really is? The deranged overestimation/obsession of a bumbling demogogue-wannabe who has immense power?)

    Personally, I think somebody needs to get control over our faith-based culture of greed gone Qanon-amok. Though they still be in the minority, they loudly proclaim that they can maintain freedumb and liburdy with just shotguns and bug zappers. But psychological control technologies may not use tiny drones. Maybe they’ll use something like that Jim Carrey character did in that Batman movie? All I know is that throughout human history, concentrations of power have usually been bad, because of who it is that all power games usually rewards.

  24. Astrid

    I figured that until we live in a situation where surviving such things matter, we’re all just wildly speculating with barest reflection of reality.

    Instead, watch how peoples elsewhere, who actually have to live with some of this day to day, manages. Look at Yemen, Gaza, southern Lebanon, Donbass, Afghanistan…This is outside of my lane.

    What would a world dominated by warbots look like? My mind goes to

  25. Joan

    Thank you Astrid and someofparts.

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