Swarming to it

Tom James @ 28-08-2009

iswarm4One of my favourite[1] plausible science fictional tropes is that of tiny robotic insects. The latest step towards their instantiation has been taken by researchers in Sweden, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland as they put forward their conception of how swarms of mass-produced robotic fleas could be used for surveillance, cleaning, and medical applications:

The technique involves integrating an entire robot – with communication, locomotion, energy storage, and electronics – in different modules on a single circuit board.

In the past, the single-chip robot concept has presented significant limitations in design and manufacturing. However, instead of using solder to mount electrical components on a printed circuit board as in the conventional method, the researchers use conductive adhesive to attach the components to a double-sided flexible printed circuit board using surface mount technology.

The circuit board is then folded to create a three-dimensional robot.

I can imagine that once this sort of technology matures it will herald a profound change for society. An Orwellian Panopticon where everyone and everything is traced and followed and tracked will become a practicable possibility. Privacy will become one of the most valuable commodities on the planet, with the richest and most powerful people cowering in enclaves sterilized against micro-invaders.

[1]: In that I enjoy them as part of a story and am not entirely ambivalent to their actuality.

[from Physorg][image from Physorg]

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4 Responses to “Swarming to it”

  1. Khannea Suntzu says:

    A crime is a calculation – how big are the odds of getting caught? In practical reality other considerations (morality, pity on victims, the degree of punishment) are a magnitude smaller deterrents than the immediate consequence of arrest. …. SO WHEN you introduce RC devices of this nature, introduce AI, introduce advanced rapid prototyping and desktop (evolution algorithm) based design – and you have all the makings of a tool that offers criminals a minimal arrest risk.

    How do you even locate a criminal who can engage in crimes from halfway across the globe, through RC-controlled microforms?

    And what crimes? Well, all of them, starting with espionage, theft and violence. In fact I predict a surge in both 2.0 maffia style syndicates, collectives of “ultra ruthless” criminals pooling resources, constantly evolving ‘business models’, probably as a tumor-like outgrowth of the current spam/malware types. Soprano’s style ruthless.

    Variants of above crimes – a dozen microforms spying on a sexy fashion model and capturing that rare ultra discrete moment of her using ecstacy with her secret male and female (and rather young) lovers in a threesome – and then selling the steamy 3D HR video online.

    Variant 2 : data burglary – small insect enters the home where a ‘post-commuter’ works on his business. The ‘ninja microforms’ enter the house and USB into a desktop device. Process bank statements. Leave the house, robbing the guy of his bank balance, and taking a mortgage on his house when he is away for the weekend, and cashing that too.

    Example 3 – one or more microform nestle somewhere inside the body of a target. They generate one or several key highly concentrated psychoactives. Next time you meet the guy, you have a remote control device, triggering onset of fear, distraction, spikes of euphoria, confusion, lust or any variant by releasing the substances in his blood stream. Nobody would ever notice such manipulation and if used halfway smart it would be highly effective. Worse – what crime is actually broken? How you prove such a case in court?

    The only way to respond to this is the scariest and least predictable road – create a dynamic system (and a market!) of defensive systems, something like a bizarre hybrid of 3rd generation warfare and the current international crime syndicate struggles to create, consolidate, take over, crash, subvert or sell PC botnets. In 2025 virus walls might come from a can, and your shake them near the windows and doors of your home, scattering insect-like microforms (ranging in size between a fingernail and a flea) and setting up defensive perimeters of diversified, hive-mind microforms. You might have power stations, logistics microforms, artillery, cavalry, snipers, recyclers, parasites and all other variants in a “domestic defensive perimeter ecology” in the comfort of your own home. Working in close synergy with the cleaners to remove your dog hairs and pizza crumbs obviously.

    This may get bad in the 2030s, but worst it will be in the third world where consequences of criminally using these tools will cause poor and utterly puzzled people to be pushed into poverty even faster – or responding with acute future shock. Can you envision undereducated, superstitious africans integrating microform symbolism into their voodoo belief systems?

  2. Bill says:

    Tom, I think you meant “sterilized against micro-invaders”. Which makes me think of the guarded enclaves of Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel The Diamond Age.

    In Stephenson’s future, tiny mass-produced robots like the ones described in your article – swarms of “quasi-independent aerostats” – were used to defend the enclave against all comers.

    I’ll bet these little bots can play both offense and defense…

    Anyway, cool article.

  3. Tom James says:

    Thanks Bill. Typo corrected.

  4. Jonathan says:

    If you haven’t read it, check out The Blond by Duane Swierczynski. You’ll probably find it in mystery instead of science fiction, but it’s an amusing tale of nano sized tracking devices that have some unfortunate capabilities.