The Little Military Drone that Could

We hear all around us about the major breakthroughs that await just around the bend: of miraculous cures for cancer, of amazing feats of genetic engineering, of robots that will soon take over the job market. And yet, underneath all the hubbub, there lurk the little stories – the occasional bizarre occurrences that indicate the kind of world we’re going into. One of those recent tales happened at the beginning of this year, and it can provide a few hints about the future. I call it – The Tale of the Little Drone that Could.

Our story begins towards the end of January 2017, when said little drone was launched at Southern Arizona as part of a simple exercise. The drone was part of the Shadow RQ-7Bv2 series, but we’ll just call it Shady from now on. Drones like Shady are usually being used for surveillance by the US army, and should not stray more than 77 miles (120 km) away from their ground-based control station. But Shady had other plans in the mind it didn’t have: as soon as it was launched, all communications were lost between the drone and the control station.

shadow uav.jpg
Shady the drone. Source: Department of Defense

Other, more primitive drones, would probably have crashed at around this stage, but Shady was a special drone indeed. You see, Shadow drones enjoy a high level of autonomy. In simpler words, they can stay in the air and keep on performing their mission even if they lose their connection with the operator. The only issue was that Shady didn’t know what its mission was. And as the confused operators on the ground realized at that moment – nobody really had any idea what it was about to do.

Autonomous aerial vehicles are usually programmed to perform certain tasks when they lose communication with their operators. Emergency systems are immediately activated as soon as the drone realizes that it’s all alone, up there in the sky. Some of them circle above a certain point until radio connection is reestablished. Others attempt to land straight away on the ground, or try to return to the point from which they were launched. This, at least, is what the emergency systems should be doing. Except that in Shady’s case, a malfunction happened, and they didn’t.

Or maybe they did.

Some believe that Shady’s memory accidentally contained the coordinates of its former home in a military base in Washington state, and valiantly attempted to come back home. Or maybe it didn’t. These are, obviously, just speculations. It’s entirely possible that the emergency systems simply failed to jump into action, and Shady just kept sailing up in the sky, flying towards the unknown.

Be that as it may, our brave (at least in the sense that it felt no fear) little drone left its frustrated operators behind and headed north. It flew up on the strong winds of that day, and sailed over forests and Native American reservations. Throughout its flight, the authorities kept track over the drone by radar, but after five hours it reached the Rocky Mountains. It should not have been able to pass them, and since the military lost track of its radar signature at that point, everyone just assumed Shady crashed down.

But it didn’t.

Instead, Shady rose higher up in the air, to a height of 12,000 feet (4,000 meters), and glided up and above the Rocky Mountains, in environmental conditions it was not designed for and at distances it was never meant to be employed in. Nonetheless, it kept on buzzing north, undeterred, in a 632 miles journey, until it crashed near Denver. We don’t know the reason for the crash yet, but it’s likely that Shady simply ran out of fuel at about that point.

The Rocky Mountains. Shady crossed them too.

And that is the tale of Shady, the little drone that never thought it could – mainly since it doesn’t have any thinking capabilities at all – but went the distance anyway.


What Does It All Mean?

Shady is just one autonomous robot out of many. Autonomous robots, even limited ones, can perform certain tasks with minimal involvement by a human operator. Shady’s tale is simply a result of a bug in the robot’s operation system. There’s nothing strange in that by itself, since we discover bugs in practically every program we use: the Word program I’m using to write this post occasionally (and rarely, fortunately) gets stuck, or even starts deleting letters and words by itself, for example. These bugs are annoying, but we realize that they’re practically inevitable in programs that are as complex as the ones we use today.

Well, Shady had a bug as well. The only difference between Word and Shady is that the second is a military drone worth $1.5 million USD, and the bug caused it to cross three states and the Rocky Mountains with no human supervision. It can be safely said that we’re all lucky that Shady is normally only used for surveillance, and is thus unarmed. But Shady’s less innocent cousin, the Predator drone, is also being used to attack military targets on the ground, and is thus equipped with two Hellfire anti-tank missiles and with six Griffin Air-to-surface missiles.

A Predator drone firing away. 

I rather suspect that we would be less amused by this episode, if one of the armed Predators were to take Shady’s place and sail across America with nobody knowing where it’s going to, or what it’s planning to do once it gets there.


Robots and Urges

I’m sure that the emotionally laden story in the beginning of this post has made some of you laugh, and for a very good reason. Robots have no will of their own. They have no thoughts or self-consciousness. The sophisticated autonomous robots of the present, though, exhibit “urges”. The programmers assimilate into the robots certain urges, which are activated in pre-defined ways.

In many ways, autonomous robots resemble insects. Both are conditioned – by programming or by the structure of their simple neural systems – to act in certain ways, in certain situations. From that viewpoint, insects and autonomous robots both have urges. And while insects are quite complex organisms, they have bugs as well – which is the reason that mosquitos keep flying into the light of electric traps in the night. Their simple urges are incapable of dealing with the new demands placed by modern environment. And if insects can experience bugs in unexpected environments, how much more so for autonomous robots?

Shady’s tale shows what happens when a robot obeys the wrong kind of urges. Such bugs are inevitable in any complex system, but their impact could be disastrous when they occur in autonomous robots – especially of the armed variety that can be found in the battlefield.


Scared? Take Action!

If this revelation scares you as well, you may want to sign the open letter that the Future of Life Institute released around a year and a half ago, against the use of autonomous weapons in war. You won’t be alone out there: more than a thousand AI researchers have already signed that letter.

Will governments be deterred from employing autonomous robots in war? I highly doubt that. We failed to stop even the potentially world-shattering nuclear proliferation, so putting a halt to robotic proliferation doesn’t seem likely. But at least when the next Shady or Freddy the Predator get lost next time, you’ll be able to shake your head in disappointment and mention that you just knew that would happen, that you warned everyone in advance, and nobody listened to you.

And when that happens, you’ll finally know what being a futurist feels like.




What Will Google Look Like in 2030?

I was asked on Quora what Google will look like in 2030. Since that is one of the most important issues the world is facing right now, I took some time to answer it in full. 

Larry Page, one of Google’s two co-founders, once said off-handedly that Google is not about building a search engine. As he said it, “Oh, we’re really making an AI”. Google right now is all about building the world brain that will take care of every person, all the time and everywhere.

By 2030, Google will have that World Brain in existence, and it will look after all of us. And that’s quite possibly both the best and worst thing that could happen to humanity.

To explain that claim, let me tell you a story of how your day is going to unfold in 2030.

2030 – A Google World

You wake up in the morning, January 1st, 2030. It’s freezing outside, but you’re warm in your room. Why? Because Nest – your AI-based air conditioner – knows exactly when you need to wake up, and warms the room you’re in so that you enjoy the perfect temperature for waking up.

And who acquired Nest three years ago for $3.2 billion USD? Google did.

Google acquired Nest for $3.2 billion USD. Source: Fang Digital Marketing

You go out to the street, and order an autonomous taxi to take you to your workplace. Who programmed that autonomous car? Google did. Who acquired Waze – a crowdsourcing navigation app? That’s right: Google did.

After lunch, you take a stroll around the block, with your Google Glass 2.0 on your eyes. Your smart glasses know it’s a cold day, and they know you like hot cocoa, and they also know that there’s a cocoa store just around the bend which your friends have recommended before. So it offers to take you there – and if you agree, Google earns a few cents out of anything you buy in the store. And who invented Google Glass…? I’m sure you get the picture.

I can go on and on, but the basic idea is that the entire world is going to become connected in the next twenty years. Many items will have sensors in and on them, and will connect to the cloud. And Google is not only going to produce many of these sensors and appliances (such as the Google Assistant, autonomous cars, Nest, etc.) but will also assign a digital assistant to every person, that will understand the user better than that person understands himself.


It’s a Google World. Source: ThemeReflex

The Upside

I probably don’t have to explain why the Google World Brain will make our lives much more pleasant. The perfect coordination and optimization of our day-to-day dealings will ensure that we need to invest less resources (energy, time, concentration) to achieve a high level of life quality. I see that primarily as a good thing.

So what’s the problem?

The Downside

Here’s the thing: the digital world suffers from what’s called “The One Winner Effect”. Basically it means that there’s only place for one great winner in every sector. So there’s only one Facebook – the second largest social media network in English is Twitter, with only ~319 million users. That’s nothing compared to Facebook’s 1.86 billion users. Similarly, Google controls ~65% of the online search market. That’s a huge number when you realize that competitors like Yahoo and Bing – large and established services – control most of the rest ~35%. So again, one big winner.

So what’s the problem, you ask? Well, a one-winner market tends to create soft monopolies, in which one company can provide the best services, and so it’s just too much of a hassle to leave for other services. Google is creating such a soft monopoly. Imagine how difficult it will be for you to wake up tomorrow morning and migrate your e-mail address to one of the competitors, transfer all of your Google Docs there, sell your Android-based (Google’s OS!) smartphone and replace it with an iPhone, wake up cold in the morning because you’ve switched Nest for some other appliance that hasn’t had the time to learn your habits yet, etc.

Can you imagine yourself doing that? I’m sure some ardent souls will, but most of humanity doesn’t care deeply enough, or doesn’t even have the options to stop using Google. How do you stop using Google, when every autonomous car on the street has a Google Camera? How do you stop using Google, when your website depends on Google not banning it? How do you stop using Google when practically every non-iPhone smartphone relies on an Android operating system? This is a Google World.

And Google knows it, too.

Google Flexes it’s Muscles

Recently, around 200 people got banned from using Google services because they cheated Google by reselling the Pixel smartphone. Those people woke up one morning, and found out they couldn’t log into their Gmail, that they couldn’t acess their Google Docs, and if they were living in the future – they would’ve probably found out they can’t use Google’s autonomous cars and other apps on the street. They were essentially sentenced to a digital death.

Now, public uproar caused Google to back down and revive those people’s accounts, but this episode shows you the power that Google are starting to amass. And what’s more, Google doesn’t have to ban people in such direct fashion. Imagine, for example, that your website is being demoted by Google’s search engine (which nobody knows how it works) simply because you’re talking against Google. Google is allowed by law to do that. So who’s going to stand up and talk smack about Google? Not me, that’s for sure. I love Google.

To sum things up, Google is not required by law to serve everyone, or even to be ‘fair’ in its recommendations about services. And as it gathers more power and becomes more prevalent in our daily lives, we will need to find mechanisms to ensure that Google or Google-equivalent services are provided to everyone, to prevent people being left outside the system, and to enable people to keep being able to speak up against Google and other monopolies.

So in conclusion, it’s going to be a Google world, and I love Google. Now please share this answer, since I’m not sure Google will!

Note: all this is not to say that Google is ‘evil’ or similar nonsense. It is not even unique – if Google takes the fall tomorrow, Amazon, Apple, Facebook or even Snapchat will take its place. This is simply the nature of the world at the moment: digital technologies give rise to big winners. 

Want to have Better Memory? Marry More People!

“So let me get this straight,” I said to one of the mothers in my son’s preschool. “You want to have a parent meeting, where we’ll demand that all the kids in the preschool will only receive vegan organic food cooked in the school perimeter?”

She nodded in affirmation.

“Well, this sounds like a meeting I just can’t miss.” I decided. “Give me a second to check my cellphone number. I just don’t remember it anymore.”

Her mouth twisted as I took out my smartphone and opened my contact book. “You really must rid yourself of this device.” She sniffed. “It’s ruining everyone’s memories.”

“Oh, certainly.” I smiled back at her. “First, just get a divorce from your husband. Then I’ll divorce my smartphone.”

“Excuse me?” Her eyes widened.

“It’s pretty simple.” I explained. “The smartphone is a piece of technology. It’s a tool that serves us and aids our memory. You could easily say that marriage is a similar technology – a social tool that evolved to augment and enhance our cognitive functions. This is what psychologist Daniel Wagner and his colleagues discovered in the 80s, when they noticed that married couples tend to share the burden of memories between each other. The husband, for example, remembered when they should take the cat to the vet, while the wife remembered her mother in law’s date of birth. You remember the date of your mother in law’s birthday, don’t you?”

“No, and I have no intention to.” She chillingly said. “Now, I would ask you to – “

“Maybe you should have better communication with your husband.” I tried to offer advice. “Wagner found out that memory sharing between couples happens naturally when the live and communicate with each other. Instead of opening an encyclopedia to find the answers to certain questions, the husband can just ask his wife. Wagner called this phenomenon transactive memory, since both husband and wife share memories because they are so accessible to each other. Together, they are smarter than each of them. And who knows? This may be one reason for the durability of the marriage institution in human culture – it has served us throughout history and enabled couples to make better and more efficient choices. For example, you and your husband probably discussed with each other about the best ways to take a mortgage on your house, didn’t you?”

“We didn’t need any mortgage.” She let me know in no uncertain terms. “And I must say that I’m shocked by your – “

“ – by my knowledge?” I completed the sentence for her. “I am too. All this information, and much more, appears in Clive Thompson’s book, Smarter than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, which I’m currently reading. Highly recommended, by the way. Do you want me to loan it to you when I finish?”

“I would not.” She shot back. “What I want is for you to – “

“ – to give you more advice. I would love to!” I smiled. “Well, for starters, if you want an even better memory then you should probably add a few more partners to marry. Research has shown that transactive memory works extremely well in large groups. For example, when people learned complicated tasks like putting together a radio, and were later tested to see what they’ve learned, the results were clear: if you learned in a group and were tested as part of a group, then you had better success than those who learned alone. Students can also use transactive memory: they divide memory tasks between the members of the learning group, and as a result they can analyze the subject in a deeper and more meaningful manner. So maybe you should find a few more husbands. Or wives. Whatever you like. We don’t judge others, here in America.”

“Or maybe – “ And here I paused for a second, as her face rapidly changed colors. “Maybe I can keep my smartphone with me. Which would you prefer?”

She opened her mouth, thought better of it, turned around and got out of the door.

“You forgot to take my number!” I called after her. When she failed to reply, I crouched down to my kid.

“I’ve got a lot to tell her about organic food, too.” I told him. “Please ask her son for their phone number, and tell it to me tomorrow, OK?”

He promised to do so, and I stroked his hair affectionately. Transactive memory really is a wonderful thing to have.


Garbage, Trash, and the Future of Jobs

“Hey, wake up! You’ve got to see something amazing!” I gently wake up my four years old son.

He opens his eyes and mouth in a yawn. “Is it Transformers?” He asks hopefully.

“Even better!” I promise him. “Come outside to the porch with me and you’ll see for yourself!”

He dashes outside with me. Out in the street, Providence’s garbage truck is taking care of the trash bins in a completely robotic fashion. Here’s the evidence I shot it so you can see for yourself. –


The kid glares at me. “That’s not a Transformer.” He says.

“It’s a vehicle with a robotic arm that grabs the trash bins, lifts them up in the air and empties them into the truck.” I argue. “And then it even returns the bins to their proper place. And you really should take note of this, kiddo, because every detail in this scene provides hints about the way you’ll work in the future, and how the job market will look like.”

“What’s a job?” He asks.

I choose to ignore that. “Here are the most important points. First, routine tasks become automated. Routine tasks are those that need to be repeated without too much of a variation in between, and can therefore be easily handled by machines. In fact, that’s what the industrial revolution was all about – machines doing human menial labor more efficiently than human workers on a massive scale. But in last few decades machines have shown themselves capable of taking more and more routine tasks on themselves. And very soon we’ll see tasks that have been considered non-routine in the past, like controlling a car, being relegated to robots. So if you want to have a job in the future, try to find something that isn’t routine – a job that requires mental agility and finding solutions to new challenges every day.”

He’s decidedly rubbing his eyes, but I’m on the horse now.

“Second, we’ll still need workers, but not as many. Science fiction authors love writing about a future in which nobody will ever need to work, and robots will serve us all. Maybe this future will come to pass, but on the way there we’ll still need human workers to bridge the gap between ancient and novel systems. In the garbage car, for example, the robotic arm replaces two or three workers, but we still need the driver to pilot the vehicle – which is ancient technology – and to deal with unexpected scenarios. Even when the vehicle will be completely autonomous and won’t need a driver, a few workers will still be needed to be on alert: they’ll be called to places where the car has malfunctioned, or where the AI has identified a situation it’s incapable or unauthorized to deal with. So there will still be human workers, just not as many as we have today.”

He opens his mouth for a yawn again, but I cut him short. “Never show them you’re tired! Which brings me to the third point: in the future, we’ll need fewer workers – but of high caliber. Each worker will carry a large burden on his or her shoulders. Take this driver, for example: he needs to stop in the exact spot in front of every bin, operate the robotic arm and make sure nothing gets messy. In the past, the drivers didn’t need to have all that responsibility because the garbage workers who rode in the best of the truck did most of the work. The modern driver also had to learn to operate the new vehicle with the robotic arm, so it’s clear that he is learning and adapting to new technologies. These are skills that you’ll need to learn and acquire for yourself. And when will you learn them?!”

“In the future.” He recites by rote in a toneless voice. “Can I go back to sleep now?”

“Never.” I promise him. “You have to get upgraded – or be left behind. Take a look at those two bins on the pavement. The robotic arm can only pick up one of them – and it’s the one that comes in the right size. The other bin is being left unattended, and has to wait until the primitive human can come and take care of it. In other words, only the upgraded bin receives the efficient and rapid treatment by the garbage truck. So unless you want to stay like that other trash bin way behind, you have to prepare for the future and move along with it – or everyone else will leap ahead of you.”

He nods with drooping lids, and yawns again. I allow him to complete this yawn, at least.

“OK daddy.” He says. “Now can I go back to bed?”

I stare at him for a few more moments, while my mind returns from the future to the present.

“Yes,” I smile sadly at him. “Go back to bed. The future will wait patiently for you to grow up.”

My gaze follows him as he goes back to him room, and the smile melts from my lips. He’s still just four years old, and will learn all the skills that he needs to handle the future world as he grows up.

For him, the future will wait patiently.

For others – like those unneeded garbage workers – it’s already here.