Sunday, May 04, 2008

From the House of Ideas 

Via Zemblan patriot J.D.: We'll bet you a pristine copy of Tales to Astonish #35 that the U.S. government has poured many billions of dollars into the creation of robotic spy bugs designed to perform the exact same tasks that ordinary insects used to do for free, as a personal favor to Dr. Henry Pym:
A swarm of robotic insects is being developed for the military to hunt down enemy fighters in buildings and caves, carry mini bombs and identify chemical, nuclear or biological weapons . . . .

They are to be fitted with cameras, as well as sensors to identify different types of weapons, and can be kitted out with a small payload of explosives . . . .
A particular sound may be the courting equivalent of, "Come over here, you sexy beast." But a tiny change can alter the message entirely, making it something akin to, "You're about to be torn to shreds if you don't get out of my territory."
So remember: if you should happen to find yourself, of a langourous summer's evening, stretched out on the back-porch glider with a bag of pork rinds and a Mickey's Wide Mouth discussing the virtues of socialism with Uncle Clem, think twice before you swat that pesky mosquito. You may be costing the American taxpayer millions -- and hindering our national security efforts in the process!

But it isn't just the bugs. From that now-remote morning when we first saw the men in dark suits at curbside, rummaging through our garbage, raccoon-like, in the first harsh light of dawn, we have always harbored a powerful suspicion that our beloved collection of Marvel Comics (consigned to the trashbin by our Sainted, if Short-Sighted, Maw) wound up not at the dump but at DARPA. That longstanding conviction was only reinforced by the article excerpted below, from the website of the Brookings Institute; it is entitled "How to Be All That You Can Be: A Look at the Pentagon’s Five Step Plan For Making Iron Man Real," and it comes to us through the kind agency of our BARBARian colleague Swopa, at Needlenose:
The home for much of the work on the new technologies of the Future Force Warrior system is the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT. The program was started in 2002, with a $50 million grant from the Army, the largest ever grant in MIT’s history. Among the consortium working with MIT on the soldier systems are traditional defense firms like Raytheon to unexpected players like DuPont, the plastics company, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a leading research hospital of cancer and women’s health issues.

Without any sense of irony, the designers of this system say the ultimate plan of Future Force is to give soldiers near “super-powers.”[4] The system will come with many of the same components as the Land Warrior, just updated and sexed up. For example, while the gun in the old system was planned to be the venerable old M-16, the Future Force Warrior will carry a new “Weapon Subsystem,” that crosses a machine gun with a missile launcher. Most likely using the Metal Storm electrical system, it will shoot either bullets or tiny 15 mm explosive rockets. The advantage of the rockets is that they not only will be able to blow things up, but also are planned to have sensors that guide themselves at any designated target, raising every soldier to the level of an expert marksman. The weapon will also shoot an “electro-dart” that instead of exploding, stuns an enemy with an electrical shock . . . .

The sensors will also be a vast improvement. For example, instead of just regular night vision goggles and a video camera mounted on the rifle, the soldiers will be able have the enhanced MANTIS (Multi-spectral Adaptive Networked Tactical Imaging System) sight. Inspired by research into how insects “see” the world, MANTIS is a system which fuses together all the various images that different sensors (such as infrared light, thermal, etc.) detect into one single image. Individually, each of the sensors work well in some environment and poorly in others (infrared, for example, works great in low light, but terribly when there is smoke or dust; the reverse for thermal), but the combination into one gives the soldier the ability to see the world in multiple spectrums, much like the alien super-warrior in the movie Predator. MANTIS comes with a further twist. Each soldier’s helmet in the system is wirelessly linked to those of everyone else in their squad, "so that each person sees what every other person sees." The system also has “a TiVo-like record and playback capability” that allows the soldiers to rewind what they just saw and give anything that struck them as important an extra look . . . .

Much like Iron Man’s powered armor, future soldiers’ protections will also be computerized. The plan is for new body armor that, instead of Kevlar, is filled with nano-materials that are connected to a computer. It would normally be as flexible as regular uniform made of fabric. But, like how a crash-bag works inside a car, it would activate whenever the system detects a bullet strike and turn as hard as steel in an instant. Bullets would then bounce off the Future Force Warrior like those off of Superman’s chest.

This flexibility creates all sorts of other advantages. While traditional body armor can only take a limited number of strikes from a machine gun before the plate cracks, "When you have a uniform with this new nanotechnology, it can absorb unlimited numbers of machine-gun rounds," tells the Army’s soldier systems representative “Dutch” DeGay. The pliability could even be controlled. Gloves could turn into real-life brass knuckles, to give them a punch like Mike Tyson. Or, if the soldier gets hurt (such as from tripping on a rock while reading an email with their eyepiece), the uniform could go rigid to create a tourniquet or cast. The fabric could even be woven in with "nanomuscle fibers" that simulate real muscles, giving soldiers more an estimated “25 to 35 percent better lifting capability."[10]

The incorporation of electronics into the fabric also means that the armored uniform would not just be able to change shapes, but also may even change colors. Already, Fujitsu has made a computer screen that is made of fabric, while the E-Ink company has created ink that actually changes colors depending on its electronic charge. Incorporated into a uniform, such technology could create “chameleon” camouflage. The soldier’s uniform would be able to take the color of whatever is behind them or even form a rough holographic image like that in the movie Predator . . . .

But when it comes to actual development of real exoskeletons, the most influential of the science fiction visions comes from Robert Heinlein and his 1959 novel Starship Troopers.[13] Heinlein envisioned the infantry of the future as wearing technologic suits that make “You look like a big steel gorilla, armed with gorilla-sized weapons.” As the main character describes, “Our suits give us better eyes, better ears, stronger backs (to carry heavier weapons and more ammo), better legs, more intelligence (in the military meaning...), more firepower, greater endurance, less vulnerability… A suit isn't a space suit - although it can serve as one. It is not primarily armor - although the Knights of the Round Table were not armored as well as we are. It isn't a tank - but a single M.I. [Mobile Infantry] private could take on a squadron of those things and knock them off unassisted.” The book is so popular among military readers, that it is on almost all the various military professional reading lists and DARPA even footnoted it in a research proposal on turning Heinlein’s vision into reality.
We would not be a bit surprised if the men from DARPA also found Starship Troopers in our garbage, although this time around Maw is not to blame: we tossed it there ourselves, scarcely imagining the influence it would later have on future generations of lavishly-funded Imagineers. Nor did we foresee that our discarded paperback edition of Farnham's Freehold would provide the model for decades of Republican social policy.

We can, however, state with authority that we did not, inadvertently or otherwise, expose any impressionable minds to the outlandish sci-fi visions of Miss Ayn Rand. Our copy of Atlas Shrugged went straight to the imperial outhouse, where it grew shorter by a chapter or so each day until only the dust jacket remained.

SIDEBAR: Reading the Brookings article leads us to wonder whether certain Republican candidates might have been exposed to unhealthy levels of gamma radiation:

Is he man, or monster? Or . . . is he both? All we can say for sure is that we wouldn't like him when he's angry. And he's always angry.

UPDATE (courtesy of Zemblan patriot T.H.): Engadget has posted BAE's in-house animation of robo-bugs in action. Rock out, li'l robo-bugs!

UPDATE II: Is no one safe? Now we learn that even tiny woodland creatures are being spied upon by robotic simulacra of squirrels, lizards, even -- say it ain't so! -- cock-a-roaches:
Named Rocky after the cartoon character, the robo-squirrel is working its way into Hampshire's live-squirrel clique, controlled by researchers several yards away with a laptop computer and binoculars.

Sarah Partan, an assistant professor in animal behavior at Hampshire, hopes that by capturing a close-up view of squirrels in nature, Rocky will help her team decode squirrels' communication techniques, social cues and survival instincts.

Rocky is among many robotic critters worldwide helping researchers observe animals in their natural environments rather than in labs. The research could let scientists better understand how animals work in groups, court, intimidate rivals and warn allies of danger.

In Indiana, for instance, a fake lizard shows off its machismo as researchers assess which actions intimidate and which attract real lizards. Pheromone-soaked cockroach counterfeits in Brussels, meanwhile, exert peer pressure on real roaches to move out of protective darkness. In California, a tiny video camera inside a fake female sage grouse records close-up details as it's wooed - and more - by the breed's unusually promiscuous males . . . .

A particular sound may be the courting equivalent of, "Come over here, you sexy beast." But a tiny change can alter the message entirely, making it something akin to, "You're about to be torn to shreds if you don't get out of my territory."

"There's been the old, classic trade-off for years between the ecological relevance you get (researching) in the field, versus those studies in the lab where you can control the environment while knowing they're not going to react as much," [IU researcher Greg] Demas said. "Having these models out in the field is taking us to the next steps of the research."

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