Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

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Who’s In Control?


I’ve written a lot lately about autonomous vehicles, weapons, etc. In the news right now are remote-controlled drones interfering with California fire fighters. What’s the connection? Whether you’re on the annoying end of self-driving cars or a human-driven drones, it’s all the same.

What’s my point? When it comes to laws prohibiting or regulating their actions, devices must be treated based on their actions and capabilities. The state of their autonomy has nothing to do with the case.

This is also true when it comes to finding the culprit. If a device breaks the law (or a regulation) then the responsible party must pay the penalty. If the device is autonomous, it will be hard to determine who sent it on its independent mission.

In other words, before we can have any kind of autonomous device, we need enforceable laws to connect the intent of the person controlling the device to its actions. As you might imagine, this will be more difficult than identifying a person with a drone.

Wait a minute! Can we even do that? If a drone can be connected to a controller device—and then to the person using that device—then why are California fire fighters having these problems?

It seems implausible the drone controller could possibly control more than one drone. However, instead of a unique identifier between each drone and its controller, suppose the manufacturer uses only a hundred unique identifiers for the thousands of drones it makes. Or maybe only a dozen.

In as much as the drone buyers do not have to register the identifier (nor is there a law requiring sellers to keep such records), the only way an errant drone could be prosecuted would be to get its identifier and find its controller.

The latter task requires searching an area whose radius is the maximum control distance for this model. Assuming the drone owner is stupid enough to keep the controller after the drone didn’t come back. Assuming the drone owner was operating from a house and not a car.

Without a complete registry of totally unique drone and controller ids, these devices are free to fly wherever the owner wants. Unlike a gun that identifies the bullets it shoots, a drone controller can’t be traced.

These rabbits have clearly left Pandora’s hat. Short of declaring all existing drones illegal (i.e., no totally unique identifier), there is no way for society to control the use of these devices.

However, we have the opportunity to pass such laws for autonomous devices not yet on the market. The real question is: Does society have the will? I doubt it, since it’s not too late to redo the drones and I see no inclination to do so.

Who would have thought that a technology as innocuous as toy drones could expand into total social chaos? As for banning of autonomous weapons, the military will resist ids. And I can see the NRA in the wings salivating at the chance to put in its two cents.

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