The Rise of Killer Drones

Alright, so I am being a bit cheeky here. (Come on, even the big-name media brands use hyperbolic headlines!)

But, buried within a 548-page United Nations report on the Libyan Civil War is a troubling account about an autonomous military drone (specifically an “unmanned aerial vehicle”, or UAV) attacking soldiers without any direct human command.

Described as “a lethal autonomous weapons system”, the drone was powered by artificial intelligence and used by government-backed forces against an enemy militia. According to the report, these fighters “were hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems” and even when they retreated, the drones subjected them to “continual harassment”; no casualties are mentioned.

See the source image
The alleged killer drone, the Turkish-built Kargu-2

The report further states that the weapon systems “were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munitions”—in other words, it was a “fire and forget”.

However, it is unclear whether the drone was allowed to select its target autonomously or did so “on its own”, so to speak. Either way, some observers already consider it the first attack in history carried out by a drone on their own initiative.

It is worth mentioning that the drone in question is a Kargu-2, a small rotary drone built by a Turkish company closely affiliated with that country’s government. Turkey has emerged as an unlikely pioneer in drone technology: another one of its drones, the larger and better armed Bayraktar TB2, is credited with helping Azerbaijan win its war with Armenia in 2020; after years of literally losing ground against a militarily superior foe, Turkey’s ally gained a decisive edge because of these drones.

Drone strikes — targeting Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers and destroying tanks, artillery and air defense systems — provided a huge advantage for Azerbaijan in the 44-day war and offered the clearest evidence yet of how battlefields are being transformed by unmanned attack drones rolling off assembly lines around the world.

The expanding array of relatively low-cost drones can offer countries air power at a fraction of the cost of maintaining a traditional air force. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh also underscored how drones can suddenly shift a long-standing conflict and leave ground forces highly exposed.[…]“

Drones offer small countries very cheap access to tactical aviation and precision guided weapons, enabling them to destroy an opponent’s much-costlier equipment such as tanks and air defense systems,” said Michael Kofman, military analyst and director of Russia studies at CNA, a defense think tank in Arlington, Va.

“An air force is a very expensive thing,” he added. “And they permit the utility of air power to smaller, much poorer nations.”

In Azerbaijan, the videos of the drone strikes have been posted daily on the website of the country’s Defense Ministry, broadcast on big screens in the capital, Baku, and tweeted and retweeted online.

Washington Post

Little wonder why Ukraine is rumored to be seeking these same drones to take back territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists, or why Iraq is considering acquiring some to hunt down ISIS militants and even to shore up gaps in its fledging air force. (Unsurprisingly, Turkey has seized on the success and prestige of its drone industry by proclaiming itself one of the world’s three leaders in combat drone technology.)

To be sure, the U.S. is still far and above the dominant user of combat drones, due in large part to the massive expense of acquiring and maintaining the highest-end systems. Within a decade it may have up to 1,000 drones at its disposal, well above the less than 100 employed by chief rivals China and Russia.

Infographic: The Countries Set To Dominate Drone Warfare  | Statista

Of course, a lot can happen between now and 2028; a technology that was once exclusive to just a handful of nations is now proliferating across the world, thanks to innovations that make drones easier and cheaper to develop, build, and operate. As of 2019, close to 100 countries use military drones — albeit the vast majority for surveillance purposes — up from around 60 a decade earlier. There are at least 21,000 drones in active service worldwide (though the number may be much higher), spanning over 170 different systems; 20 nations are known to have armed, higher-end models.

As to be expected, China and Russia are among the countries with armed drones, but so are the likes of Israel, Iran, Pakistan, and Nigeria. So far, only ten countries are known to have used drone technology on the battlefield: the U.S., Israel, the U.K., Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran , Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia, and the United Arab Emirate.

Note that most of these countries are not among the wealthiest or most powerful in the world, which can also be said of several more countries currently developing drones. The D.C.-based think tank New America has an excellent up-to-date report on this fast-moving world of drone tech, which includes the following infographics:

Drones have become accessible enough that they are even utilized by nonstate actors, ranging from paramilitary groups to terrorist organizations and even cartels

Military drones have come a long way since Israel first used them for surveillance purposes in the 1960s (the U.S. used Israeli-made UAVs to provide intelligence during the Bosnian War of the 1990s, and Israel remains a leading exporter of military drones). Indeed, just a few months after the U.N. report, Israel reportedly used a “swarm of drones” to identify and strike targets in the Gaza Strip—the first time this type of A.I. has been used. These swarms can number in the hundreds, coordinating with one another as they cover far more ground, and far more quickly, than other means. This is no doubt why China is also pioneering this particular type of drone tech, reportedly developing rocket-armed helicopter drones that can overwhelm targets like a swarm of angry bees—with just the push of a faraway button.

Not to be outdone, Russia is also looking to build an “army of robot weapons” backed by Chinese advances in A.I. tech. A report drawing on Pentagon intelligence identified two dozen platforms being developed by the Russian military incorporating some degree of AI or autonomy; these include land, air, and sea vehicles, specialized mines, A.I-powered logistical and training system, and supposedly even an anthropomorphic robot capable of dual-wielding firearms and driving cars. (This does not even include Russia’s purported edge in hypersonic missiles, which is already engendering yet another arms race between the big powers.)

While a lot of this is no doubt posturing, there is zero doubt that countries of all shapes and sizes are going to pursue this tech and ultimately succeed. There were times when firearms, tanks, and aircraft were cutting edge tech limited to a handful of great powers; now, even the smallest military forces have them.

Of course, as some hapless Libyan militants can attest, none of that hardware has the potential to go off the rails like A.I. does…

The International Space Station

One of Wikipedia’s latest featured photos: the International Space Station (ISS), taken in 2011 by Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli from a departing Russian Soyuz spacecraft, while the ISS was docked Space Shuttle Endeavor. It is the largest human-made body in low Earth orbit and can often be seen with the naked eye from Earth, making close to sixteen rotations around Earth daily.

First sent into low Earth orbit in 1998, the space station has been continuously inhabited since 2000; though the last component was fitted in 2011, the station continues to be expanded and developed, with more additions planned for next year. The ISS operated jointly by the American, Russian, Japanese, European, and Canadian space agencies, and has been visited by personnel from seventeen nations. Its ownership and use is governed by various treaties and agreements.

The station is divided primarily between the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS). It also consists of pressurized modules, external trusses, solar arrays, and a microgravity and space environment research lab where crew members conduct experiments in biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and many other fields. It is also suited for testing spacecraft and equipment required for lunar and Martian missions.

The ISS has been serviced by a variety of spacecraft, including the Russian Soyuz and Progress, the American Dragon and Cygnus, the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle, and formerly the American Space Shuttle and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle. Since 2011, the Soyuz has been the sole means to transfer personnel, while the Dragon is the only provider of bulk cargo return to Earth.

The ISS is the ninth space station to be inhabited by crews, and only the second not to be Russian, following the Soviet / Russian Salyut, Almaz, and Mir stations and the American Skylab. It also surpassed the record for longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit, having surpassed Mir’s record of nine years and 357 days.

The station is expected to operate until at least 2028, with the American portion being funded until 2025 and the Russian portion until 2024. Both Russia and America have discussed developing an ISS replacement, although NASA has yet to confirm for certain if this will happen; for their part, the Russians have proposed using elements of their section for a new Russian space station, OPSEK.

The ISS is an enduring, if limited, demonstration of the fruits of global cooperation in space exploration. Various other rising space powers, including Brazil, China, and India have also discussed joining the project, or devising their own space stations.

What Parasites Can Teach Us About Society

Who knew that the workings of a tapeworm could provide some very relevant implications about human nature and social control? Like many parasites, Schistocephalus solidus has a complex life cycle: it reproduces in the guts of waterbirds, from whose droppings its eggs are deposited; they hatch and the larva infect small crustaceans, which are eaten by stickleback fish, which are then eaten by the waterbirds, and…you get the picture.

So far, so typical of parasites. But as The Atlantic reports, the transition from one lifeform to another is facilitated by a pretty insidious form of mind control, which works far beyond the immediately infected animals. Continue reading

The Middle East’s First Particle Accelerator Turns One Year Old

Here’s a rare bit of good news coming out of the Middle East: last year saw the inauguration of its first and still only synchrotron radiation facility,  a large, complex, and powerful machine that, in layman’s terms, acts as an exceptionally keen microscope. (The largest and most well known example is the Large Hadron Collider operated by CERN, a European research organization.) According to the BBC:

Its name is Sesame – Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East.

The facility hosts a synchrotron, a particle accelerator that acts as a powerful microscope.

Researchers including Iranians, Israelis and Palestinians – who would never normally meet – will now use the machine together.

Sesame is a play on the famous phrase “Open Sesame” and is meant to signal a new era of collaborative science.

By generating intense beams of light, synchrotrons provide exceptionally detailed views of everything from cancerous tissue to ancient parchments to plant diseases.

Sesame’s vast white building, located amid dusty hills some 35km north of the capital Amman, makes a stark contrast to the olive groves around it.

Jordan was chosen because of its relative political stability and the fact that it is the only country in the region with diplomatic relations with all the other members of the initiative: Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Palestine, and Turkey.

Nevertheless, as to be expected with trying to start an expensive international collaborative project in a place like the Middle East, there were many obstacles. Again from the BBC:

For most of the past decade, a British physicist, Prof Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith, has chaired the project through a series of obstacles.

  • For a start, Israel and Iran do not have diplomatic relations with each other and nor do fellow members Turkey and Cyprus
  • Iran has been unable to pay its share because of international sanctions on banking
  • Two Iranian scientists were killed in what the Iranian government said were assassinations by the Israeli secret service — one was a delegate to the Sesame Council, the other had visited Sesame
  • After a freak snowstorm, the Sesame roof collapsed leaving key components exposed to the elements

Now, standing in the centre of the completed — and tested — main ring of the Sesame synchrotron, Prof Llewellyn Smith admitted that he was “a bit surprised” that the venture had got so far.

“The real problem has been finding the money — the countries in this region have science budgets that you can hardly see with a microscope,” he said.

Indeed, neither multinational collaboration nor particle accelerators come to mind when one thinks of the Middle East, and yet it now hosts a facility that is just one of sixty in the whole world, funded, staffed, and maintained by nations that still distrust, if not outright despise, one another. It was quite an inspiring feat to pull off, and one that is still tenuous — as it passes its one year anniversary without a hitch, will it survive worsening circumstances in the region (including renewed tensions between Israel and Iran).

Imagine how much scientific progress could be made if our species could get past the ignorance, tribalism, pettiness, greediness, and fearfulness that continue to divide us. This project is just a small and unlikely indicator of that. Here’s hoping there will be more to come there and elsewhere.

The Kalliu Relay System

One of the earliest and most effective mass communications system ever developed was the “kalliu” relay system of the Neo Assyrian Empire in the Middle East. The Assyrians formed one of history’s first empires in the 10th millennium B.C.E., perfecting many strategies and institutional of imperial rule that set the standard for other empires. Chief among these was their mass relay system, which allowed the empire to span 540,000 square miles and last over 300 years.


Rather than have one trusted envoy to deliver a message through a direct route, Assyrian rulers relied on multiple riders to stop at purpose-built stations where they would pass the message to another rider who was ready with a fresh mount. The stations were carefully positioned at regular intervals along the imperial highway system. Mules were used for their sturdiness and speed in rough terrain and climates. The system was maintained by the military and used only by the state: about 150 officials known as “Great Ones” held a copy of the Assyrian royal seal — depicting the king fighting a lion — which they stamped on messages to identify their authority, since it was recognized throughout the empire. Only letters with this seal could be mailed.

Because messages did not require one rider who would need to rest, the kalliu system offered unprecedented communication speed at the time. One estimate suggests that a message traversing 430 miles through rough terrain would take less than five days. Little wonder that later empires like the Persians adopted this technique for their massive territory. Even the United States used it as the basis for the famed Pony Express in the 19th century. Indeed, the use of a series of anonymous messages along different relay systems remain the basis of modern postal systems worldwide — to think it all began with an Iron Age Mesopotamian state nearly 3,000 years ago.

Hero Highlights: Project Prakash

Of the world’s 1.3 million blind children, India is home to the world’s largest population, with estimates ranging from 200,000 to 700,000. As in many developing countries, a child born blind faces enormous social and economic hurdles: in addition to being stigmatized and marginalized in their communities, the vast majority of blind children are unable to get an education or a job. Many face physical and sexual abuses. At least half do not survive to adulthood.

In addition to regressive social attitudes, a lack of medical care access, and little to no disability-friendly institutions and infrastructure, the problem is made worse by the pervasive idea that, once a child reaches seven or eight years of age, their blindness is irreversible and untreatable. Yet the prevailing cause — congenital cataracts — is an otherwise easily treatable condition in the developed world. Imagine a lifetime of being disadvantaged and ostracized for something beyond your control and which could easily be addressed if there was the will and money. It is a disease of poverty.

Enter Project Prakash, founded in 2002 by Dr. Pawan Sinha, an Indian-born graduate of MIT. Named after the Sanskrit word for “Light”, he started the organization after a trip to rural India, where he witnessed the first hand the scale and severity of child blindness. After obtaining a grant from the U.S. National Eye Institute, he assembled team of about 20 clinicians, scientists, and outreach personnel to provide cataract surgery for as little as $300 per patient (though those too poor to pay get it for free). He tells the story in great detail Scientific American (sorry for the paywall.) Continue reading

The Impact of Vaccines

Most of developed world take vaccines for granted. Indeed, there is a growing number  of people in wealthy countries, often the most privileged, who outright fear and dislike vaccines. Yet the data are overwhelming: vaccines have not only been pivotal to virtually extinguishing all sorts of previously common diseases (measles, polio, pertussis, etc.), but they have continued to reap dividends for the millions of human who live in the developing world, where public health otherwise remains weak.

As reported in IFLS:

Vaccines are well regarded as one of the most cost-effective health care actions that a country can pursue, and since 2001 the United Nations has been running a program in 73 low and middle-income countries to prevent 10 diseases. It is now expected that when the project is completed in 2020, it will have resulted in averting around 20 million deaths, while at the same time saving a staggering $820 billion.

“Our examination of the broader economic and social value of vaccines illustrates the substantial gains associated with vaccination,” explained Sachiko Ozawa, who led the research, in a statement. “Unlike previous estimates that only examine the averted costs of treatment, our estimates of the broader economic and social value of vaccines reflect the intrinsic value that people place on living longer and healthier lives.”

And these economic benefits, it turns out, are huge. The researchers have calculated that when the vaccination program comes to an end in 2020, it will have saved around $350 billion when it comes to health, but overall this balloons to an astonishing $820 billion across the 73 low and middle-income countries in which Gavi is operating.

This is not only through reduced health care costs as diseases are prevented before they become an issue, but also due to those who are vaccinated being healthier and so working for longer and thus increasing productivity in these nations over their entire lifetimes.

Social and economic benefits aside, the most important results are the human ones: the prevention of over 500 million illnesses, 20 million child deaths, and 9 million cases of long-term disabilities. So much pain and suffering and loss will be unknown — and unfortunately unappreciated — because of such a cheap and relatively easy intervention.

Over 80% Top Science Students Second Generation Immigrants

Among the major consequences of curtailing immigration to the United States would be losing access to the world’s best and brightest — and their children and grandchildren. As Forbes reported:

A new study from the National Foundation for American Policy found a remarkable 83% (33 of 40) of the finalists of the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search were the children of immigrants. The competition organized each year by the Society for Science & the Public is the leading science competition for U.S. high school students. In 2017, the talent search competition was renamed the Regeneron Science Talent Search, after its new sponsor Regeneron Pharmaceuticals,and a new group of 40 finalists – America’s next generation of scientists, engineers and mathematicians – are competing in Washington, D.C., from March 9 to 15, 2017.

Both family-based and employment-based immigrants were parents of finalists in 2016. In fact, 75% – 30 out of 40 – of the finalists had parents who worked in America on H-1B visas and later became green card holders and U.S. citizens. That compares to seven children who had both parents born in the United States.

To put that in perspective, even though former H-1B visa holders represent less than 1% of the U.S. population, they were four times more likely to have a child as a finalist in the 2016 Intel Science Talent Search than were parents who were both born in the United States.

Continue reading

An African Nation Takes Charge in Addressing Hunger

254px-zambia_-_location_map_28201129_-_zmb_-_unocha-svgAfrica rarely comes to mind when one thinks of groundbreaking scientific research, much less the obscure nation of Zambia, located in the south of the continent. Yet in addition to being one of the world’s fastest growing economies, it is home to the Zambia Agricultural Research Institute, a gleaming new government agency that is pioneering solutions to world hunger.

Its work includes cultivating a form of sorghum (an important staple grain) that is bitter tasting to pests like birds; improving corn, unanother global staple, to be richer in vitamin A (whose deficiency leads to hundreds of thousands of cases of blindness worldwide); and creating disease resistant cassava, a nutritionally-dense and drought-resistant crop that provides a basic diet for over 500 million people.

Moreover, in order to diversify the food supply to better prevent hunger, Zambia gives its farmers electronic vouchers that allow them to buy whatever farm supplies they want. Imagine how much more progress we’ll see as more and more nations get the resources to educate, train, and empower their citizens. (Especially Africa, with its large youth population.)

Source: The Economist