Increasing ‘popularity’ of drones

National Public Radio (NPR)  in the US broadcast an interesting short piece on the spread of drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Drones of all sizes are now increasingly used by national and local states – I think ‘popular’ is the wrong word as most people have no idea that they are so widespread or even that they are likely to be operating at all. There’s also a longer piece by Barbara Ehrenreich on the more general issue of robotic warfare on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site today.

According to my sources in the UK, they have just started flying Reaper drones out of RAF Northolt over London, in preparation for the 2012 London Olympics.

Helping robots find their way in the city

Many approaches to developing cities as automated environments, whether this be for robotics, for augmented reality or ubiquitous computing tend to take as their premise the addition of items, generally computing devices, to the environment. Thus, for example, RFID chips can be embedded in buildings and objects which could (and indeed in some cases, already do) communicate with each other and with mobile devices to form networks to enable all kinds of location-based services, mobile commerce and of course, surveillance.

But for robots in the city, such a complex network of communication is not strictly necessary. Cities already contain many relatively stable points by which such artificial entities can orient themselves, however not all of them are obvious. One recent Japanese paper, mentioned in Boing Boing, advocates the use of manhole covers, which tend to be static, metallic, quite distinctive and relatively long-lasting – all useful qualities in establishing location. The shape of manhole covers could be recorded and used as location-finding data with no need for embedded chips and the like.

It isn’t mentioned in the article, but I wonder whether such data could also be used for other inhabitants of the city with limited sensory capabilities: impaired humans? Could one equip people with devices that read the same data and use this to help sensorially-impaired people to navigate the city more effectively? On the less positive side, I also wonder whether such data would prove to be highly desirable information for use in urban warfare…

Facebook face-recognition

Reports are that US users can now use an automated face-recognition function to tag people in photos posted to the site. To make it clear, this is not the already dubious practice of someone else tagging you in a photo, but an automated service – enter a picture and the system will search around identifying and tagging.

As a Facebook engineer is quoted as saying:

“Now if you upload pictures from your cousin’s wedding, we’ll group together pictures of the bride and suggest her name… Instead of typing her name 64 times, all you’ll need to do is click ‘Save’ to tag all of your cousin’s pictures at once.”

Once again, just as with Facebook Places, the privacy implications of this do not appear to have been thought through (or more likely just disregarded) and it’s notable that this has not yet been extended to Canada, where the federal Privacy Commissioner has made it very clear that Facebook cannot unilaterally override privacy laws.

Let’s see how this one plays out, and how much, once again, Facebook has to retrofit privacy settings…

Controlling Robotic Weapons

I’m delighted to be informed by Professor Noel Sharkey that I have been invited to become the first member of the Advisory Board of the International Campaign for Robotic Arms Control (ICRAC). ICRAC aims to help prevent the unfettered spread of automated weapons systems and to produce an international convention or some other kind of binding agreement to control their use. I’ve been tracking the develeopment of robotic surveillance (and killing) systems for quite a while now and I think this campaign is absolutely essential. This piece recently in The Times of London goes into some of the issues quite well. There is a lot of work to do here to persuade governments to control what many militaries think will be ‘essential’ to warfare in this coming century, but I think that the landmines campaign is a good example of what can be done here – but this time before robotic weapons become too common.

US Predator drones in Pakistan

Although the US military has been operated its Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) (both surveillance and weaponized versions) in both Pakistan and Afghanistan for some time now, the Pakistan government is now for the first time reported to be accepting their use as an official part of its own military’s operations in the South Waziristan region. This is the area where it has long been known that some of the most important Taliban and Al-Qaeda groups have been ‘hiding’  – but hiding in pretty much plain sight. More on military drones here and here.