Attack of the Drones

We often talk about artificial intelligence and robots on this channel, of the potential impact of intelligent machines on our civilization, but it’s possible that dumb machines, little flying drones, might have an equally big impact, for good or ill So today’s topic is all about drones and robots in future conflicts, be it up in space or down here on Earth, in wide open areas or the tight turns and corners of a building or space station

This isn’t such a futuristic concept anymore either The science fiction of the last century has been dominated by robots, be it humanoid androids or inhuman machines, and yet drones are no longer even slightly science fiction So I thought we should discuss some of the challenges and possibilities ahead for us with drones both in the short term, and for potential use far ahead in space, particularly in warfare That’s a good place to begin, as military applications are a big part of what got us our modern drones This is often the case of course, swords turned into plowshares, and the reverse

Science fiction also has tended to focus more on drones for military purposes too, rather than one delivering your pizza, so we’re already quite well versed in the problems Hollywood has burned the typical scene into our retinas, swarms of drones killing humans left and right, and that these drones do so autonomously Your typical modern drone is remote controlled, but we want to minimize that, so that most functions are automatic or simply require a quick command to do it themselves This is even more important in the future, since signal time is a major issue In the first place, a drone attacking an enemy spaceship might be many light seconds or even hours away, and in the second, human reaction times are on an order of a second, while a computer system might be in the nanoseconds

There’s simply not enough time for a remote human operator to react to changes in the situation Drones fighting drones seems the most realistic scenario since drones versus humans will tend to be very one-sided, even if they’re remote controlled Even assuming it has no advantage on dodging shots and aiming on its own, it’s much easier to replace drones than people, so you can swarm over someone: quantity has a quality all its own But they probably can dodge better and aim better, a remote controlled drone is weaker than an automated drone if you have good enough computers, it can’t be jammed and can react at machine speeds instead of biological ones, which are further hampered by signal lag time This doesn’t mean everything needs to be automated, but the more features you can automate, the better

One that can detect a bullet headed its way and see if it needs to dodge or will be missed, then react in a precise fashion is not that complex to make, nor something that really needs oversight, so you offload that control to the machine itself Picking targets and deciding the appropriate level of force during an escalating situation is another matter, but also one largely irrelevant to drone on drone combat Collateral damage is always undesirable, but the reason why collateral damage is often a euphemism for killing bystanders is because that’s the only collateral damage that really bothers us If it’s just drones fighting drones though, they can’t afford human reaction times since everything is happening too fast They also can’t afford to be big: bigger is slower to react in almost every way, even mental

Give a drone more brains for decision making and you are making it slower, it could lose a fight with a cheaper and dumber drone, or a glorified smart bullet, simply because that one does not carry the hardware and software to identify a human or pick shots to minimize damage from ricochets or misses That smarter drone might only need a single microsecond more to decide, but it still gets shot first, and even if it kills its attacker in the engagement, you’re still out one expensive drone while your enemy is out a cheap one In other words, it can be advantageous to be dumb It’s an irony, because we call them drones as our earlier unmanned aerial vehicles flew along dumbly on a preset path, so got likened to a male bee, a drone I’d imagine, since drones only have one purpose in life and die when successfully achieving it, that it also fit a lot of early drone vehicle concepts that are basically a guided bomb

The swarm or hive notion is probably rather apt too, as when you have a swarm of drones you probably want either a distributed consciousness or a more complex controller further back that can make decisions You could potentially have a hive mind of drones that was fairly smart even though its components were dumb, or whole tiers of controllers Imagine a human spaceship that was basically a carrier, it shoots out smaller ships with solid AI on it that in turn have lots smaller ships on them with dumber AI, and potentially so on until you’ve got a lowest tier that’s nothing but a drive system and an antenna, able to slam into things to destroy other drones or blocks shots You could have the flip side too Human ships have crewmembers, so a smart drone made vulnerable by time lag for decisions, might have other AI inside designed for specific fast functions able to make those decision autonomously, essentially reflexively

Or an AI that had subconscious decision making That can be a strength and a weakness too, since even a fairly smart AI might reflexively take an action, it ducks a bullet and slams into a building in the process, because its reflexive systems kick in You could obviously program it not to do that, but every time you come up with another stupid thing it shouldn’t do, you’re adding on layers of behavior it needs to verify before acting This is your other trick too, you don’t want people to be able to determine what those flaws are, so you can introduce variations of actions or random decision making, but you can also diversify it, having many species of drones, even under the same controller Some carrier full of drones might have a whole ecosystem of diverse drones of various sizes, shapes, and functions rather than a single uniform type

These biology analogies aren’t accidental either, we’ve learned a lot about how to improve drones by looking at nature and seeing how relatively stupid critters engage in fairly intelligent group action As a good comparison, bird flocks are often entirely controlled by the lead birds, you might use an analogous approach with robot drone swarms, and you might be able to knock such a swarm off kilter by identifying the swarm leader and destroying it And you might be able to identify that leader simply by observing the time lag on each one responding to things By default you put your leader in the middle, but that being rather obvious, you might stick it on one edge, but if every drone on that side reacted just a bit quicker than the ones on the other side, you’d notice that too Thinking about counter-measures are important because your enemy always will

For instance, very few wars are fought in a vacuum; Scorched Earth and total annihilation strategies are not favored because if you employ them you have to worry about consequences You can galvanize your enemy, or cause dissension on your own side by being too ruthless, and you generally have to worry about bringing neutral parties in on their side Being too ruthless, beyond its ethical issues, can add to your enemies, and as we said back in Interplanetary Warfare, the First Rule of Warfare is to avoid recruiting for your enemy, or causing desertion in your own ranks So it probably behooves you to have drones smart enough to be able to minimize collateral damage And of course the other handy thing about drones is they don’t rebel

Unless they do of course, which we covered in the episode “Machine Rebellion”, and the problem is, the smarter you make them, the more likely they might decide to do just that However you have to have some way of controlling them, and presumably a way the enemy or general public can’t access This is problematic because it means only a small number of people should have those codes and as few as possible to minimize risk of them being stolen But not too small, because that’s how you get dictatorships In modern times, without drones, you actually have to convince at least your own soldiers to help out

It tends to be hard to be a ruthless dictator if you haven’t got ruthless soldiers, and the problem with people like that is they often have rather fluid notions about loyalty and ethics We might say that drones do not, but your default drone has no ethics at all and is loyal to whoever has their command codes One the plus side, that might make them much more reliable about obeying laws and treaties on warfare, like the Geneva Conventions On the downside, anyone with access to their code can use them as mindless, obedient killing machines You are vulnerable to some master programmer with a narcissistic- god-complex, unless you make them smart enough to review ethics, which leaves you vulnerable to a SkyNet-style robot rebellion

These concerns support the idea that there might be treaties regulating drones, possibly banning lethal decision making But treaties limiting the use of weapons are fairly iffy things Treaties can’t just depend on outside enforcement or on honest compliance There has to be a clear benefit from the terms of the treaty or a consequence to quietly breaking the rules It’s easier to ban weapons that require hard-to-conceal supply and manufacturing chains

You’re also more likely to successfully ban weapons that militaries don’t actually like to have around because they’re as dangerous to their own side As I’ve mentioned before, you want to avoid using weapons that are likely to kill their user, that’s the first rule of warfare Biological weapons are traditionally unpopular with leaders and military commanders compared to atomic weapons for that reason Nukes go off where and when you want them to, someone can beat on one with a hammer all day long and they won’t set it off, at most they might breach the shielding and irradiate themselves Biological weapons on the other hand are very dangerous to research, develop, manufacture, and store

Any flaw may kill your own people, and once deployed, they are totally out of your hands Even if you have an antidote or vaccine, which is very dubious since viruses and bacteria mutate, you know there is a high probability your enemy has it too, or will get it Such things take weeks to do their damage after all That’s not much time to develop a cure, but plenty to get it from someone else who already has one If someone infects your country you’ve got options on the table, spies to find the vaccine, which ought to be easy since they’d need to have stockpiles of it ready to go, neutral countries who might have developed it already or gotten it as a cost of neutrality, threats by you to attack with your own strategic weapons, and probably a lot of angry people in other lands or even the enemy’s who might help or threaten vengeance

In any protracted war, collateral damage can play into the hands of the enemy A very similar concept applies to weaponizing artificial intelligence, we tend to worry about an arms race making people pursue it so fast and recklessly the genie might get out the bottle and kill everyone, but the problem is, AI is also not a good strategic weapon There is no reason to give it launch control over your strategic weapons and no matter how many times fiction says otherwise, you can make a system unhackable even to a super-intelligent AI, an ASI There are ways an ASI could get around some of those, it can’t crack the safe in the wall where the keys to a nuke are stored if it’s not networked, but it could maybe crack comms to trick the crew manning that silo or submarine None of which applies to drones

If a country develops drones that violate a treaty, they can’t deploy them and end the war too quickly for retaliation to get organized, because drones aren’t immune to nuclear weapons So they may just be considered a form of WMD, or weapon of mass destruction, and fall under the doctrine of MAD, or mutual assured destruction Additionally, a country that successfully makes a superior drone by reckless research in violation of a treaty has to worry about that AI going off their rails if they screw up, and they have to worry about being nuked if they succeed, and the entire time they have to worry about one of the researchers or officials being a spy or having a conscience and ratting them out You’ve also got deployment issues, because a drone obviously is subject to jamming and hacking If you make it something that just turns on and acts autonomously afterward, to circumvent jamming, then it needs to be smart or it’s too simple to trick

If you want central control, you’re vulnerable to centralized hacking, and it’s never harder to hack that system than to find out who has the codes and stick a gun to their family’s head, which is not helped if those operatives can remind the programmer that his country is violating treaties by making automated murder machines If you want local control, you’ve got a local operator who can be found by their signal and bagged, and they are numerous, meaning you’ve been training them and your enemies will know that So I don’t want to dismiss a drone race, in fact I’d rather expect we’ll have one and arguably already do, but it doesn’t seem likely to follow a doomsday approach Amusingly one way it could is if well-intentioned folks tried to put too many safeguards into them If you’re a regular on this channel than you’re probably familiar with Isaac Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics, the first of which is that a robot cannot harm a human or let them come to harm

That would tend to seem a rather stupid rule to use with automated weapons, but works fine for drone on drone combat Moreover though, it would seem to just make sense to give drones ways to recognize people, and a restriction on taking actions that would injure anyone other than its authorized target This is problematic, and we’ll use the classic first law as an example An unmanned spaceship, a drone warship, can fire on other such warships but not a manned vessel Obviously it would be pretty easy to stick a single human on each such ship so it couldn’t shoot those, though one of the big advantages of unmanned ships in space is they can pull high-gee maneuvers that would turn a human into a puddle of goo

But if your enemy can’t shoot you, maneuverability is no big deal And for that matter your unmanned vessel can’t actually be sure that an enemy ship is unmanned just because it does such a maneuver, same as you can lie to it by claiming there’s a human on board when it’s just bouncing a signal, you can lie to it and say you’ve invented a cool new way to let humans survive high-gee maneuvers For that matter, it might assume the ship was manned because you can upload a human mind to it digitally, one can assume drones and AI would generally tend to favor schools of thought that viewed uploaded intelligences as real people Any system you set in place to help identify people is going to need to be refined in order to avoid being tricked or making mistakes, and eventually need to have judgment capability, which leaves it open to being tricked by anything smarter than it If you make it smarter than people though, then we’re not really talking about drones anymore, just the classic AI issue

So, ironically, an effort to make them ultra-safe and foolproof might actually be more dangerous than a race to make more dangerous drones We should also note that drones aren’t all that dangerous at the moment, it’s an important topic to discuss for the future because this is something we should expect a lot of I can’t think of any non-slippery-slope argument for their use that isn’t a variation of normal artificial intelligence concerns, and the need for size, speed, and expendability make them a less probable pathway to something like a technological singularity These don’t turn into Skynet, Skynet hacks them to use against you, and there are many safeguards available against that They also have their limitations

The first is power One of the big advantages of drones is that they can be made quite small, but small is often not your friend for certain aspects of combat or engines A big tank as a drone can be a lot nastier than a modern manned tank, and carry significant amounts of computing hardware on it It can also carry a lot of armor A small drone can’t, as we’ve discussed before for space ships, the square cube law makes armor more effective the bigger you get, because the surface area you need to armor only rises by the square of size, while the volume rises by the cube

A small drone just can’t have 10 centimeters of armor on it and fly around Now, as an upside, it can dodge attacks much easier and it can hit that tank quite easily, but that tank can also carry a number of even smaller anti-drone drones of its own, who can both attack the small enemy drone and potentially intercept any ordinance it might shoot at the tank It can also carry a serious internal combustion engine, those are hard to miniaturize and the reason why you don’t see them much on small objects Drones meant for constant use could probably get away with using Radioisotope Thermal Generators or other atomic power sources, but it’s hard to imagine many people being okay with atomic drones Even that’s not viable for the tiniest of drones, and we’d like tiny drones for non-military purposes, like medical nanotechnology

You could, however, beam them power We discussed that a month back in Power Satellites and it makes a very attractive option since you can strip off any engine or battery supply, maybe just keeping enough for a minute of operation without power This is very handy for commercial use, like deliveries, but problematic for military use This is the same issue we had with power armor when we discussed that, but still better to have a smaller battery for backup if someone blocks your power beam than one for constant use Particularly nowadays, batteries are very heavy as an energy source, and ones meant for spacecraft needing to do high-gee maneuvers would be crippling

However, if they can get their juice beamed to them from a bigger carrier ship a ways back, it makes them much more useful That is one note on the idea that manned space fighters are an impossibility and you’d always use drones This is true enough but some of the logic is flawed Drones are seen as nicer because in space, your only protection from energy weapons like a laser is being small and fast enough that you can be in an unpredictable place by random thrust The problem is, you must be doing that constantly, you’re not dodging shots, you’re preemptively dodging so someone misses if they shoot you

A typical rocket fuel, if you’re mostly fuel and mostly using that fuel for dodging, would let you do that for a few minutes at one-gee, that’s what Specific Impulse of a rocket is, how many seconds it can provide a one-gee thrust Some little drone’s advantage is that it can handle a much higher acceleration, and is assumed to be a bit smaller, so it doesn’t need to move as much to be an improbable target against a narrow attack like a bullet or focused beam You and I don’t avoid getting shot by stepping two centimeters left, the bullet just hits a different part of us, a tiny drone does get missed You also get more distance on a dodge by burning fast and short A drone that burns at 1000 gees for a millisecond covers 9

8 meters in the following second, while one burning just 1-gee for a second burns the same fuel but only moves 49 meters If that’s effectively a random burn perpendicular to whatever is shooting you, you can be in an area 4 times larger, and thus 25% as likely to be hit by burning the same fuel But neither can sustain such dodging for long and the advantage is fairly minimal Ditto, size isn’t that big of an advantage either, being small makes it easier to dodge, but it also means you have less armor and they can just hit you with a wider and weaker beam

However, that advantage is massively scaled up if you have a beam of a power coming to you, and you can arrange a pseudo-random walk that ensures your movements are unpredictable to someone shooting at you but not whoever is powering you That doesn’t have to be set either, there’s lots of ways to appear random while still letting your power source know where you will be long enough ahead for it to re-target power there Not just power either, you could send particle beams for propellant or even reloads for weapons or repair It’s also a good way to feed self-replicators One of the more dangerous smart drone paths is basically a weaponized von Neumann Probe

In those your space probe arrives and build more of itself to get exploring or colonizing done In the weaponized version it comes in as a tiny probe and decelerates before entering your detection window There is no stealth in space but it’s all relative It would be fairly easy to miss some probe that was basketball-sized and decelerated slowly when it got to your Oort Cloud, especially if it was timed to intersect a larger object between it and your detectors It lands there and gets power beamed in from home, a tight narrow beam that the object blocks, and uses that energy to replicate itself into an armada

That’s still detectable, there’s a lot of heat involved in that, but it’s stealthier than sending in an Armada Of course you also have your defense right there too, since you could use the same approach to seed every large object in your outer solar system with drones that just sleep until they detect an intruder then build up their numbers to respond You could have some wild battles in your outer solar system with no one present as constructor fleets, or deconstructor fleets, tear up objects to build more of themselves and fight And by no one present, I’m not necessarily excluding AI from counting as someone This doesn’t have to be really high-tech smart machines or little nanobots

Clanking Self-Replicators, machines that can build other machines, don’t have to be small or smart and would probably be the first kind we make Very little brains are needed for a factory robot to grab a metallic meteor, refine it, and spit out some simple drone that targets anything moving non-naturally and not transmitting the right friend/foe code One should never underestimate the advantage intelligence can give you in a conflict, but also not forget that a dumb drone can be very lethal and as we said earlier, can potentially kill a smarter drone in a straight up fight More brains only help if it lets you have more options or reach a conclusion faster And quantity has a quality of its own, that’s the first rule of warfare

As I mentioned near the beginning, drones are anything but science fiction, and are increasingly used for work and recreation Lots of folks own one these days and use them, particularly for photography My friend Andy, whose Youtube channel recently hit 100,000 subscribers, and congratulations Andy, does some amazing photography and filming with drones and we use some of that here on the channel Needless to say there’s a lot of skill involved and potentially a lot of employment in this area, not to mention fun But it’s not something most colleges are offering courses on yet

That’s true of a lot of technical skills, but fortunately we have options for learning them like Skillshare They have a number of online courses on how to use drones for photography and other things, among their catalogue of over 20,000 classes They are an online community with courses on everything from technical topics to fun or practical ones like cooking or business skills So if you want to improve your skills, unlock new opportunities, and do the work you love, you can get a Premium Membership and have unlimited access to classes on those topics and many more Join the millions of students already learning on Skillshare today with a special offer just for my listeners: Get 2 months of Skillshare for free

To sign up, go to S-K-L-dot-S-H slash Isaac4 Again, go to S-K-L-dot-S-H slash Isaac4 to get 2 months of unlimited access to over 20,000 classes for free Act now for this special offer, and start learning today Before we get to what’s coming up in future episodes, a quick mention of some stuff we’ve previously done I occasionally get asked if I could make the episodes available as audio-only and we do actually have all the episodes posted to Soundcloud, both with and without music in the background, for free download

I don’t mention it very often so it goes unnoticed, but those are always linked in the video description and you can subscribe to them on iTunes as well There are a few additional short episodes exclusively available as audio-only too We’ve also got some videos that aren’t on this channel, discussing topics like fictional worldbuilding or game development, over on the Legion Tech Studios channel, I’m a writer and consultant for their upcoming game Hades 9, and we use a lot of footage from the game on the channel, especially on space warfare episodes I’ll leave a link to that in the video description, as well as one to our official episode chronology, which in addition to having a list of all the scheduled episodes for the next few months, also has links to all the interviews, collaborations, and so on that we’ve made over the years Okay, we spent some time out in space today and we’ll be back there next week to continue the Outward Bound Series with a look at Colonizing Neptune and see some fun new colonizing options for Neptune and other Ice Giant planets

We were also talking about how people can control drones today, and two weeks from now we’ll be looking at some ways we might turn people into drones, and how we might be able to safeguard against that, in a look at Brainwashing & Mind Control The week after that we’ll be coming home to Earth for the first in several episodes looking at some ways to further colonize our own planet, and we’ll begin with a look at Seasteading & Building Artificial Islands, as a prelude to looking at Colonizing the Oceans For alerts when those and other episodes come out, make sure to subscribe to the channel, and if you enjoyed this episode, hit the like button and share it with others Until next time, thanks for watching, and have a great week!

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