Tag Archives: war

Free-floating AI battle drone orbs (or making Glyph from Mass Effect)

I have spent many hours playing various editions of Mass Effect, from EA Games. It is one of my favourites and has clearly benefited from some highly creative minds. They had to invent a wide range of fictional technology along with technical explanations in the detail for how they are meant to work. Some is just artistic redesign of very common sci-fi ideas, but they have added a huge amount of their own too. Sci-fi and real engineering have always had a strong mutual cross-fertilisation. I have lectured sometimes on science fact v sci-fi, to show that what we eventually achieve is sometimes far better than the sci-fi version (Exhibit A – the rubbish voice synthesisers and storage devices use on Star Trek, TOS).


Liara talking to her assistant Glyph.Picture Credit: social.bioware.com

In Mass Effect, lots of floating holographic style orbs float around all over the place for various military or assistant purposes. They aren’t confined to a fixed holographic projection system. Disruptor and battle drones are common, and  a few home/lab/office assistants such as Glyph, who is Liara’s friendly PA, not a battle drone. These aren’t just dumb holograms, they can carry small devices and do stuff. The idea of a floating sphere may have been inspired by Halo’s, but the Mass Effect ones look more holographic and generally nicer. (Think Apple v Microsoft). Battle drones are highly topical now, but current technology uses wings and helicopters. The drones in sci-fi like Mass Effect and Halo are just free-floating ethereal orbs. That’s what I am talking about now. They aren’t in the distant future. They will be here quite soon.

I recently wrote on how to make force field and floating cars or hover-boards.


Briefly, they work by creating a thick cushion of magnetically confined plasma under the vehicle that can be used to keep it well off the ground, a bit like a hovercraft without a skirt or fans. Using layers of confined plasma could also be used to make relatively weak force fields. A key claim of the idea is that you can coat a firm surface with a packed array of steerable electron pipes to make the plasma, and a potentially reconfigurable and self organising circuit to produce the confinement field. No moving parts, and the coating would simply produce a lifting or propulsion force according to its area.

This is all very easy to imagine for objects with a relatively flat base like cars and hover-boards, but I later realised that the force field bit could be used to suspend additional components, and if they also have a power source, they can add locally to that field. The ability to sense their exact relative positions and instantaneously adjust the local fields to maintain or achieve their desired position so dynamic self-organisation would allow just about any shape  and dynamics to be achieved and maintained. So basically, if you break the levitation bit up, each piece could still work fine. I love self organisation, and biomimetics generally. I wrote my first paper on hormonal self-organisation over 20 years ago to show how networks or telephone exchanges could self organise, and have used it in many designs since. With a few pieces generating external air flow, the objects could wander around. Cunning design using multiple components could therefore be used to make orbs that float and wander around too, even with the inspired moving plates that Mass Effect uses for its drones. It could also be very lightweight and translucent, just like Glyph. Regular readers will not be surprised if I recommend some of these components should be made of graphene, because it can be used to make wonderful things. It is light, strong, an excellent electrical and thermal conductor, a perfect platform for electronics, can be used to make super-capacitors and so on. Glyph could use a combination of moving physical plates, and use some to add some holographic projection – to make it look pretty. So, part physical and part hologram then.

Plates used in the structure can dynamically attract or repel each other and use tethers, or use confined plasma cushions. They can create air jets in any direction. They would have a small load-bearing capability. Since graphene foam is potentially lighter than helium


it could be added into structures to reduce forces needed. So, we’re not looking at orbs that can carry heavy equipment here, but carrying processing, sensing, storage and comms would be easy. Obviously they could therefore include whatever state of the art artificial intelligence has got to, either on-board, distributed, or via the cloud. Beyond that, it is hard to imagine a small orb carrying more than a few hundred grammes. Nevertheless, it could carry enough equipment to make it very useful indeed for very many purposes. These drones could work pretty much anywhere. Space would be tricky but not that tricky, the drones would just have to carry a little fuel.

But let’s get right to the point. The primary market for this isn’t the home or lab or office, it is the battlefield. Battle drones are being regulated as I type, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be developed. My generation grew up with the nuclear arms race. Millennials will grow up with the drone arms race. And that if anything is a lot scarier. The battle drones on Mass Effect are fairly easy to kill. Real ones won’t.

a Mass Effect combat droneMass Effect combat drone, picture credit: masseffect.wikia.com

If these cute little floating drone things are taken out of the office and converted to military uses they could do pretty much all the stuff they do in sci-fi. They could have lots of local energy storage using super-caps, so they could easily carry self-organising lightweight  lasers or electrical shock weaponry too, or carry steerable mirrors to direct beams from remote lasers, and high definition 3D cameras and other sensing for reconnaissance. The interesting thing here is that self organisation of potentially redundant components would allow a free roaming battle drone that would be highly resistant to attack. You could shoot it for ages with laser or bullets and it would keep coming. Disruption of its fields by electrical weapons would make it collapse temporarily, but it would just get up and reassemble as soon as you stop firing. With its intelligence potentially local cloud based, you could make a small battalion of these that could only be properly killed by totally frazzling them all. They would be potentially lethal individually but almost irresistible as a team. Super-capacitors could be recharged frequently using companion drones to relay power from the rear line. A mist of spare components could make ready replacements for any that are destroyed. Self-orientation and use of free-space optics for comms make wiring and circuit boards redundant, and sub-millimetre chips 100m away would be quite hard to hit.

Well I’m scared. If you’re not, I didn’t explain it properly.

Avatar 0.0

There has been some activity in recent weeks on the development of avatars, as in the film, or at least some agreement on feasibility and intention to develop, with real actual funding.

The concept is that you could inhabit another body and feel it is yours. I have written many times about direct brain links, superhuman AIs, shared consciousness and so on, since 1992, and considered a variety of ways of connecting. It has been fun exploring the possibilities and some of the obvious applications and dangers. For a few years it seemed to be just Kurzweil and me, but gradually a number of people joined in, often labelling themselves transhumanists. Now that it is more obvious how the technology might spin out, the ideas are becoming quite mainstream and no longer considered the realm of cranks. Many quite respectable scientists are now involved.

Google DARPA and avatar and you’ll see a lot of recent commentary on the DARPA project to create surrogate soldiers, just like we see them in the film. Not tomorrow, but by around 2045. Why then? Well, 2045 is the date when some of us expect to be able to do a full direct brain link, at least in prototype. I think with a lot of funding and the right brains involved, it is entirely achievable then.

But DARPA won’t have it all to themselves. The Russians are also looking at it, and hosted a recent conference. Dmitry Itskov, founder of Russia 2045, has been given permission to develop his own avatar program. Check this out:


From their conference press release:

The first Global Future Congress 2045 (GF2045) was held on Feb.17-20 in Moscow, where 56 world leading physicists, biologists, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and philosophers met to discuss breakthroughs in life extension technologies and draft a resolution to the United Nations setting the radical lengthening of human lifespan and the creation of Avatars as a priority for preservation of humankind.

About 500 people attended the three-day event featuring presentations by over 50 scientists including inventor Ray Kurzweil, Microsoft Research Director Rane Johnson-Stempson, and Astronaut Sergey Krichevskiy. The event was focused on breakthrough technologies that could create a synthetic body-vessel for the mind, offering humans unlimited prolongation of life to the point of immortality…..

Among the featured life-extension projects is “2045” a Russia-based Avatar project consisting of three phases. First, to create a humanoid robot named “Avatar”, and a state-of-the-art brain-computer interface system. Next, to create a life support system between the “Avatar” and the human brain. The final step is creating an artificial brain in which to transfer the original individual consciousness.

Development of a cybernetic body. This is about as advanced as it gets currently. You can link to nerves, and transmit signals to and from them to capture and relay sensations. But this will progress quickly over coming years as we start seeing strong positive feedback among the nano-bio-info-cogno disciplines. I’m just annoyed that I am not just starting my career about now, it would be an excellent time to do so. But at least I’ll get pleasure from saying ‘I told you so’ a few times.

I won’t repeat all the exciting possibilities for the military, sex and games industries, or electronic immortality, I’ve blogged enough on these. For now, it’s just great to see the field moving another important step further from sci-fi into the realms of reality