Friday, 20 February 2015

Unintended Consequences: Technological Proliferation in the Future World

A two Edged Sword

 One of the central aspects of hard SF has always been the exploration of the effect technology has on society.  In this post I'll look at some technologies that are united in their rapid development and difficulty of control if they are used for nefarious purposes.  All of them are technologies that will doubtless continue to expand due to economic and social factors, and that it would be, in many cases, impossible for a government to control.  All of them exist or will exist in the present or near future, allowing their effects to be more obvious, and more helpful for world building purposes.    

3D Printers

   3D printerest are the closest we are likely to come to Star Trek's Replicators, and although they cannot yet provide us with a steaming cup of Earl Grey, they are nevertheless amazing pieces of technology.  Very simple in concept the 3D printer uses a laser or electron beam to melt particles of metal or plastic together in complexed three dimensional shapes that would be difficult or impossible to create with conventional techniques.  Although there are problems with strength, resolution, and speed, the 3D printer offers a way to produce complexed or one-off designs with little effort, and has advantages when a blend of alloys or plastics is needed.  Although limited to thermoplastic and metal, a 3D printer can produce any piece of technology compatible with them, and therein lies the problem.
   In 2012 the open source organisation Defence Distributed disclosed the plans of the Liberator, the worlds fist 3D printed gun; a single shot pistol crafted from plastic and firing .38 ACP.  Then in 2013 the Texas based company Solid Concepts demonstrated a 3D printed M1911, the only part of which was not manufactured on a industrial 3D printer being the springs, as these are impossible to produce using that technique.  While the liberator is not much of a weapon - despite the additional difficulty of detecting a plastic gun this is no advantage for hypothetical assassins as the bullet is still easily detectable - the printed M1911 is a true weapon.
   Leaving aside the debate over if civilians should have access to any weapon they want, the potential problem is clear.  A 3D printer that can produce car parts can equally easily print a working gun, even a machine-gun.  The only difference is in the commands the machine is given.  Nor is it only guns; missiles, grenades, mines, torpedoes, and armed UAV/UGVs.  Although a great deal of expertise would be required to design the weapon sin the first place, their dissemination would be almost impossible to control, and far easier than trying to distribute physical weapons.  Potentially, every workshop equipped with a 3D printer is the basis of an arms factory, something that will only become more true as the printers gain the ability to print more materials in more accurate patterns.
   And there is very little that the governments of the world can do.  3D printers have far to great an application in legitimate business for them to be outlawed, quite aside from the political impossibility of such a move.  Just as herculean a task would be restricting the distribution of plans or information, and this might well prove to be a futile effort.
   In a futuristic 'Verse 3D printers are likely to be widespread, given their rapid development and adoption.  In space or on a colony world especially the flexibility of a 3D printer could enable much more rapid Human expansion.  Also, the nature of 3D printers makes a von Neumann device possible, not as a single 'organism' but as a colony of symbioses; these could be landed on an asteroid, and years later, have converted it into a spacecraft.  Militaries might not carry supplies with them, only printers and feedstock.  Trade in digital plans would be brisk, and might be one of the most profitable forms of smuggling.  If you postulate a ''Verse in which transferring the plans over the internet is too dangerous, the possibility of a 'Han Solo' smuggler occurs along with a host other SF character types.
   Further yet into the future and SF territory are 3D printers capable of reproducing biological material.  The implications for medicine would be unparalleled, with almost any trauma curable.  However, if it can produce a human cell, it can produce a deadly engineered disease or bioweapon.  It is important to note that due to the complexity of cells, the wholesale printing go body tissue is unlikely.  Instead the printer will create a single cell that is then grown into a replacement organ, perfectly matching the patients genetic and immune makeup.  

Drones & Autonomous Vehicles

   Like 3D printed guns small drones - typified by the UAV 'quadcopters' - are a rapidly exploding technology that has caused some alarm in society at large.  Although almost unheard of a realitivly short time ago, UAVs are now readily available, ranging from small toys not larger than an hand, to industrial models capable of operating without supervision and carrying payloads.  Many of the 'hobby' models can be controlled via a smartphone, while the more advanced models used onboard computers, GPS, and a computer based control system similar to that used with military versions.
   The most common complaint about small drones is their invasion of privacy.  Equipped with a small video camera the drone is a perfect snoop, overflying property and peering through windows.  Another, more deadly concern is that of a drone flying into commercial airspace and causing a fatal accident.  Although it seems unlikely that the small drones in use today threaten a passenger jet, smaller aircraft are definitely at risk, and the size of drones is increasing.  More terrifying is the thought of their use as a weapon, carrying bombs or biological weapons, and acting in essence as low cost miniature 'cruse missiles'.  A common theme in modern military SF has been the inclusion of weapons on small drones, most famously in the video game Black Ops II, and while this is unlikely for a while yet, they are still deadly impromptu weapons that most security forces would be hard put to combat.
   The problem of control is similar to that of 3D printed weapons.  There are so many legitimate uses that it is not possible to utilise an blanket solution, and given that the difference between a aerial mapping and attack drone is the payload, any security measures are going to be a nightmare to enforce.  The problem will also increase as 3D printers become more capable; even if a license is needed to buy a drone it is no matter if you can simply print one off.  Perhaps the biggest difficulty to overcome in this will be the printing of electronic components such as sensors and computers.
   In the future or in a SF work drones will be smaller, faster, stronger, more silent, and more capable. They may also be joined by UGV, perhaps mottled to look like insects, along with aquatic variants.  As electrons are miniaturised further, they may become effectively undetectable, posing a massive security risk for anyone with secrets to hide.  More advanced AI will also enable them to act more independently; Skynet, anyone?  In a SF 'verse drones will be yet another of a myriad technologies that will be juggled on a day to day basis to provide profit, security, information, and offensive ability. 

Ubiquitous Surveillance

   Ever since the invention of the internet, and even more so after the rise of social media, the amount of information available to the general public on any one individual has increased dramatically.  Facebook alone provides a database that many intelligence agencies would have given their eye-teeth to own throughout history.  Many so called 'smart' electronics in fact process little information, sending it across the globe to a supercomputer whose owners may or may not choose to respect your privacy.  An uncountable number of photos exist on the internet, the result of ceaseless snapshots by smartphone users, and a wealth of data for any system capable of interpreting it.  This is without considering increases in government surveillance; cameras, internet and communications monitoring, etc.
   One of the things preventing the utilisation of this data is the limits of computer technology.  Given the programs, computers, and access to the internet, someone could trace people through a city just by there appearance in the background of other peoples photos.  A more ruthless and advanced tactic would be to hack into millions of smartphones, constantly utilising the data from cameras and sound-pickups.  Even now the time is not far off when we will be able to walk down the street wearing something like google glasses, having them feed us information on every person we walk past.
   That a society in which the barriers to using this wealth of information fully will be different to pour own is definite; the nature and extent of the change, however, is a question almost impossible to answer.  Some SF authors, such as Arthur C. Clark and Stephen Baxter in their The Light of Other Days, postulated that unlimited information would abolish crime, and help usher in a near-perfect civilisation.  While the proliferation of total surveillance may not achieve this, it is an interesting concept.
   Because of the myriad possibilities of such a society it is impossible to comment on how it would effect a SF 'Verse.  The effects would be closely entwine with the nature of the technologies used, and thus every 'Verse will be radically different.  One important point to remember, however, is that even with quantum computing, searching vast masses of data takes time.  Without a starting point a search for one person could takes years, so espionage, while more difficult, is not impossible.  A good example of this is in Poul Anderson's novel The Stars are also Fire.

Fusion Reactors & Nuclear Proliferation

   While this is a little on the SF side of things, no fusion reactors currently existing, it is a real problem.  While a in theory fusion reactor in itself does not produce radioactive elements, or pose a nuclear threat, the actual fact is somewhat less rosy.  Very few fusion reactions are aneutronic, that is, releasing less than 1% of their energy as neutrons.  The most common candidates can release up to 80% as neutrons, meaning that the interior of any fusion reactor is quickly transmuted into unstable isotopes.  If fusion reactors ever become so widespread that a terrorist organisation or rogue government could obtain one, they could not produce nuclear warheads without the uranium to enrich, but they could use it to make a dirty bomb; conventional explosives wrapped in a casing of highly radioactive material.  One of these detonated within a city might render it uninhabitable, and kill thousands with radiation poisoning.
   In the real world this scenario is an unlikely one.  Fusion reactors are likely to be more complexed and expensive than fission ones, limiting their availability for a long time.  In a SF 'Verse, however, the may be more widespread, and proliferation that could lead to fears of nuclear terrorism.  This could be a great problem with small corporations mining the asteroids; if they found uranium and enriched it, none back on Earth would know.

Private Spacecraft

   Although not unseen in SF this is a relatively new threat in the modern world.  Anyone who has any scientific knowledge knows that even small objects at high velocity pack a lot of punch, and in space velocities are high indeed.  With the proliferation of private spacecraft the real danger is that one of them might be used as a weapon, either by its owners, or by someone hacking into its systems.  While most spacecraft cannot renter the Earth's atmosphere - and those that can decelerate to around of below Mach 1 even in the worst case - meaning they cannot effect anyone on Earth's surface.  However, and impact in orbit could cause a Kessler Syndrome event, denying access to space for many years.
   Once space is commercialised or colonised the danger is greater.  A moon base, orbital habitat, or mining station is not protected by atmosphere, and even a low speed impact could kill everyone on board.  More terrifying, a cargo ship transporting ore from the asteroids to earth could use it as impromptu kinetic warheads.  Despite being inert, a dense limb of rock and metal is every bit as deadly as a nuclear warhead, and may be more difficult to counter.  Only one tonne, travelling at a velocity of Mach five, has an energy of 1.5E9 J.  Not quite nuclear standard, but change that to a five-hundred tonne asteroid chunk, and the atmosphere looses its shielding effect, pushing the impact energy up into the city destroying range.
   Any future or SF society with widespread civilian access to space will have intense security measures.  It is quite likely that if a spacecraft strays off its course, or does anything untoward, it may be summarily destroyed rather than have the risk it imposes.  Even a suborbital transport could be effected by this, a last minute course change could see it slamming into a city rather than softly landing at a spaceport.  And interesting plot for a SF thriller would be a terrorist group using hijacked spacecraft to bombard the Earth.  Without a full scale nuclear defence system stopping a spacecraft or lump of rock going at interplanetary transfer velocity is almost impossible, so great for a cold war in space kind of setting.

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