Two sides of Moore’s Law

I suppose a lot of you have seen the astonishing video of the Intellectual Ventures Mosquito Death Ray. It’s a can’t-believe-your-eyes proof-of-concept so irresistible that the time to it being monetized as a mass-market product that sits on your porch must surely be a matter of months. Remember how quickly Apple went from being a computer manufacturer to being a music company that happened to have a sideline in computers? You think the same thing could happen with Microsoft and pest control?

Devised for malaria eradication in Africa, the Mosquito Death Ray seems like promising ground for the One Laptop Per Child business model (which has failed, so far, to get very many laptops to very many children); use Western punters to cross-subsidize humanitarian uses for a cool technology.

But I’m a morbid pessimist. What I think of when I see a Mosquito Death Ray built with cheap parts from eBay isn’t malaria: I think “Gee, seems like guidance systems for ground-to-air rockets would be well within the financial range and design abilities of a clever hobbyist now.” Then I think, “Hey, haven’t we seen rather a lot of news stories over the past few years about pilots being mysteriously scanned with green laser pointers?” Then I just kind of curl up into a fetal position.

(But let’s not let that stop us from enjoying more fun from Intellectual Ventures: reverse-engineering the secrets of Avatar.)

Two sides of Moore’s Law

  1. “Gee, seems like guidance systems for ground-to-air rockets would be well within the financial range and design abilities of a clever hobbyist now.”

    The interesting question – since you're quite right that it's within the range of a clever hobbyist – is why we haven't seen terrorist attacks of greater technological sophistication? What is keeping the tech revolution from being exploited by terrorists, who seem to be stuck in the 1960s?

    • Maybe time to rewrite an old saying, since many terrorists seem to have some educational background.

      Those who can, do. Those who can't …

      Derek

  2. An angle you haven't considered is that before it could be sold in Canada it would need to be licenced by the Health Canada Pest management guys…good luck. Several years ago I encountered two stunningly odd enforcement actions by that agency.

    The first was a coloidial silver generator for keeping hot tubs germ free without chlorine pucks. The system is used in both the Space Shuttle and the ISS for drinking water…HC disallowed the technology as an "unapproved device". (and destroyed a business in your neighborhood Colby).

    The second was a lady who was selling barley straw in plastic mesh onion bags as an algicide for decorative ponds (ask any farmer with a dugout if it works). She too was hounded out of business with the threat of prosecution if she continued to sell the product.

    Bottom line, if a product threatens the market position of what HC considers its clients, that product has a limited future…even if it is 100% safe.

    • Health Canada isn't much better than the FDA regarding their level of collusion with Big Pharma and other established industries.

  3. With legislation like C6 in place, principles in firms who marketed the product would be subject to $5 million fines and deemed guilty without investigation, and subject the having all their assets siezed, homes and businesses raided without warrant and would have zero recourse to the courts. Like .08 laws, guilty because you violated an edict rather than commited harm to another.

    • You sounded sane until you suggested that drunk driving laws are bad

      • I assure you I am comletely sane. freedom is a messy business that is dangerous. Several thousand years of human cultural developement have amply demonstrated that if you give the state power to protect you you give the state power to destroy you. I assume your comments regard the left's 'just fell off the turnip truck" knee jerk hatred to C6 as unprecedented blah blah blah…which is just another in a long series of state polishing, freedom destroying measures. What you disagree with is the policy intent, not the mechanism. .08 laws and C6 share the same parents, someone claiming to be pre-emeptively protecting you from potentially dangerous things, you just have to sacrifice "a little freedom" for the good of all.

  4. How many Mosquito Death Rays does it take to equal the mosquito-killing capacity of 100 gallons of aerial DDT spray? (Kidding).

    This is a fascinating technological achievement. Thanks for showcasing it on your blog, Cosh.

  5. From the article "…the original plan to use lasers to shield America from the rain of Soviet nuclear arms. President Ronald Reagan embraced the idea in the 1980s, dubbing it the Strategic Defense Initiative. Senator Edward Kennedy mocked it as "Star Wars." Eventually it became a footnote in history."

    Headline three days ago in the news: "Flying Laser Zaps Missile in First for U.S."

    From which we see, once again, what a visionary Reagan was compared to his opponents.

    • LOL

      So, 25 or 30 years later, the U.S. has managed to shoot down a single missile, in a controlled test, using a laser mounted on a plane, which needs to hit a missile within it's first 5 minutes of flight in order to be totally effective!

      EXCELLENT!!!

      Now, to protect ourselves from the Commies, all we need to do is get the Russians to agree to let us constantly fly 5,000 Boeing 747s around Russian airspace 24 hours a day. Oh, and get them to go back to being Commies. That Reagan sure was a visionary with Star Wars!!! Billions and billions of dollars and 3 decades later, and we finally have a completely impractical system which tests suggest might protect us against 1/5000ths of the nuclear missiles owned by a country no longer in the least bit interested in even threatening to use them against us, as long as we can get that country to cooperate fully in allowing us to implement the system meant to neutralize their nuclear weapons system. If we can just stay the course and keep believing in Regan's vision, a few trillion more dollars ought to get us the system he envisioned sometime before the turn of the 22nd Century!

      • "So, 25 or 30 years later, the U.S. has managed to shoot down a single missile, in a controlled test, using a laser mounted on a plane, which needs to hit a missile within it's first 5 minutes of flight in order to be totally effective!"

        Er, yes. Would you care to hazard a guess what year in the original timetable this step was expected by?

  6. Best line in the article:
    "If you really were a purist, you could only kill the females, not the males," Mr. Myhrvold says. But since they're mosquitoes, he says, he'll probably "just slay them all."

  7. Well, for starters, 25-30 years from concept to prototype is actually pretty good for a pie-in-the-sky defense concept, especially when you consider that the program was halted during Clinton's tenure. Billions of dollars is also chump-change in the US budget these days with Mr. Obama running the deficit up into the trillions.

    Let's also remember that the idea wasn't specific to the USSR, which, thankfully, Reagan managed to outmaneuver into bankruptcy and surrender using economic warfare before he left office. Rather, the idea is to forestall a nuclear attack from any aggressor rather than retaliating afterward. In my opinion that's not only the most rational approach, but also the most ethical.

    Finally, let's take a look at the kind of high-likelihood situation that this system is already capable of handling: the Iranians mount a nuke on a medium range guided missile and launch it at Tel Aviv. This sytem could, in principle, handle that threat rather than having millions die in Tel Aviv, millions more die in the inevitable Israeli retaliation, and hundreds of millions more in the ensuing wider scale war.

    • Now all we need to do is get the Iranians to promise to give us the "heads up" before they launch any attacks, so we can scramble a laser equipped 747 in time to catch the missile in it's first 5 minutes after launch. Come to think of it, would a short range nuclear missile even TAKE five minutes to get to Israel?

  8. Blah, blah, blah. When can I get a hat with a mosquito death ray on it? My wallet is open.

  9. Alternatively one could have a 747 posted on constant patrol near Iranian airspace as is usually done with AWACs.

    Alternatively again, one could launch said 747 when satellites catch the missile being fuelled for launch within the hour.

    The system just has to catch the missile before it gets too high and fast to be targeted. It doesn't matter how long the flight is; all that matters is that there be enough time from moment of detection to target and destroy the missile before it goes ballistic.

    • Alternatively one could have a 747 posted on constant patrol near Iranian airspace as is usually done with AWACs. Just thinking outside the lefty "can never be done!" box here.

      Not to stay too inside that "lefty" box, but in that scenario, what if the Iranians do something totally unthinkable, like firing TWO missiles?!?!?!

      • Two 747's, perhaps? Or even, one 747 that takes two shots! (I know, I know, let's not get too crazy here)

  10. The system just has to catch the missile before it gets too high and fast to be targeted. It doesn't matter how long the flight is; all that matters is that there be enough time from detection to target the missile before it goes ballistic.

    Assuming that the trajectory isn't steep enough that the missile can leave Iranian airspace before going ballistic. And that you can tell the difference between a missile launching a satellite and one delivering a bomb. before it goes out of range.

  11. I think you mean "can go ballistic before leaving Iranian airspace", but I get your point. Good points both.

    I think the efficacy of the system would indeed depend on the political powers of the moment authorizing its use for any launch on the assumption that the launch is hostile, and also on their willingness to hit the target while it's still within Iranian airspace.

  12. A laser goes in a straight line: all this zapper has to do is point at the mosquitos and shoot. A missile guidance system has to guess where the object it is targetting is going to be and steer the missle that direction, not to mention that it requires a *missile*.

    One of these is much, much more difficult than the other so until stuff that currently requires a 747 is house is miniaturized and made available to the public, we don't have much to fear.

    • No, I believe you've got this exactly backwards. Ripping open an aluminum airframe is the easy part; it's the fire control that was hard until now. A CPU capable of hitting a mosquito with a laser in realtime will have no trouble at all putting a payload in the path of a huge passenger aircraft. How large does the payload have to be? Not very.

      • What about distance? It's easy to zap a mosquito or a similar moving object with a laser when it's a few metres away, and silhouetted on a background reflector, and moving erratically, but relatively slowly; it's much harder to fatally zap something that's tens or hundreds of kilometres away and moving at a speed of 4 km/s, like an ICBM.

        • We're not talking about ICBMs. We're talking about 737s and A310s.

          • Regardless of speed (737's top out at 875 km/h) distance is a crucial factor. Optical scattering and refraction bend and distort the laser beam, complicating the aiming of the laser and reducing its efficiency.

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