Technology whiplash defined: Slaughterbots – AI enhanced drones that could hunt human targets autonomously – It seemed like Sci-Fi then Skydio announced.
The young man is running through the forest trying to escape pursuit. He dodges left, then right, spins and ducks behind a tree but to no avail the drone hunting him is smart. It recognizes his face, gait and clothing, and is relentless and autonomous. There is no one flying it but its own AI with the instructions to always keep him in view.
Sound like the flimsy beginning of a bad sci-fi movie? No, it is a New York Times reporter testing the R1 from Skydio and you can watch it (paywall) here. The company promotes it as a new way to do visual storytelling: “Skydio R1 knows what to film and moves itself with the freedom of flight to get the best shot, letting you capture otherwise impossible videos of your adventures.” Why it’s a flying selfie! Isn’t that great?
Two weeks before the R1 hit the press and unaware of its development, I posted a blog on the “Slaughterbots”, autonomous AI guided drones that could hunt and kill their targets. It too has a striking video produced by the Future of Life Institute. Released in mid November 2017, it has gone viral and at latest check has almost 2.5 Million views.
The reaction my post raised ran from “this is scary” to “you’re full of it, this is sci-fi”. I should not have been surprised. The same kind of debate around could we really make weapons autonomous (no person in the “commit to kill” loop) has been coursing through the press for a while.
Here are some facts. The R1 price is $2,499 – pretty expensive compared to non-autonomous drones at ~$800. It also is a power hog, so much so that it can only fly for 16 minutes. You can get drones that will double that flight time. Finally, it’s pretty big at 13”x16”x1.5” and weighs in at 2.2 pounds. Not quite a flying cookie sheet but nowhere near the tiny palm sized nemesis in the Slaughterbots. It doesn’t seem like we have anything to worry about, right?
Maybe. Here are a few more facts. First, the R1 is built by hand in Silicon Valley – a very expensive way and location for manufacturing. Next, there has been serious VC money behind Skydio for the last four years – the kind that are known for scaling out big things for big returns on their investments. Last, the magic is in the software. All the other stuff: processor, batteries, power efficiency, cameras, etc. are subject to the same dynamic forces that have driven down the prices and upped the performance of any electronic based product.
Paul Scharre, a distinguished policy councilor wrote in the IEEE Spectrum: “I think the fear of lethal micro-drones being used as weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists is not realistic. Smaller scale attacks are certainly possible and, in fact, are already occurring today. These are serious threats and nations should respond accordingly, but I do not see the scenario depicted in the “Slaughterbots” video as plausible.”
Ever hear of Arthur C. Clarke? He was a phenomenal Sci-fi writer and scientist. Clarke promulgated a number of “Laws” throughout his career. Here is his first: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
What do you think the price of an R1 will be by the holiday selling season? How long before the big Chinese competitor, DJI, comes out with something similar or maybe better? Do you think they’ll get smaller and learn to swarm?
While a swarm of Slaughterbots is pretty dramatic the lesson applies everywhere. Look around your office, home or school. It seems like Sci-fi, until it isn’t.