Bloody Shovel 3

We will drown and nobody shall save us


The Singularity is probably not happening any time soon, but lately we are in the midst of a technological revolution. At last software and computing power has become so good that many tasks are becoming completely automated. Self-driving cars, robotised factories, automatic translation are already a reality. And then there's 3d printing, aeroponics, graphene. I don't know if technological progress is slowing down compared to 1900-1950, but some good stuff is coming along, and it seems it can revolutionise the way our economy is presently organised. It seems the trend is towards decentralisation. Software has to be designed only once, then shipped at no cost; 3d printing and aeroponics negate the benefits of location: you can build or grow anything anywhere.

All of this sounds very nice, but the real revolution is not in the production of potatoes and logic boards. As always, the quickest sector to make use of new technologies is the military. Already we are seeing how air forces around the world are quickly shifting from expensive manned airplanes to unmanned drones. These are cheaper, deadlier, and can be controlled remotely. One of the most interesting blogs around is Global Guerrillas, by a former US Air Force pilot turned military theorist and survivalist geek. His blog, and his uber celtic face staring at you on the homepage tell you of a future world, soon to come true, where drone swarms with millions of small weaponised insect like machines and bullet-sized missiles fly around projecting power around the world, controlled only by a handful of men in the comfort of their homes.

While swarms of killed drones aren't here yet, bullet missiles were demoed earlier this year, and I can easily imagine the Chinese Politburo using them to decapitate a protest by targeting its leaders, or the Israelis using them to harass Arab agitators. At this rate there is no doubt that the need for huge armies with millions of soldiers has disappeared. Fully autonomous robot armies may not happen yet, but software assisted remote controlled weapons are here already. A pity for fans of Gundam; you won't get to ride your attack mecha.

Now I don't think that all these advancements will totally negate the advantages of scale, there are parts of the supply chain that are prone to centralised control, and states won't downsize without a fight. But the incentives are there for easy secession. The problem with this IT revolution in production and war is that not every man has the necessary brains to design a drone or its attack algorithm. All this new technologies are designed and managed by as old time reader Zhainan calls them, the geek squad. Joe Sixpack isn't going to design a new algorithm so drone swarms can outflank their Canadian rivals. You need a good programmer team for that.

But geeks, if smart, have a problem with focus. They tend to get obsessed with trivia, and while good at incremental improvements, have a hard time at innovating from scratch. A lot of geeks are libertarian, that should tell you enough about their ability to perceive reality. The geek squad might control the new automated world, but they won't know what to do with it. Geeks need external pressure to focus their minds in reality. They need to be led.

The best example of a non-geek leading a geek is Steve Jobs with Steve Wozniak. Woz was the guy who knew how to design a computer, but he never did anything useful or sellable. It was Jobs, a self confessed Humanities type who had the ideas, the charm and the guts to grab Woz and persuade him into building the Apple II. Over the extent of their relationship Jobs would cheat him, take his money, take all credit and fame from him. But he didn't build or design shit. He just ordered people around.

That's what Jobs did all his life. He knew what he liked, and he knew how to get others to do it for him. All his employees and acquaintances tell what a narcissistic jerk he was. But it worked. It worked beautifully. His company designed the best computer of his time, then the best OS, then came back to Apple and revolutionised music and phones. But he didn't do shit, all he did was get the best people available and bully them into performing. To this day working conditions on Apple are one of the worst in the industry, with bad pay and much overtime. Yet it still has great minds working there producing the best tech.

Now imagine a little Steve Jobs was born in 2000. Later this decade he meets with a little Woz, and they talk how hot it would be to design bee-sized weaponised drones, and use them to build for themselves a kingdom in Central America. Apple is the most valuable company in the world with just around 20.000 real workers. If you harnessed that talent to build next-gen weaponry you could conquer yourself a kingdom in no time.

Not to say that traditional militaries are going anywhere, no amount of drones can counteract an H bomb. But little by little the big top down structures of the industrial era are going obsolete. When the time comes you can eat local food in a robotised aeroponic factory, print a car with a graphene printer all running on painted solar cells, what do you want a nation state for? The future of human society is thousands of Apple-like kingdoms ran by geek squads following a charismatic leader. War will be like Starcraft, a bloodless, frantic and fun affair run online by teenagers on their widescreen monitors. Until they lose and loser n00bs are enslaved by the conquerors and forced to debug foreign code on sweatshops. Or something.


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  • > automatic translation

    Google's English Deutsch really sucks, I haven't tried others really. It's not that it has no utility at all, but it's nowhere near reliable. Just about every second sentence is pretty f'd.

    • > War will be like Starcraft, a bloodless, frantic and fun affair run online by teenagers on their widescreen monitors.

      Why would it not be bloody? Why wouldn't the ultimate goal of drone swarms -- in a conventional warfare context, as opposed to something more like espionage -- be to inflict civvie mass casualties? Isn't that what will force the enemy to surrender?

      I guess I could imagine a special case, in which Chinese and American robots fight for oilfields, but intentional human casualties (civvie or not) are considered by both sides to be both repellent and contrary to interest. This seems like it could conceiveably be pretty metastable -- if neither nation feels seriously threatened in its homeland, due to inter alia to M.A.D. theory. (Perhaps limited war in general usually has this sort of logic.)

      Of course, there do exist real-world examples of trying to direct warfare against property whilst sparing life: the main one I know of is the later IRA, which concluded that wasting Britons was basically just bad press and perhaps rather bad home morale, whereas destroying British buildings themselves was not too bad.

      • Civvies are targeted because they produce and support soldiers. With robot warfare civillians are just a part of the landscape. Once you destroy the factories you've won the war.

    • It's unreliable in the same way Windows 95. Sucks but it gets the job done. I'm a linguist and I should hate it, but it's a huge improvement in little time, and it's getting better.

  • I think that dude kurt9, though not my very favorite poster, is a robo engineer. He didn't seem too convinced that robotics would necessarily go through big advances. It sure would be fun to be really conversant with all this stuff that may or may not change the world, as well as with the peak oil debate. Pretty hard to understand our future without getting pretty deep in all that stuff.

  • Nigga, whatchoo know bout da future? Whatchoo know bout self-assembling nanobots and nanomaterials? Whatchoo know bout persistent omnipresent computerized surveillance and supercheap embedded programming in every aspect of life?

    Emerging tech will change the balance of power in such a way as to resemble medieval Europe. See Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age for a fun approximation.

  • > Civvies are targeted because they produce and support soldiers. With robot warfare civillians are just a part of the landscape. Once you destroy the factories you’ve won the war.

    What about the second war, was all the bombing strategic or did some of it aim more at terror? (One could also set aside questions of what was intended, and just ask how much each of the two aspects mattered.) One might have to put the question to a WWII-head. I think Dresden is one instance where questions have been raised, but it may just be hopelessly subjective.

    > It’s unreliable in the same way Windows 95. Sucks but it gets the job done. I’m a linguist and I should hate it, but it’s a huge improvement in little time, and it’s getting better.

    Eh, I used Win95 to work up hundreds of bombastic essais for high school teachers. It failed, occasionally. It may suck for unix l33ts, but I've used GUI linux and to me it's not much different. Which only goes to show I'm too coarse to appreciate the difference, but so are an ample majority of men. Machine translation seems really ill-functioning compared to Win95.

  • > Whatchoo know bout persistent omnipresent computerized surveillance

    Doesn't that rest on cryptographic superiority, in the end? You can't make the system's radio undetectable, I presume, so encryption will be needed.

    Of course, most people aren't much at heavy math, and a strong horse, strong org, can probably assemble many potent cryptographers -- so this doesn't go against your overall thesis of increased/increasing inequality of power.

    • Crypto is useless against imint and accoustic surveillance, which can be done by swarms of tiny self-assembling drones sending their data back by point-to-point communication. As facial and action recognition software improves, this state will move closer and closer to the equivalent of life under a microscope.

      Further, unless you're Ted Kaczynski, you live in a world where you make dozens or hundreds of electronic transactions a day with various commercial entities; even if they all use the best commercial crypto ever, and even if that crypto has no back doors and is unbreakable, this is a huge signature which lends itself well to surveillance.

      The missing piece is small attack droids.

  • The idea during WW2 was that production morale would decrease, people on the front would worry about their families, etc. Not an issue here. Of course some cruel sob would do it some time or another, but if the power is balanced enough for a war to have started (instead of outright conquest), MAD probably applies too.

    Machine translation sucks at the high level, but it is good enough for most international business email. It's superior to most foreigners written english. Take my word on this. And it doesn't crash several times a day.

    I've little idea about cryptography but aren't most codes unbreakable today?

  • Being a programmer and fancying myself a bit of a software architect, I'm not so optimistic about much better software. Just look at the messes we have now, hundreds of millions of lines of messy, buggy, brittle code not doing much of anything. Google translate? Pshaw. They had machine translation of engineering and scientific text in the sixties. Google is just throwing data, gigahertz and gigabytes at the problem.

    As for your scenario, I had one remark which led to a question. First the remark: your generals of the robo-armies and the geeks will need to figure out how to deal with the unwashed masses. What to do if some group organizes a Green March into their mini-country/gated community? They have to be prepared to mow down the hordes, prepared militarily, psychologically and politically. That's quite difficult, and the demographic advantage will become even more tilted with time.

    Now the question. You wrote about carving out kingdoms, but what the hell does an organization like you describe want with territory? Resources, yes maybe, although extracting quickly and leaving is probably a better idea than defending it. Other than that, territory is just liability. So what will the dudes fight for?

    PS: I second "The Diamond Age".

    • I'm no expert but it's my impression that software people tend to be too idealistic. Most code might be a mess with no elegance and design, but what gives? All things are, what matters is that it works. As a human translator I can tell you that translation is basically about memory. Throwing data and gigahertz at the problem doesn't strike me as a bad solution.

      Green Marches don't happen without Hassan IIs. Just throw a guided bullet to the guy and problem solved. Spontaneous warfare is an oxymoron. Demographics must of course be taken care of, but that's another question.

      Geekstan needs territory like anyone else. Need to house the factories somewhere. Resources can be bought. It's not like Arabs are ruling the world because of their oil reserves.

  • You should not forget how much infrastructure you need to build just one piece of high-tech. The sea lanes, the electric power distribution and a bazillion of orderly executed commercial transaction must happen to build just one little piece of software or electronic.

    These prerequisites should nopt be taken for granted. They are the achilles heel of every modern society and of high-tec guerilla too.

    • The key argument of John Robb is that infrastructure is very easy to sabotage these days, so it will wither one way or another. Look at the pipelines in Iraq.

  • Maybe yes, Maybe no. It seems like all the exciting tech these days is all about getting us to click on advertisements while we kill time on the web.

  • Yeah it's true that Jobs didn't know how to program and didn't design or develop any of the products. They say he didn't really understand how computers worked.

    There are people who say that Jobs didn't just not develop anything, but even tried to shut down Apple's Macintosh project:

    What I proposed was a computer [the Macintosh] that would be easy to use, mix text and graphics, and sell for about $1,000. Steve Jobs said that it was a crazy idea, that it would never sell, and we didn’t want anything like it. He tried to shoot the project down.

    So I kept out of Jobs’ way and went the then-chairman Mike Markkula and talked over every detail of my idea. Fortunately, both Markkula and then-president Mike Scott told Jobs to leave me alone.

    We went off to a different building and built prototypes of the Macintosh and its software, and got it up and running [...] We were trying to keep the project away from Jobs’ meddling. For the first two years, Jobs wanted to kill the project because he didn’t understand what it was really about.

    If Jobs would only take credit for what he really did for the industry, that would be more than enough But he also insists on taking credit away from everyone else for what they did, which I think is very unfortunate.

    I was very much amused by the recent Newsweek article where he said, “I have a few good designs in me still”. He never had any designs. He has not designed a single product. Woz (Steve Wozniak) designed the Apple II. Ken Rothmuller and others designed Lisa. My team and I designed the Macintosh. Wendell Sanders designed the Apple III. What did Jobs design? Nothing.

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