Entries Tagged "drones"

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The Internet of Things Will Be the World's Biggest Robot

The Internet of Things is the name given to the computerization of everything in our lives. Already you can buy Internet-enabled thermostats, light bulbs, refrigerators, and cars. Soon everything will be on the Internet: the things we own, the things we interact with in public, autonomous things that interact with each other.

These “things” will have two separate parts. One part will be sensors that collect data about us and our environment. Already our smartphones know our location and, with their onboard accelerometers, track our movements. Things like our thermostats and light bulbs will know who is in the room. Internet-enabled street and highway sensors will know how many people are out and about­—and eventually who they are. Sensors will collect environmental data from all over the world.

The other part will be actuators. They’ll affect our environment. Our smart thermostats aren’t collecting information about ambient temperature and who’s in the room for nothing; they set the temperature accordingly. Phones already know our location, and send that information back to Google Maps and Waze to determine where traffic congestion is; when they’re linked to driverless cars, they’ll automatically route us around that congestion. Amazon already wants autonomous drones to deliver packages. The Internet of Things will increasingly perform actions for us and in our name.

Increasingly, human intervention will be unnecessary. The sensors will collect data. The system’s smarts will interpret the data and figure out what to do. And the actuators will do things in our world. You can think of the sensors as the eyes and ears of the Internet, the actuators as the hands and feet of the Internet, and the stuff in the middle as the brain. This makes the future clearer. The Internet now senses, thinks, and acts.

We’re building a world-sized robot, and we don’t even realize it.

I’ve started calling this robot the World-Sized Web.

The World-Sized Web—can I call it WSW?—is more than just the Internet of Things. Much of the WSW’s brains will be in the cloud, on servers connected via cellular, Wi-Fi, or short-range data networks. It’s mobile, of course, because many of these things will move around with us, like our smartphones. And it’s persistent. You might be able to turn off small pieces of it here and there, but in the main the WSW will always be on, and always be there.

None of these technologies are new, but they’re all becoming more prevalent. I believe that we’re at the brink of a phase change around information and networks. The difference in degree will become a difference in kind. That’s the robot that is the WSW.

This robot will increasingly be autonomous, at first simply and increasingly using the capabilities of artificial intelligence. Drones with sensors will fly to places that the WSW needs to collect data. Vehicles with actuators will drive to places that the WSW needs to affect. Other parts of the robots will “decide” where to go, what data to collect, and what to do.

We’re already seeing this kind of thing in warfare; drones are surveilling the battlefield and firing weapons at targets. Humans are still in the loop, but how long will that last? And when both the data collection and resultant actions are more benign than a missile strike, autonomy will be an easier sell.

By and large, the WSW will be a benign robot. It will collect data and do things in our interests; that’s why we’re building it. But it will change our society in ways we can’t predict, some of them good and some of them bad. It will maximize profits for the people who control the components. It will enable totalitarian governments. It will empower criminals and hackers in new and different ways. It will cause power balances to shift and societies to change.

These changes are inherently unpredictable, because they’re based on the emergent properties of these new technologies interacting with each other, us, and the world. In general, it’s easy to predict technological changes due to scientific advances, but much harder to predict social changes due to those technological changes. For example, it was easy to predict that better engines would mean that cars could go faster. It was much harder to predict that the result would be a demographic shift into suburbs. Driverless cars and smart roads will again transform our cities in new ways, as will autonomous drones, cheap and ubiquitous environmental sensors, and a network that can anticipate our needs.

Maybe the WSW is more like an organism. It won’t have a single mind. Parts of it will be controlled by large corporations and governments. Small parts of it will be controlled by us. But writ large its behavior will be unpredictable, the result of millions of tiny goals and billions of interactions between parts of itself.

We need to start thinking seriously about our new world-spanning robot. The market will not sort this out all by itself. By nature, it is short-term and profit-motivated­—and these issues require broader thinking. University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo has proposed a Federal Robotics Commission as a place where robotics expertise and advice can be centralized within the government. Japan and Korea are already moving in this direction.

Speaking as someone with a healthy skepticism for another government agency, I think we need to go further. We need to create agency, a Department of Technology Policy, that can deal with the WSW in all its complexities. It needs the power to aggregate expertise and advice other agencies, and probably the authority to regulate when appropriate. We can argue the details, but there is no existing government entity that has the either the expertise or authority to tackle something this broad and far reaching. And the question is not about whether government will start regulating these technologies, it’s about how smart they’ll be when they do it.

The WSW is being built right now, without anyone noticing, and it’ll be here before we know it. Whatever changes it means for society, we don’t want it to take us by surprise.

This essay originally appeared on Forbes.com, which annoyingly blocks browsers using ad blockers.

EDITED TO ADD: Kevin Kelly has also thought along these lines, calling the robot “Holos.”

EDITED TO ADD: Commentary.

EDITED TO ADD: This essay has been translated into Hebrew.

Posted on February 4, 2016 at 6:18 AMView Comments

Drone Self-Defense and the Law

Last month, a Kentucky man shot down a drone that was hovering near his backyard.

WDRB News reported that the camera drone’s owners soon showed up at the home of the shooter, William H. Merideth: “Four guys came over to confront me about it, and I happened to be armed, so that changed their minds,” Merideth said. “They asked me, ‘Are you the S-O-B that shot my drone?’ and I said, ‘Yes I am,'” he said. “I had my 40 mm Glock on me and they started toward me and I told them, ‘If you cross my sidewalk, there’s gonna be another shooting.'” Police charged Meredith with criminal mischief and wanton endangerment.

This is a trend. People have shot down drones in southern New Jersey and rural California as well. It’s illegal, and they get arrested for it.

Technology changes everything. Specifically, it upends long-standing societal balances around issues like security and privacy. When a capability becomes possible, or cheaper, or more common, the changes can be far-reaching. Rebalancing security and privacy after technology changes capabilities can be very difficult, and take years. And we’re not very good at it.

The security threats from drones are real, and the government is taking them seriously. In January, a man lost control of his drone, which crashed on the White House lawn. In May, another man was arrested for trying to fly his drone over the White House fence, and another last week for flying a drone into the stadium where the U.S. Open was taking place.

Drones have attempted to deliver drugs to prisons in Maryland, Ohio and South Carolina ­so far.

There have been many near-misses between drones and airplanes. Many people have written about the possible terrorist uses of drones.

Defenses are being developed. Both Lockheed Martin and Boeing sell anti-drone laser weapons. One company sells shotgun shells specifically designed to shoot down drones.

Other companies are working on technologies to detect and disable them safely. Some of those technologies were used to provide security at this year’s Boston Marathon.

Law enforcement can deploy these technologies, but under current law it’s illegal to shoot down a drone, even if it’s hovering above your own property. In our society, you’re generally not allowed to take the law into your own hands. You’re expected to call the police and let them deal with it.

There’s an alternate theory, though, from law professor Michael Froomkin. He argues that self-defense should be permissible against drones simply because you don’t know their capabilities. We know, for example, that people have mounted guns on drones, which means they could pose a threat to life. Note that this legal theory has not been tested in court.

Increasingly, government is regulating drones and drone flights both at the state level and by the FAA. There are proposals to require that drones have an identifiable transponder, or no-fly zones programmed into the drone software.

Still, a large number of security issues remain unresolved. How do we feel about drones with long-range listening devices, for example? Or drones hovering outside our property and photographing us through our windows?

What’s going on is that drones have changed how we think about security and privacy within our homes, by removing the protections we used to get from fences and walls. Of course, being spied on and shot at from above is nothing new, but access to those technologies was expensive and largely the purview of governments and some corporations. Drones put these capabilities into the hands of hobbyists, and we don’t know what to do about it.

The issues around drones will get worse as we move from remotely piloted aircraft to true drones: aircraft that operate autonomously from a computer program. For the first time, autonomous robots—­with ever-increasing intelligence and capabilities at an ever-decreasing cost—­will have access to public spaces. This will create serious problems for society, because our legal system is largely based on deterring human miscreants rather than their proxies.

Our desire to shoot down a drone hovering nearby is understandable, given its potential threat. Society’s need for people not to take the law into their own hands­—and especially not to fire guns into the air­—is also understandable. These two positions are increasingly coming into conflict, and will require increasing government regulation to sort out. But more importantly, we need to rethink our assumptions of security and privacy in a world of autonomous drones, long-range cameras, face recognition, and the myriad other technologies that are increasingly in the hands of everyone.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

Posted on September 11, 2015 at 6:45 AMView Comments

Shooting Down Drones

A Kentucky man shot down a drone that was hovering in his backyard:

“It was just right there,” he told Ars. “It was hovering, I would never have shot it if it was flying. When he came down with a video camera right over my back deck, that’s not going to work. I know they’re neat little vehicles, but one of those uses shouldn’t be flying into people’s yards and videotaping.”

Minutes later, a car full of four men that he didn’t recognize rolled up, “looking for a fight.”

“Are you the son of a bitch that shot my drone?” one said, according to Merideth.

His terse reply to the men, while wearing a 10mm Glock holstered on his hip: “If you cross that sidewalk onto my property, there’s going to be another shooting.”

He was arrested, but what’s the law?

In the view of drone lawyer Brendan Schulman and robotics law professor Ryan Calo, home owners can’t just start shooting when they see a drone over their house. The reason is because the law frowns on self-help when a person can just call the police instead. This means that Meredith may not have been defending his house, but instead engaging in criminal acts and property damage for which he could have to pay.

But a different and bolder argument, put forward by law professor Michael Froomkin, could provide Meredith some cover. In a paper, Froomkin argues that it’s reasonable to assume robotic intrusions are not harmless, and that people may have a right to “employ violent self-help.”

Froomkin’s paper is well worth reading:

Abstract: Robots can pose—or can appear to pose—a threat to life, property, and privacy. May a landowner legally shoot down a trespassing drone? Can she hold a trespassing autonomous car as security against damage done or further torts? Is the fear that a drone may be operated by a paparazzo or a peeping Tom sufficient grounds to disable or interfere with it? How hard may you shove if the office robot rolls over your foot? This paper addresses all those issues and one more: what rules and standards we could put into place to make the resolution of those questions easier and fairer to all concerned.

The default common-law legal rules governing each of these perceived threats are somewhat different, although reasonableness always plays an important role in defining legal rights and options. In certain cases—drone overflights, autonomous cars, national, state, and even local regulation—may trump the common law. Because it is in most cases obvious that humans can use force to protect themselves against actual physical attack, the paper concentrates on the more interesting cases of (1) robot (and especially drone) trespass and (2) responses to perceived threats other than physical attack by robots notably the risk that the robot (or drone) may be spying – perceptions which may not always be justified, but which sometimes may nonetheless be considered reasonable in law.

We argue that the scope of permissible self-help in defending one’s privacy should be quite broad. There is exigency in that resort to legally administered remedies would be impracticable; and worse, the harm caused by a drone that escapes with intrusive recordings can be substantial and hard to remedy after the fact. Further, it is common for new technology to be seen as risky and dangerous, and until proven otherwise drones are no exception. At least initially, violent self-help will seem, and often may be, reasonable even when the privacy threat is not great—or even extant. We therefore suggest measures to reduce uncertainties about robots, ranging from forbidding weaponized robots to requiring lights, and other markings that would announce a robot’s capabilities, and RFID chips and serial numbers that would uniquely identify the robot’s owner.

The paper concludes with a brief examination of what if anything our survey of a person’s right to defend against robots might tell us about the current state of robot rights against people.

Note that there are drones that shoot back.

Here are two books that talk about these topics. And an article from 2012.

EDITED TO ADD (8/9): How to shoot down a drone.

Posted on August 4, 2015 at 8:24 AMView Comments

Bizarre High-Tech Kidnapping

This is a story of a very high-tech kidnapping:

FBI court filings unsealed last week showed how Denise Huskins’ kidnappers used anonymous remailers, image sharing sites, Tor, and other people’s Wi-Fi to communicate with the police and the media, scrupulously scrubbing meta data from photos before sending. They tried to use computer spyware and a DropCam to monitor the aftermath of the abduction and had a Parrot radio-controlled drone standing by to pick up the ransom by remote control.

The story also demonstrates just how effective the FBI is tracing cell phone usage these days. They had a blocked call from the kidnappers to the victim’s cell phone. First they used a search warrant to AT&T to get the actual calling number. After learning that it was an AT&T prepaid Tracfone, they called AT&T to find out where the burner was bought, what the serial numbers were, and the location where the calls were made from.

The FBI reached out to Tracfone, which was able to tell the agents that the phone was purchased from a Target store in Pleasant Hill on March 2 at 5:39 pm. Target provided the bureau with a surveillance-cam photo of the buyer: a white male with dark hair and medium build. AT&T turned over records showing the phone had been used within 650 feet of a cell site in South Lake Tahoe.

Here’s the criminal complaint. It borders on surreal. Were it an episode of CSI:Cyber, you would never believe it.

Posted on July 29, 2015 at 6:34 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.