Call me a pessimist, but every now and then I see something and think: "Yes, well, there's something that's inexorably destined to kill me and my family and everyone I've ever met or glimpsed or thought about, in wretched, shrieking, unimaginable and horrendously protracted agony."
Don't get me wrong. It doesn't happen that often: every few days at the most. But it happened this afternoon when I clicked "play" on a CGI demonstration of some new technology the US air force is reportedly working on right now. Before anyone tries to deport me, I hadn't hacked into some Pentagon server to see it; I was reading an article on the Atlantic. Lower those stun pistols.
The video depicted the future of UAVs: unmanned aerial vehicles, or computer-controlled drones to you and me. Drones are already used to kill people in industrial quantities in Pakistan of course. For a sobering assessment of just how far advanced the war of the machines is getting, check out the Wikipedia page called "List of drone strikes in Pakistan". It's a directory of robot attacks with a lot of dead children in it. Accurate or not, it's much harder to chortle about the rise of the Terminators after you've scrolled through it.
A fairly desperate list of al-Qaida's drone defence measures was uncovered last week: evasion techniques mainly included running in and out of doors and spreading broken glass on the roof so the glint would confuse its sensors. This already has the feel of a desperate human fightback against a merciless robot army, like the sort of methods an Amazonian tribe might resort to when battling Cybermen in an as-yet unwritten episode of Doctor Who.
Most of the flying robots carrying out those kill missions are eerie, windowless airborne hulks bristling with Hellfire missiles. Enormous winged battledicks. They're frightening, but visually silly somehow, which adds to the obscenity of it all. The smaller drones in the video I watched look sillier still, but potentially more deadly. Compared with the current models flying over Pakistan, they have fearsome advantages of stealth, agility – and sheer number. Because there were swarms of the things.
Some were the size of pigeons. In fact, they actively disguised themselves as pigeons: they landed on overhead phonelines and folded their wings around themselves so the folk down below wouldn't get too suspicious. Then they hovered around gathering surveillance information. At one point the video shows a company of multiple "bugbots", each the size of a Milky Way bar, spreading out to wirelessly compile a good overall view of an apparently hostile city. Then one of them sneaks past a guard, swoops down a corridor, flies through a doorway and shoots a bad guy in the head.
The only thing currently holding this stuff back is battery technology, although they're reportedly already working on ways to let the flying deathbots leach power from electricity cables to recharge themselves mid-mission.
See? Precisely the sort of thing that'll definitely kill us all. Never mind North Korean nuclear tests: what happens when they launch a billion-strong regiment of robotic sparrows with buzzsaws for beaks in our direction? I know, I know, it's not how you pictured yourself dying – but that's what's going to happen. Sorry to break it to you on a cold Sunday night, but forewarned is forearmed. Not that you're actually forearmed in any real sense. No. You're helpless to stop it. Sorry about that, too.
Because the video was accompanying a new story, I assumed it was new. But a few hours later, while trying to show it to someone I wanted to profoundly depress for a laugh, I discovered the same footage had also been uploaded to YouTube in 2009, prompting me to wonder if it was a hoax, or perhaps just a cutscene from a video game lifted out of context. That gave me a glimmer of hope, which was immediately extinguished when I recalled my own experiences with making up things of a technological nature: they almost invariably come true, quicker than you think. A fortnight ago, Channel 4 broadcast a fanciful drama I'd written in which a young widow communicates with a piece of AI software thatmimics her dead husband by trawling his social networking past and emulating his personality. No sooner had the credits rolled than people were pointing me in the direction of a company claiming to offer that very service. Turns out I needn't have bothered writing a script. I could've just typed out the URL and asked them to televise that instead.
With that in mind, my new rule is that if you can picture something on the cusp of plausibility, it'll definitely be real by Christmas. Given that the bugbot video is at least three years old, I'd be flabbergasted if there isn't a production line silently screwing the wings on to a miniature death squadron in some Nevadan hangar right now. A tit-for-tat war of the minibots will unfold and come 2036 or so, it's death by buzzbird for the lot of us. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to spread broken glass on the roof and run in and out of some doors.
Check out the video below!