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The future of autonomous weapon regulation relies on public awareness

November 28, 2017 - 2:10pm

GUEST:

Straight out of defense labs, autonomous and semi-autonomous weapons are already in use, but there’s no overarching agreement among key stakeholders on how to control their implementation and diffusion. Unlike nuclear or biological weapons, whose proliferation have been largely controlled, autonomous weapons face some tricky problems.

The first is the absence of an international treaty regulating them.
The second is the comparative ease by which autonomous weapons are developed. Nuclear weapons are hard. The nine countries with nuclear weapons have built them with multi-decade projects backed substantially by state resources and administrative capacity.

Not so for autonomous weapons. The hardware is getting cheaper and cheaper. Drones in use by insurgent forces cost only a few hundred dollars. And the software engineering know-how (machine vision, autonomous navigation, collision detection) is widely understood and rapidly dispersed through legitimate channels (such as ArXiv and GitHub), and increasingly in commercial products. An autonomous weapon does not need to be a T-1000. It could be a $500 drone carrying a shaped charge. (Longish review of autonomous drone weapons currently in use by state military and non-state actors here.)
In sum: The knowledge to build these subsystems is widely available. And the tools to do so are cheap. This 8-minute video published by Future of Life Institute depicts one possible scenario, too realistic to be ignored. An immediate threat is on the horizon in the form of machine learning-enabled malicious software that learns normal behavior patterns and uses them to get past security gates (WSJ paywall).
Paul Scharre, a security analyst, warns that there’s not much time left for negotiating proper regulations:

Four years ago, the first diplomatic discussions on autonomous weapons seemed more promising, with a sense that countries were ahead of the curve. Today, even as the public grows increasingly aware of the issues, and as self-driving cars pop up frequently in the daily news, energy for a ban seems to be waning. Notably, one recent open letter by AI and robotics company founders did not call for a ban. Rather, it simply asked the UN to “protect us from all these dangers.”

AI researcher Subbarao Kambhampati questions, too, whether any ban is worth supporting because a ban is likely to be ineffective and “a pyrrhic victory” for the proponents of peace.
I do think there are two things to bear in mind. First, by calling these powerful machines “killer robots” (as the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots does), we eliminate the most important variable in today’s systems — the humans who design, maintain, and manage them. As this excellent, comprehensive study by Maaike Verbruggen and Vincent Boulanin shows, the largest militaries do not immediately envision fully autonomous systems taking over the battlefield:

The focus on full autonomous systems is somewhat problematic as it does not reflect the reality of how the military is envisioning the future of autonomy in weapon systems, nor does it allow for tackling the spectrum of challenges raised by the progress of autonomy in weapon systems in the short term. Autonomy is bound to transform the way humans interact with weapon systems and make decisions on the battlefield, but will not eliminate their role. […] What control should humans maintain over the weapon systems they use and what can be done to ensure that such control remains adequate or meaningful as weapon systems’ capabilities become increasingly complex and autonomous?

The failure of system designers to account for human error is particularly exposed in air travel, another industry with high stakes. In 2009 Air France 447 disappeared into the ocean as its pilots were befuddled after the autopilot transferred controls to humans. (See also this story of an Airbus whose control systems went rogue, resulting in several passenger injuries.)
The second is that, yes, the technologies and raw materials are widely dispersed. Yellow cake and centrifuges, it isn’t. Cheap drones and free software, it is. Rather than throwing our hands up in despair, we should spend some time seriously raising awareness of these issues. In turn, this might generate creative solutions to the problem. Any workable solution is likely to be multi-factor, ranging from technical to ethical, regulatory, administrative, and even social concerns.

Worth looking into: The cofounding organization of Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, PAX, put out two reports in the wake of the latest UN discussion: an overview of trends and weapons under development and a report on the positions of European states.

This story was originally published on Medium. Copyright 2017.

Azeem Azhar is a product entrepreneur and analyst who serves on the editorial board for the Harvard Business Review.

Intel and Cyberhawk use drones to inspect a Scottish gas terminal

November 16, 2017 - 9:00am

Drones can make the world more efficient and safer, something Intel and Cyberhawk are demonstrating through a case study in which they used drones to inspect a gas terminal in St. Fergus, Scotland.

This is another example of how using drones can extend the reach of humans and simplify tasks that are time-consuming or dangerous. Intel and Cyberhawk used the Intel Falcon 8+ drone to inspect the facility, reducing risks for employees and saving an estimated $1 million to $5 million per day in potential production losses.

Traditional inspections of this scale require facility shutdowns, which could keep the plant offline for days to weeks. Workers have to use harnesses and cables to hang in mid-air while manually collecting data on the structure.

Above: Intel Falcon drone can inspect a facility like this in a day or two.

Image Credit: Intel

“In the last 20 years that I’ve worked in the inspection industry, drones are the biggest single change we’ve seen to date,” said Chris Fleming, Cyberhawk CEO, in a statement.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), can be used to remotely inspect large and complex facilities while they’re in operation, capturing accurate and precise data to better inform business decisions about asset maintenance.

“Flying in Scotland, the devices have to withstand strong winds,” said Fleming. “The Intel Falcon is perfect for that because it has the highest wind tolerance and the best power-to-weight ratio of any platform on the market.”

Above: Intel Falcon in action.

Image Credit: Intel

The Intel Falcon 8+ drone deployed for this mission captured 1,100 images, which translated to 12GB of data. It did so over the span of a couple of days. Normally, it would have taken three workers about three days to complete the inspection.

“The way we conduct inspections is changing,” said Anil Nanduri, vice president and general manager within Intel’s New Technology Group, in a statement. “Drones make inspection workflows faster, cheaper, and safer. The technology is mature enough to be adopted into the workflows of our customers.”

China’s tighter drone rules send enthusiasts flocking to school

September 4, 2017 - 9:35pm

(Reuters) — A buzz fills the sky above a flight base in northern Beijing, as pilots practise take-offs and landings ahead of tests to qualify for a license – to fly drones.

Drone enthusiasts in China, the world’s top maker of consumer unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are scrambling for licenses after the government adopted strict rules this year to tackle incidents of drones straying into aircraft flight paths.

“A drone is not a toy,” said Yang Nuo, the principal of the drone training school in the Chinese capital, who expects more students to sign up in a drive to boost flying skills. “It involves complicated aerial theoretical knowledge.”

Gao Huiqiang, 32, said his construction company told him to seek a license.

“Since the laws on drones are tightening and a legal framework is being built, they told me to come and get the license first,” he added.

In June, China set an end-August deadline for owners of civilian drones to register crafts up to a certain weight under their real names. Last week, a test-flight base opened in the commercial hub of Shanghai, which requires civilian drones to fly below 150 m (492 ft), the official news agency’s Xinhuanet website said.

Others have balked at the idea of spending around 10,000 yuan ($1,534) for an official qualification, particularly as uncertainty surrounds future regulations.

“They don’t know when the next regulation will be introduced,” said Hao Jiale, the manager at a DJI drone store. “Some people want to wait and see.”

Privately-held SZ DJI Technology Co Ltd, based in the southeastern city of Shenzen, had a roughly 70 percent share of the global commercial and consumer drone market, according to a 2016 estimate by Goldman Sachs and Oppenheimer analysts.

Despite the curbs, prospects for growth look bright.

China’s camera drone market will see a compound annual growth rate of 68 percent in five years, with shipments reaching 3 million units by 2019, up from 40,000 in the third quarter of 2015, tech research firm IDC said last year.

More than 120,000 drones have been registered in China, Xinhuanet said, compared to just 77,000 registered users in the United States.

Tech tourism: Proposed Cupertino hotel may include skydeck with ‘unparalleled views of Apple Park’

September 1, 2017 - 6:47am

As construction on Apple Park has progressed, the best views have been delivered by pesky drone operators — despite the company’s attempts to halt the practice. But even if the drones are shut down, a hotel company is hoping to capitalize on interest in the new corporate campus.

Kimco Realty has submitted plans to the City of Cupertino to build a 185-room, five-story boutique hotel on the west side of Apple Park. The hotel would be just south of a shopping area known as Cupertino Village.

“The hotel is designed to create an attractive new gateway into the City of Cupertino, and to complement the iconic Apple Park facility located directly across Wolfe Road,” the company wrote in its proposal.

But to capitalize even more on the public’s curiosity about the new corporate HQ, the proposal notes: “Kimco is also investigating the feasibility of including a viewing platform or rooftop lounge, which could offer the community another gathering spot and unparalleled views of Apple Park.”

Except for planes and drones, views of Apple Park will remain limited, as far as the general public is concerned. Apple itself is building a visitor center across the street from Apple Park (on the east side). This will include a rooftop terrace that allows the public to see part of the main building. But while the main building is an estimated 48 feet high, the visitors’ center will only be 23 feet high.

The Kimco hotel would be 60 feet in height, which means its rooftop terrace would offer better views of Apple Park than the visitors’ center, though it’s hardly the birds-eye view we get from drones.

It will be interesting to see if Apple weighs in. After all, it designed the campus to offer a high degree of security and privacy to employees. A gaggle of tourists sipping cocktails and gazing down on Apple Park may not thrill the tech giant.

The proposal is in the early stages and faces many months of scrutiny before it can be approved.

DJI reveals a new drone, a facelift, and ‘sphere mode’ at IFA 2017

August 31, 2017 - 8:15am

High-end drone company DJI has revealed two products at IFA 2017 in Berlin today. But it is the addition of a new “sphere mode” for the current Spark drone that has (ahem) sparked interest.

First up is a new and improved Mavic Pro Platinum, which DJI says is quieter than the previous model, as well as offering a longer flight time. Eleven percent longer, in fact, which takes it up to 30 minutes per flight.

The increased flight time comes courtesy of new electronic speed controllers and redesigned propellers. Otherwise, it is very much the same Mavic Pro you’ve seen flying above your back yard.

The Phantom 4 Pro Obsidian is less exciting since it is effectively the Phantom 4 Pro in a different livery. DJI describes this as “a sleek matte-gray Obsidian color shell featuring a magnesium, electroplated and anti-fingerprint coated gimbal, which requires a higher standard manufacturing technique.” I call it “gray.”

The new “sphere mode” announced today — coming to the Spark drone — is set to offer a new way of sharing drone-created content. Spark pilots (yes — I called them pilots) can now produce a panoramic photo that features a fisheye lens effect. The resulting “sphere” can be shared directly to social media sites, where viewers can interact with the output — assuming the social network supports interactive images.

While the new mode isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, it is — by definition — revolutionary. Just not that kind of revolution.

You can soon expect your Facebook timeline to be chock-full of interactive panoramas, thanks to your DJI-toting friends. The new feature will be included in the forthcoming DJI GO 4 mobile app and via Spark firmware updates.

With a retail price of £1,119/€1,299/$1,099 the Mavic Pro Platinum is available for preorder immediately at DJI’s website and will begin shipping in September. The Phantom 4 Pro Obsidian will retail for £1,589/€1,699/$1,499 and will also be available in September at DJI’s website and at DJI Flagship Stores, as well as through authorized dealers worldwide.