Forecast: In 2016, Terrorists Will Use Aerial Drones for Terrorist Attacks – But What Will Those Drones Carry?

A year ago I wrote a short chapter for a book about emerging technologies and their impact on security, published by Yuval Ne’eman Workshop for Science, Technology & Security and curated by Deb Housen-Couriel. The chapter focused on drones and the various ways they’re being used in the hands of criminals to smuggle drugs across borders, to identify and raid urban marijuana farms operated by rival gangs, and to smuggle firearms and lifestyle luxury items over prison walls. At the end of the paper I provided a forecast: drones will soon be used by terrorists to kill people.

Well, it looks like the future is catching up with us, since a report from Syria (as covered in Popular Mechanic) has just confirmed that ISIS is using small drones as weapons, albeit not very sophisticated ones. In fact, the terrorists are simply loading the drones with explosives, and trying to smash them on the enemy forces.

That, of course, is hardly surprising to anyone who has studied the use of drones by ISIS. The organization is drawing young and resourceful Muslims from the West, some of whom have expertise with emerging technologies like 3D-printers and aerial drones. These kinds of technologies can be developed today in the garage for a few hundred dollars, so it should not surprise anyone that ISIS is using aerial drones wherever it can.

The Islamic State started using drones in 2014, but they were utilized mainly for media and surveillance purposes. Drones were used to capture some great images from battles, as well as for battlefield reconnaissance. Earlier in 2015, the U.S. has decided that ISIS drones are important enough to be targeted for destruction, and launched an airstrike to destroy a drone and its operators. In other words, the U.S. has spent tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in ammunition and fuel for the most expansive and sophisticated aircraft and missiles in the world, in order to destroy a drone likely costing less than one thousand dollars.

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ISIS is using drones on the battlefield. Source: Vocativ

All of this evidence is coming in from just this year and the one before it. How can we expect drones to be used by terrorist organizations in 2016?

 

Scenarios for Aerial Drones Terrorist Attacks

In a research presented in 2013, two Dutch researchers from TNO Defence Research summed up four scenarios for malicious use of drones. Two of these scenarios are targeting civilians and would therefore count as terrorist attacks against unarmed civilians.

In the first scenario, a drone with a small machine gun is directed into a stadium, where it opens fire on the crowd. While the drone would most probably crash within a few seconds because of the backlash, the panic caused by the attack would cause many people to trample each other in their flight to safety.

In the second scenario, a drone would be used by terrorists to drop an explosive straight on the head of a politician, in the middle of a public speech. Security forces in the present are essentially helpless in the face of such a threat, and at most can order the politician into hiding as soon as they see a drone in the sky – which is obviously an impractical solution.

Both of the above scenarios have been validated in recent years, albeit in different ways. A drone was illegally flown into a stadium in the middle of a soccer game between Serbia and Albania. Instead of carrying a machine gun, the drone carried the national flag of Greater Albania – which one of the Serbian players promptly ripped down. He was assaulted immediately by the Albanian players, and soon enough the fans stormed the field, trampling over fences and policemen in the process.

 

The second scenario occurred in September 2013, in the midst of an election campaign event in Germany. A drone operated by a 23 years old man was identified taking pictures in the sky. The police ordered the operator to land the drone immediately, and he did just that and crashed the drone – intentionally or not – at the feet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. If that drone was armed with even a small amount of explosives, the event would’ve ended in a very different fashion.

As you can understand from these examples, aerial drones can easily be used as tools for terrorist attacks. Their potential has not nearly been fulfilled, probably because terrorists are still trying to equip those lightweight drones with enough explosives and shrapnel to make an actual impact. But drones function just as well with other types of ammunition – which can be even scarier than explosives.

Here’s a particularly nasty example: sometime in 2016, in a bustling European city, you are sitting and eating peacefully in a restaurant. You see a drone flashing by, and smile and point at it, when suddenly it makes a sharp turn, dives into the restaurant and floats in the center for a few seconds. Then it sprays all the guests with a red-brown liquid: blood which the terrorists have drawn from a HIV-carrying individual. Just half a liter of blood is more than enough to decorate a room and to cover everyone’s faces. And now imagine that the same happens in ten other restaurants in that city, at the same time.

Would you, as tourists, ever come back to these restaurants? Or to that city? The damages to tourism and to morale would be disastrous – and the terrorists can make all that happen without resorting to the use of any illegal substances or equipment. No explosives at all.

 

Conclusion and Forecast

Here’s today forecast: by the year 2016, if terrorists have their wits about them (and it seems the ISIS ones certainly do, most unfortunately), they will carry out a terrorist attack utilizing drones. They may use the drones for charting out the grounds, or they may actually use the drones to carry explosives or other types of offensive materials. Regardless, drones are such an incredibly useful tool in the hands of individual terrorists that it’s impossible to believe they will not be used somehow.

How can we defend ourselves from drone terrorist attacks? In the next post I will analyze the problem using a foresight methodology called Causal Layered Analysis, in order to get to the bottom of the issue and consider possible solutions.

Till that time, if you find yourself eating in a restaurant when a drone comes in – duck quickly.

 

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Failures in Foresight: The Failure of Segregation

In this post we’ll embark on a journey back in time, to the year 2000, when you were young and eager students. You’re sitting in a lecture given by a bald and handsome futurist. He’s promising to you that within 15 years, i.e. in the year 2015, the exponential growth in computational capabilities will ensure that you will be able to hold a super-computer in your hands.

“Yeah, right,” a smart-looking student sniggers loudly, “and what will we do with it?”

The futurist explains that the future you will watch movies, and hear music with that tiny computer. You exchange bewildered looks with your friends. You all find that difficult to believe in – how can you store large movies on such a small computer? The futurist explains that another trend – that of exponential growth in data storage – will mean that your hand-held super-computer will also store tens of thousands of megabytes.

You see some people in the audience rolling their eyes – promises, promises! Yet you are willing to keep on listening. Of course, the futurist then completely jumps off the cliff of rationality, and promises that in 15 years, everyone will enjoy wireless connectivity almost everywhere, at a speed of tens of megabytes per second.

“That makes no sense.” The smart student laughs again. “Who will ever need such a wireless network? Almost nobody has laptop computers anyway!”

The futurist reminds you that everyone is going to carry super-computers on their bodies in the future. The heckler laughs again, loudly.

 

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The smartphone: a result of several trends coming into fruition together. Source: Pixabay.

 

The Failure of Segregation

I assume you realize the point by now. The failure demonstrated in this exchange is what I call The Failure of Segregation. It is an incredibly common failure, stemming from our need to focus on only a single trend, and missing the combined and cumulative impacts of two, three or even ten trends at the same time.

In the example above, the forecast made by the futurist would not have been reasonable if only one trend was analyzed. Who needs a superfast Wi-Fi if there aren’t advanced laptops and smartphones to use it? Almost nobody. So from a rational point of view, there’s no reason to invest in such a wireless network. It is only when you consider three trends together – exponential growth in computational capabilities, data storage and wireless network – that you can understand the future.

Every product we enjoy today, is the result of several trends coming into fruition together. Facebook, for example, would not have been nearly as successful if not for these trends –

  1. Exponential growth in computational capabilities, so that nearly everyone has a personal computer.
  2. Miniaturization and mobilization of computers into smartphones.
  3. Exponential improvement of digital cameras, so that every smartphone has a camera today.
  4. Cable internet everywhere.
  5. Wireless internet (Wi-Fi) everywhere.
  6. Cellular internet connections provided by the cellular phone companies.
  7. GPS receiver in every smartphone.
  8. The social trend of people using online social networks.

These are only eight trends, but I’m sure there are many others standing behind Facebook’s success. Only by looking at all eight trends could we have hoped to forecast the future accurately.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy to look into all the possible trends at the same time.

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Facebook: another result of the aggregation of several trends together. Source: LimeTree Online

A Problem of Complexity

Let’s say that you are now aware of the Failure of Segregation, and so you try to contemplate all of the technological trends together, to obtain a more accurate image of the future. If you try to consider just three technological trends (A, B and C) and the ways they could work together to create new products, you would have four possible results: AB, AC, BC and ABC. That’s not so bad, is it?

However, if you add just one more technological trend to the mix, you’ll find yourself with eleven possible results. Do the calculations yourself if you don’t believe me. The formula is relatively simple, with N being the number of trends you’re considering, and X being the number of possible combinations of trends –

equation2

It’s obvious that for just ten technological trends, there are about a thousand different ways to combine them together. Considering twenty trends will cause you a major headache, and will bring the number of possible combinations up to one million. Add just ten more trends, and you get a billion possible combinations.

To give you an understanding of the complexity of the task on hand, the international consulting firm Gartner has taken the effort to map 37 of the most highly expected technological trends in their Gartner’s 2015 Hype Cycle. I’ll let you do the calculations yourself for the number of combinations stemming from all of these trends.

The problem, of course, becomes even more complicated once you realize you can combine the same two, three or ten technologies to achieve different results. Smart robots (trend A) enjoying machine learning capabilities (trend B) could be used as autonomous cars, or they could be used to teach pupils in class. And of course, throughout this process we pretend to know that said trends will be continue just the way we expect them to – and trends rarely do that.

What you should be realizing by now is that the opposite of the Failure of Segregation is the Failure of Over-Aggregation: trying to look at tens of trends at the same time, even though the human brain cannot hold such an immense variety of resultant combinations and solutions.

So what can we do?

 

Dancing between Failures

Sadly, there’s no golden rule or a simple solution to these failures. The important thing is to be aware of their existence, so that discussions about the future cannot be oversimplified into considering just one trend, detached from the others.

Professional futurists use a variety of methods, including scenario development, general morphological analysis and causal layered analysis to analyze the different trends and attempt to recombine them into different solutions for the future. These methodologies all have their place, and I’ll explain them and their use in other posts in the future. However, for now it should be clear that the incredibly large number of possible solutions makes it impossible to consider only one future with any kind of certainty.

In some of the future posts in this series, I’ll delve deeper into the various methodologies designed to counter the two failures. It’s going to be interesting!

Nano-Technology and Magical Cups

When I first read about the invention of the Right Cup, it seemed to me like magic. You fill the cup with water, raise it to your mouth to take a sip – and immediately discover that the water has turned into orange juice. At least, that’s what your senses tell you, and the Isaac Lavi, Right Cup’s inventor, seems to be a master at fooling the senses.

Lavi got the idea for the Right Cup some years ago, when he was diagnoses with diabetes at the age of 30. His new condition meant that he had to let go of all sugary beverages, and was forced to drink only plain water. As an expert in the field of scent marketing, however, Lavi thought up of a new solution to the problem: adding scent molecules to the cup itself, which will trick your nose and brain into thinking that you’re actually drinking fruit-flavored water instead of plain water. This new invention can now be purchased on Indiegogo, and hopefully it even works.

 

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The Right Cup – fooling you into thinking that plain water tastes like fruit.

 

“My two diabetic parents are drinking from this cup for the last year and a half.” Lavi told me in an e-meeting we had last week, “and I saw that in taste testing in preschool, kids drank from these cups and then asked for more ‘orange juice’. And I told myself that – Wow, it works!”

What does the Right Cup mean for the future?

A Future of Nano-technology

First and foremost, the Right Cup is one result of all the massive investments in nano-technology research made in the last fifteen years.

“Between 2001 and 2013, the U.S. federal government funneled nearly $18 billion into nanotechnology research… [and] The Obama administration requested an additional $1.7 billion for 2014.” Writes Martin Ford in his 2015 book Rise of the Robots. These billions of dollars produced, among other results, new understandings about the release of micro- and nano-particles from polymers, and the ways in which molecules in general react with the receptors in our noses. In short, they enabled the creation of the Right Cup.

There’s a good lesson to be learned here. When our leaders justified their investments in nano-technology, they talked to us about the eradication of cancer via drug delivery mechanisms, or about bridges held by cobwebs of carbon nanotubes. Some of these ideas will be fulfilled, for sure, but before that happens we might all find ourselves enjoying the more mundane benefits of drinking Illusory orange-flavored water. We can never tell exactly where the future will lead us: we can invest in the technology, but eventually innovators and entrepreneurs will take those innovations and put them to unexpected uses.

All the same, if I had to guess I would imagine many other uses for similar ‘Right Cups’. Kids in Africa could use cups or even straws which deliver tastes, smells and even more importantly – therapeutics – directly to their lungs. Consider, for example, a ‘vaccination cup’ that delivers certain antigens to the lungs and thereby creates an immune reaction that could last for years. This idea brings back to mind the Lucky Iron Fish we discussed in a previous post, and shows how small inventions like this one can make a big difference in people’s lives and health.

 

A Future of Self-Reliance

It is already clear that we are rushing headlong into a future of rapid manufacturing, in which people can enjoy services and production processes in their households that were reserved for large factories and offices in the past. We can all make copies of documents today with our printer/scanner instead of going to the store, and can print pictures instead of waiting for them to be developed at a specialized venue. In short, technology is helping us be more geographically self-reliant – we don’t have to travel anymore to enjoy many services, as long as we are connected to the digital world through the internet. The internet provides information, and end-user devices produce the physical result. This trend will only progress further as 3D printers become more widespread in households.

The Right Cup is another example for a future of self-reliance. Instead of going to the supermarket and purchasing orange juice, you can buy the cup just once and it will provide you with flavored water for the next 6-9 months. But why stop here?

Take the Right Cup of a few years ahead and connect it to the internet, and you have the new big product: a programmable cup. This cup will have a cartridge of dozens of scent molecules, each of which can be released at different paces, and in combination with the other scents. You don’t like orange-flavored water? No problem. Just connect the cup to the World Wide Web and download the new set of instructions that will cause the cup to release a different combination of scents so that your water now tastes like cinnamon flavored apple cider, or any other combinations of tastes you can think of – including some that don’t exist today.

 

A Future of Disruption?

As with any innovation and product proposed on crowdfunding platforms, it’s difficult to know whether the Right Cup will stand up to its hype. As of now the project has received more than $100,000 – more than 200% of the goal they put up. Should the Right Cup prove itself taste-wise, it could become an alternative to many light beverages – particularly if it’s cheap and long-lasting enough.

Personally, I don’t see Coca-Cola, Pepsi and orchard owners going into panic anytime soon, and neither does Lavi, who believes that the beverage industry is “much too large and has too many advertising resources for us to compete with them in the initial stages.” All the same, if the stars align just right, our children may opt to drink from their Right Cups instead of buying a bottle of orange juice at the cafeteria. Then we’ll see some panicked executives scrambling around at those beverages giants.

 

Conclusion

It’s still early to divine the full impact the Right Cup could have on our lives, or even whether the product is even working as well as promised. For now, we would do well to focus only on previously identified mega-trends which the product fulfills: the idea of using nano-technology to remake everyday products and imbue them with added properties, and the principle of self-reliance. In the next decade we will see more and more products based on these principles. I daresay that our children are going to be living in a pretty exciting world.

 

Disclaimer: I received no monetary or product compensation for writing this post.

 

A School Is Engineering Children’s Brains with Electrical Current

Your child comes home from school, crying again. As you try to gently comfort him, he weeps openly on your shoulder – “The numbers won’t stop moving on the blackboard, and I couldn’t do my homework again and Tom said I was stupid!”

After a prolonged talk on the phone with Tom’s mother, you decide that something needs to be done. By now you know that your son has been diagnosed as suffering from dyscalculia: a difficulty in understanding numbers, which afflicts 3 – 6 percent of the population. But what can you do about it? If he had ADHD, you would’ve prescribed Ritalin for him, but there’s no easy and simple treatment you can give him to fix the problem. He’ll just have to work much harder than everyone else to understand math, because of the way his brain is shaped. That’s just the way nature works, right?

Well, we humans are particularly good at circumventing Mother Nature’s whims, and now there’s a new treatment for dyscalculia of a very different sort than anything else before it: basically, this treatment is all about re-engineering the brain of the child, from the inside.

The treatment, which goes by the scary name of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), relies on a helmet that generates magnetic fields inside the brain. Those magnetic fields, which can be focused on small areas in the brain, can enhance or inhibit the communication of the neurons in those areas. Essentially, we’re performing a brain surgery from within the skull, without lifting a finger or using an invasive tool of any sort. And the results are nothing less than astounding.

Despite the fact that TMS is a relatively young technology (the first successful study using TMS was conducted in 1985), it has already been approved by the FDA to treat depression and migraine. The only problem with TMS was that it requires a strong magnetic field, which can be generated (currently) only by a large and cumbersome equipment. In short, this means that TMS can only be used in the lab.

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An illustration depicting the magnetic field being operated on a human brain.

But we did say that humans are good at circumventing problems, right? And so, meet TMS’ more nimble brother, the Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, or TDCS. The idea here is to deliver a low electrical current to the area of the brain you want to influence. Scientific studies have shown that by focusing on specific areas of the brain we can enhance language skills, attention span, memory and – yes, you guessed it – mathematical ability. What’s more, the technology can be used with a pinpoint accuracy, and without having any serious side effects (at least as far as we know).

You’re waiting at the school for children with learning difficulties. Your son sits in front of you, serene and calm, with his eyes closed. After twenty minutes, the school’s nurse removes the electrodes from his forehead, and he opens his eyes again and smiles. She shows him the numbers on a blackboard, and this time he reads them all fluently.

 

This scenario is not science fiction or fantasy. In fact, it’s happening right now. In a recent research conducted by Roi Cohen-Kadosh from the University of Oxford, twelve children at the Fairley House school received nine training sessions with a variant of the TDCS technology. Six of them received the actual treatment, and the rest wore the cap and the electrodes, but did not receive any stimulation. As expected, the children who received the stimulation reached significantly better mathematical achievements than their friends.

A child using Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation. Is this the new form of learning? Image originally from a blog post in Scientific American, by Gary Stix.

The Age of Brain Engineering

There is still a debate whether or not TMS and TDCS can be used to enhance the brain’s function to more-than-human levels, or ‘just’ to negate quirks in the brain like dyscalculia and ADHD, and elevate the person to the normal level of the population. But what are those ‘normal’ levels? Is that an IQ of 100? Or maybe 120, or even 150? Approximately half of the population has an IQ lower than 100. How much would they benefit from a weekly treatment that would jumpstart their brains to the average level?

The debate about human enhancement, therefore, largely misses the full consequences of brain-engineering technologies like TMS and TDCS. Those technologies allow us to engineer the brain, and what’s more – they’re becoming cheap and easy enough to use, that anyone who really wants to can use them. There are already companies working on bringing the technology to the masses, like Foc.us – a company that sells transcranial stimulators that should enhance the brain’s functions for gamers. There’s even a Youtube vid that shows you how to make a TDCS of your own for about 20 dollars (careful, I’m not endorsing that!)

Cohen-Kadosh himself is already envisioning a future in which people “…plug a simple device into an iPad so that their brain is stimulated when they are doing their homework, learning French or taking up the piano.” And while we are obviously not quite there yet, there is no reason we couldn’t get to that point within ten years. After all, Facebook changed the entire way people communicate in just ten years. Why not brain technologies, particularly when they are of the non-invasive sort?

Admittedly, these commercial technologies are still in their diapers right now, and are probably more razzle dazzle than real substance. However, as the technologies mature, we will gain the ultimate power over our brains, and will reach a time of Cosmetic Neurology – when we’ll be able to alter our moods, our abilities and our perceptions according to our wishes. This development might happen in ten or twenty or even thirty years from now, but when it comes, you, me and everyone else will need to answe the question: will we re-engineer our brains?

You’re back at the house. The kid is happily solving mathematical equations in his notebook, while simultaneously watching TV and chatting with his friends on Facebook. You, in the meantime, are still struggling with that new coding language the boss asked you to study this week. You’re tired and miserable from exerting your brain so much. You take a glance at the kid’s TDCS kit, which the school supplied you with, and for a moment… you wonder.

Tattoos, replacement limbs and body modifications – oh my!

Maggie had never worn shorts around her parents. She had a secret she never wanted them to find out about: under her clothes, her body is covered in secret tattoos. The tattoos range in size and shape, from a tiny cross-shaped drawing on her hip, to a large one covering her entire side, depicting a colorful heart with the words MOM and DAD etched above it.

Many people would view Maggie’s body and skin as beautiful, but her parents are conservative Christian folks. Maggie believes they consider tattooed people as people “…who probably dabble in drugs”. Nonetheless, when she decided to reveal her painted body to her parents, she found out to her great surprise that they accepted her, and that they had no problem with her tattoos.

When Norms Change

As Maggie’s story demonstrates, the public acceptance of tattoos in America has undergone a sharp change over the past fifteen years. In 1936, Life magazine assessed that only 6% of Americans had a tattoo. Today, the total percentage of American individuals who have at least one tattoo has more than doubled itself to 14%, and of all American adults aged 26 – 40, a whopping 40% are tattooed. That’s basically almost half of all the population at that age category.

Why are tattoos gaining in popularity all of a sudden? Nobody really knows. Some academics, like Anne Velliquette, believe that people use tattoos to adhere to a certain aspect of themselves that exists in the moment. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Vellinquette describes our current society as chaotic and fragmented, leading people to look for anchors to feelings and states of mind that will never go away.

Whether the explanation is right or wrong, the acceptance of tattoos in society demonstrates how quickly the horrors of the previous generation can become the norms of the present one. So here’s an interesting and entertaining question for us to consider: what body modifications that we view with horror today, will our children consider to be absolutely normal, and possibly even necessary for the expression of the self?

The list of possible body modifications can be quite large. It includes tattoos, ear stretching, horn implants, changing iris color, changing the color of your skin, and even implanting magnets under your skin, and hanging electric appliances on them. If you feel sure that one of these (or another which I haven’t mentioned) is going to become widespread in the future, feel free to say so in the comment section. In the meantime, I’d like to highlight just one category of body modification that has never been applied to a healthy human body so far – but may become a reality within the next few decades.

Replacement Limbs

You walk into a body modification parlor. All around you are samples of the art that you can graft onto your body: from colorful tattoos, to small horns to be implanted on the forehead. After spending a long time staring at the possibilities in front of you, you finally select one.

“I’ll take this robotic hand.” You tell the modification artist. He explains to you, slowly and carefully, that to graft the hand onto your arm he would have to remove your biological, original hand, fingers and all. You just shrug. The biological hand you currently possess has way too many tattoos on it anyway, of past memories you’d rather forget.

This scenario is obviously quite detached from the present, in which every kind of surgical intrusion into the body is considered taboo without a good medical reason. However, the taboo is there for a very specific reason: to protect people from undergoing medical procedures that could expose them to infections. According to the CDC, even if you’re being treated in the most sterilized surgery rooms in the world there’s still a chance of somewhere between 1.9% and 3% for infection.

Let us assume that medicine is about to experience exponential development in the next few decades – an assumption that is very hard to dispute, but which is a topic for another blog post. Such exponential development would result in a society in which infections are a thing of the past, body parts are being grown in vats or printed fully, and robotic prostheses can be implanted onto the body and complement it just as well as our biological limbs do.

There are hints that this future is starting to become true. The most sophisticated prostheses currently are probably made and programmed by Hugh Herr – a professor in the MIT Media Lab, who is also a double amputee by himself. He has designed his own bionic legs and feet, and changes them as though they were fashion items, in order to become taller, shorter or more fitting for mountain hiking. His bionic legs are sophisticated enough that people can actually use them to dance, as though they were real limbs.


Prostheses that are also forms of art start making their way into the public awareness. Models with bionic arms walk the runways at top fashion events, and they no longer bother using a look-alike prosthesis. Instead, they opt for prostheses that – like tattoos – have a deeper meaning. The Alternative Limb Project actually produces prostheses that look intentionally bizarre and extraordinary. And while such prostheses must be extremely expensive, the Makers Movement is starting to 3-D print fully functional prostheses for a few hundred dollars. Some of those ‘house-made’ prostheses will doubtless be drab and grey; others will be as individual as can be, and will come in the shape of robot arms, animal arms, arms with drawings (tattoos?) on them, and many other variations.

An alternative prosthetic arm, that includes snakes going through it. According to the wearer, Jo-Jo Cranfield, “My alternative limb is so different to any other prosthetic limb I have ever had. I wear it with pride. I’ve never seen a two armed person with snakes crawling into their skin, and even if I did I don’t think it would be so comfy! My alternative arm makes me feel powerful, different and sexy!” Credits: the arm was created by Sophie de Oliveira Barata and fitted at Queen Mary’s Hospital The make-up artist for the picture was Gemma Fee, and the photograph was taken by Rosemary Williams. The picture (and many others like it) can be found at the Alternative Limb Project site.

Considering the need for prostheses in society, and the advances in technology, it is clear that we are going to see many more amputees going around with robotic or static limbs that will better reflect their character, occupations and needs. Will we ever reach a state when healthy people actually ask to remove their limbs and replace them with alternative ones? That will take some time, but ultimately I cannot see a good reason against such a social development.

The Impassible Barrier?

At this point you may be asking yourselves: where do we stop? Are there kinds of bodily modifications that society will shun forever? The fact of the matter is that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and the beholder is part of a larger social construct than herself. Tribal societies throughout the world have come to the conclusion that stretched ears are beautiful, or that scrotal implants (be careful: after I Googled that one up, I got some really weird ads in my browser) look sexy. Western society seems to be going with tattoos right now, and with unnecessary enlargement of women’s mammary glands by way of breast implant. So yeah, we are definitely up for altering and modifying the human body. The only question is how, and when.

Considering all of the above, who is to say that stretched ears, or alternative prostheses, won’t become part of our future? Bodily modification has been part of all societies so far, and it is only expanding. The current generation will always be disgusted, repulsed and visibly shaken by novel changes to the human body. And the next generation? They’ll consider those changes perfectly normal.

One thing for certain: the future of the human body is going to be much more colorful, vibrant and heterogeneous than it is today.

Quite honestly, I cannot wait for the future to come.

The Fall of Skype: A Lesson for the Future?

Earlier today, people throughout the world found out that Skype just wouldn’t work for them. They couldn’t see their contacts online, they couldn’t call them, and their sole comfort was a laconic message from the program – “We’re a bit overloaded right now… Please try again later, or download Skype to use it any time.”

Admittedly, that’s not much of a comfort.

While the UK and Japan bore the brunt of the disconnections, people all over the globe were affected by the outage. Skype is truly a global phenomenon: it brings together more than 300 million users, and has been downloaded 500 million times from Google Play alone. By the year 2014, it had 4.9 million daily active users. For each minute Skype is offline, the firm behind it is losing thousands of dollars. It stands to reason that the engineers behind the system have developed multiple layers of defense against failure. And yet they all failed, resulting in an 11 hours shutting down of services.

What can we learn from this event?

First, that complex systems – a term that covers basically all the transportation, communications and healthcare systems we have today – are bound to fail at some point. Richard I. Cook, Professor of Healthcare Systems Safety, explains that complex systems “contain changing mixtures of failures latent within them”, and hence – that “catastrophe is always just around the corner”. At one point in time, a few latent failures rise up together in an unexpected way, and cause a catastrophe that surprises everyone involved.

Secondly, we have systems that encompass practically the entire world, and yet are controlled hierarchically or communicate with each other in a way that a failure in one zone could cascade to many other areas worldwide. Skype is one such system, and so are the GPS satellites, and the global stock market as well.

Thirdly, we need to prepare future scenarios that take into consideration some extreme occurrences: what happens if Uber’s services, for example, are no longer available because of a system failure? In cities like San Francisco where 65% of traditional taxi business has been replaced by Uber drivers, the sudden crash would strand many travelers, particularly those who rely on their smartphone as a payment method (since Uber is deducting the price of the ride automatically from a person’s account).

Similarly, what happens if the GPS satellites somehow switch off? This possibility is not the stuff of science fiction movies, since most of the GPS satellites are long past their designated lifespan. If somehow the GPS keels over, almost all aspects of our life would be disrupted. Uber taxi drivers won’t know where their clients are, many people will find themselves on the road in their cars desperately trying to find an actual paper map, trucks will miss their shipments, tractor drivers in widespread farms won’t know where they are; cargo and leisure ships will become momentarily lost in the ocean, and so on.

Do these scenarios seem overly dramatic to you? Unbelievable, maybe? Well, it just happened to Skype. And it will happen again to other firms and services, somewhere, sometime in the future.

This forecast is particularly alarming in light of the fact that we are creating automated systems that control our daily lives in a time resolution of mere seconds. For example, we are going to enjoy the use of driverless cars sometime in the next five to ten years. How will such vehicles act when they’re suddenly all disconnected from their servers? Will they all stop in the middle of the street, blocking the roads for everyone? Will they complete one last trip and then try to park safely… along with all the other hundreds of thousands of driverless cars in the street? These are questions that we need to consider ahead of time, in order to develop more robust global systems.

How do we deal with such potential failures in global systems? The usual response in the present is to add layers of defense mechanisms, which are fine at delaying the catastrophe for some time, but can never negate completely the chance of it happening. I would suggest that an additional course of action would be to add redundancy to service providers, so that no single service provider can become a worldwide monopoly in any critical field. This line of thinking is possibly the reason that China, India and Japan, among others, are currently planning to launch and operate a navigation system of their own… just in case something happens to the GPS satellites.

Skype has made a comeback within eleven hours, and the world is buzzing with international video conferences again. We should, however, keep in mind the words of Paul Romer – “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste”. We should learn from Skype’s momentary disappearance to better prepare for the future, and avoid concentrating too much power and control in the hands of a single firm, system or infrastructure.

Roey Tzezana, PhD, is a Futures Studies researcher at the Blavatnik Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center (ICRC) at Tel Aviv University. He’s currently studying and developing scenarios for the future of crime in the age of the Internet of Things. His full information can be found at www.guidetofuture.com