Pentagon: A Human Will Always Decide When a Robot Kills You

First Reaper The Pentagon wants to make perfectly clear that every time one of its flying robots releases its lethal payload, it’s the result of a decision made by an accountable human being in a lawful chain of command. Human rights groups and nervous citizens fear that technological advances in autonomy will slowly lead to the day when robots make that critical decision for themselves. But according to a new policy directive issued by a top Pentagon official, there shall be no SkyNet, thank you very much. Twitter.

Here’s what happened while you were preparing for Thanksgiving: Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter signed, on November 21, a series of instructions to “minimize the probability and consequences of failures” in autonomous or semi-autonomous armed robots “that could lead to unintended engagements,” starting at the design stage (.pdf, thanks to Cryptome.org). Translated from the bureaucrat, the Pentagon wants to make sure that there isn’t a circumstance when one of the military’s many Predators, Reapers, drone-like missiles or other deadly robots effectively automatizes the decision to harm a human being.

The hardware and software controlling a deadly robot needs to come equipped with “safeties, anti-tamper mechanisms, and information assurance.” The design has got to have proper “human-machine interfaces and controls.” And, above all, it has to operate “consistent with commander and operator intentions and, if unable to do so, terminate engagements or seek additional human operator input before continuing the engagement.” If not, the Pentagon isn’t going to buy it or use it.

It’s reasonable to worry that advancements in robot autonomy are going to slowly push flesh-and-blood troops out of the role of deciding who to kill. To be sure, military autonomous systems aren’t nearly there yet. No Predator, for instance, can fire its Hellfire missile without a human directing it. But the military is wading its toe into murkier ethical and operational waters: The Navy’s experimental X-47B prototype will soon be able to land on an aircraft carrier with the barest of human directions. That’s still a long way from deciding on its own to release its weapons. But this is how a very deadly slope can slip.

It’s that sort of thing that worries Human Rights Watch, for instance. Last week, the organization, among the most influential non-governmental institutions in the world, issued a report warning that new developments in drone autonomy represented the demise of established “legal and non-legal checks on the killing of civilians.” Its solution: “prohibit the “development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons through an international legally binding instrument.”

Laudable impulse, wrong solution, writes Matthew Waxman. A former Defense Department official for detainee policy, Waxman and co-author Kenneth Anderson observe that technological advancements in robotic weapons autonomy is far from predictable, and the definition of “autonomy” is murky enough to make it unwise to tell the world that it has to curtail those advancements at an arbitrary point. Better, they write, for the U.S. to start an international conversation about how much autonomy on a killer robot is appropriate, so as to “embed evolving internal state standards into incrementally advancing automation.”

Meet Pluto-kun, the world’s cutest plutonium mascot

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Pink Tentacle has a post about Pluto-kun, created by Japan’s Power Reactor and Nuclear Fuel Development Corporation in the 1990s. The helium-voiced fellow stars in a “pro-nuclear PR cartoon entitled ‘Pluto-kun, Our Reliable Friend.’ The aim of the animated film, which features the company mascot Pluto-kun, is to dispel some of the fears surrounding plutonium.”

[4:00] Misconception #2 — Pluto-kun addresses the fear that plutonium is deadly and causes cancer. Plutonium’s danger to the human body stems from the alpha radiation it emits. Because alpha radiation is relatively weak, it does not penetrate the skin, and plutonium is not absorbed into the body if it comes into contact with skin. He explains that you would not die instantly if you were to drink plutonium. If swallowed, the vast majority simply passes through the digestive tract without being absorbed. If it enters the blood stream (through a cut, for example) it cannot be removed easily from the body. It accumulates in the lymph nodes before ending up in the bones or liver, where it continues emitting alpha radiation. Plutonium can also get into the liver or bones if it is inhaled into the lungs. It is important not to breathe it in or allow it to enter the blood stream.

[6:00] No human is ever known to have died because of inhaling or ingesting plutonium. [7:00] Pluto-kun explains what would happen if criminals dumped plutonium into a reservoir that provides our drinking water. Plutonium is heavy and it does not dissolve easily in water, so most of it would sink to the bottom. Even if you were to drink plutonium-laced water everyday, the vast majority of it would simply pass through the digestive system without being absorbed by the body.

Cute ‘Pluto-kun’ cartoon dispels plutonium fears

Richard Branson launches Virgin Oceanic: deep-sea exploring submarines

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[ Video link | image: click for large]

Today, Sir Richard Branson, American sailor, pilot and explorer Chris Welsh, and submarine designer Graham Hawkes launched Virgin Oceanic, a project to explore “the last frontiers of our own Blue Planet: the very bottom of our seas.” .

The project includes a partnership with Google: “Using their mapping technology, Google hopes to chronicle the dives as they happen and share discoveries, footage and record breaking achievements with the world.”

Full launch announcement follows, along with more artist’s conceptual images of the submarine and accompanying catamaran. Click each image for large.

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War and video: Some thoughts on the flood of graphic “conflict clips” online

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(Bullet holes are seen on the windshield of a car used by insurgents after an attack at Camp Phoenix in Kabul. Ahmad Masood / Reuters)

The Guardian invited me to write a quick opinion piece on the explosion of new sources of graphic online conflict videos, and what that sudden availability of explicit, violent material means for news coverage and for each of us as individual witnesses. Snip:

I do believe that truth is a good thing. And to the extent that the flood of bloody videos pouring out of Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere right now document the truth, they are important. As commercial cable news networks (at least, in the US) evolve into something more like entertainment channels than the news outlets they began as, our access to these ugly streaming truths matters even more. Distant shots of missile drops are less likely to inspire empathy than a YouTube clip of a man in Libya whose lower jaw has just been blown off, who is still shouting for freedom. And yes, that video exists; the tireless Twitter chronicler Andy Carvin at NPR (@acarvin) tweeted it last week, along with many other videos like it. (I don’t know how he does it; I could not keep up his tolerance or his pace.)

But human beings do not have an endless capacity for empathy, and our capacity is less so in the mediated, disembodied, un-real realm of online video. At what point does access to war gore become harmful to the viewer, and at what point do each of us who observe this material for the purpose of reporting the story around it, become numb or begin to experience secondary trauma?

“I keep having to remind myself that we’re bearing witness,” Andy told me recently, when we were discussing how the volume of material was affecting him personally. “Otherwise, I think I would’ve lost my mind.”

Atrocity Exhibition(Guardian “Comment is Free” blog, thanks Matt Seaton)

Related: At the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal has a piece up gathering thoughts on this topic from others around the web today.

Elephantmen: Dr Moreau meets apocalyptic noir science fiction comic

I’m late to the party on Elephantmen — the comic has been running since 2006 and there’ve been three collections to date. I’ve just read the first one, Wounded Animals and I’ve got that happy, warm feeling that comes from discovering something great, finishing it, and realizing there’s plenty more where that came from (I discovered the series on a visit back to LA’s Secret Headquarters, where the curated collection of comics never lets me down).

Elephantmen (which spun out of Image Comics’s Hip Flask) is the a Dr Moreau-esque story of a race of human-animal chimeras created by a mad, savage doctor who wants to breed superwarriors to fight in an African war. The Elephantmen (who are not just elephant-human hybrids, but also hippos, rhinos, crocs, etc) are rescued from their maker and brought back to human society, the living brutalized evidence of the horrors of 23rd Century warfare. They are rehabilitated, given jobs and stipends, and eased into “normal life.”

But life can never be normal for the Elephantmen; they were brainwashed to be merciless killers, they are traumatized and stigmatized. Some are cruel, some are wounded — some are hunted.

Full of pathos and told in a series of disjointed, flashbulb vignettes, Elephantmen is great apocalyptic noir fiction, and the pulpy, over-the-top artwork (half EC comics, half Metal Hurlant) is a perfect complement.

Elephantmen Volume 1: Wounded Animals

OpenNet Initiative releases new report on use of Western censorware by Mideast censors

From ONI: “The recent political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa has thrown into focus the information shaping, events-based blocking, and counter-control activities undertaken by governments throughout the region. New research by the OpenNet Initiative shows that many of these activities are supported by Western filtering tools and services.” Read the OpenNet Initiative’s new report: “West Censoring East: The Use of Western Technologies by Middle East Censors, 2010-2011,” authored by Jillian York and Helmi Noman. A related Wall Street Journal item is here, but requires subscription/login.

Time lapse video of woman with HIV/AIDS

Just noticed this powerful advertisement from the Topsy Foundation. It was one of the winners at TED’s “Ad’s Worth Spreading” contest, which is generally worth checking out. This particular video does a great job (with a lovely twist at the end) at showing the effectiveness of HIV antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). There’s also a followup video you can view that checks in on the woman (Selinah) as well as chatting with the folks behind the video. Although I realize that the ARVs have been made possible by the work done in the pharmaceutical industry, and that there is a chance that Topsy’s programs are facilitated by kind donations from the same industry, it’s still a pity that there isn’t a more sustainable system for the provision of such drugs to developing countries. Pity that these sorts of medicines are usually priced way too high for individuals like Selinah, which is why so many go untreated and so many die. Pity also that laws like Bill C-393 (which aim to explore different ways to create that sustainable market and lower that price) are being deliberately stalled in government so as to guarantee not being passed. That kind of unfortunate reality deserves a megafacepalm.

Disaster in Japan and the science of belief

Last week, I spoke with research psychologist Jesse Bering for Bloggingheads Science Saturday—a weekly feature that records interesting conversations between science bloggers. Unsurprisingly, the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan were on both our minds. But I think you’ll find Jesse’s take on this stuff particularly interesting. He studies the human tendency to believe in the supernatural, and he had a lot of thought-provoking things to say about that instinct, how it affects even unbelievers during disaster situations, and why belief was useful to our ancestors, but isn’t necessarily something that we need today.

If you’ve been following my posts about the nuclear crisis here on BoingBoing, you’ll have probably heard most of what I talked about in the video already. To watch Bering’s section, jump ahead in the video to the 21-minute mark.

Japan nuclear crisis: “Should I take potassium iodide pills to protect against radiation exposure?”

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In the past couple of days, as many of us around the world began thinking seriously about the fallout from the damaged nuclear reactors at Fukushima, Japan, I’ve gotten lots of questions about potassium iodide pills—”Why do people take them?”, “How do they work?”, “Should my family take them?”

I’ve spoken with several health physicists—researchers at American universities and at the Mayo Clinic—and I think that I can now answer these questions well enough to post something to BoingBoing. This is a scary, nerve-wracking topic for a lot of people, so I’m not going to bury the information down in a narrative. We’ll just get right to the point. In fact, I think that I can clear up most of the confusion by answering four questions.

What are potassium iodide pills?

Basically, potassium iodide is just a specific kind of salt. Nothing fancy. The same stuff is often put into table salt as a way to get iodine into the diets of people who don’t eat much naturally iodine-containing food. Iodine, itself, is an element that’s important to the human body. Without it, the thyroid gland can’t make certain hormones. If you don’t eat enough iodine, especially as a kid, you’ll end up with goiters, fatigue, depression—and worse. Thanks to iodized salt (and diverse diets), those of us who live in industrialized nations don’t have to think about whether we’re getting enough iodine. And, thus, we don’t think too much about potassium iodide. Until there’s a risk of radioactive fallout.

How do potassium iodide pills protect against radiation?

Elements come in two forms: Stable and radioactive, the latter of which are prone to breaking apart, shooting out particles that can damage cells and DNA. There’s good ol’ stable iodine—the stuff that keeps our bodies functioning properly. And there’s radioactive iodine—which is dangerous.

Radioactive iodine is dangerous precisely because, within the human body, it does the same thing that stable iodine does. It goes straight to the thyroid gland.

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Rejected by Bahrain

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Bahrain awoke to a violent crackdown by police on demonstrators camped out at the country’s iconic Lulu (Pearl) roundabout on Wednesday. That afternoon, I boarded a flight from Doha, Qatar to Bahrain, to see for myself what was unfolding in the island nation I once called home.

Hours later, I found myself on a flight back to Doha, without having been allowed to set foot out of Bahrain’s airport in Muharraq.

The flight itself was quite uneventful. The plane – an Airbus A321, with a listed 177 passenger capacity – carried less than 30 people. A short line to immigration meant I was at the desk in minutes. Immigration officer asks, “Where are you coming from? Qatar? OK, 5 Bahraini Dinars.”

Thumbing through my passport, he suddenly stops and looks me in the eye. “Wait, where are you from? Who do you work for? … Please have a seat – over there.” I can’t be sure if it was the Iraq visa, the India visa, or the numerous Qatar & Saudi visas in my American passport he found suspicious. Or perhaps it was my telling him in Arabic that “my origin” is half Indian, half Hispanic.

So my wait began. There were quite a number of other people on the benches too. Anyone who’d arrived with the intention of driving across the King Fahad causeway into Saudi Arabia was being told they’d have to fly. There is a curfew in effect on Bahrain’s main highway from 4pm-4am, and last I heard, the bridge to Saudi was closed indefinitely. This of course, due to the month-long protests against the government by opposition groups calling for democratic reforms, a constitutional monarchy and basic human rights.

After about an hour of waiting, and checking in a couple times to see if there was any problems, one of the immigration officers asked, “You used to work for Al Jazeera, right?”

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