Silicon Insider: A Predator World


June 15, 2006 — -- I've found a perfect metaphor for our times.

A couple of days ago, a veteran entrepreneur and one of the most connected figures in Silicon Valley, Steve Millard, copied me on an article from UK Telegraph that I otherwise would have missed. You probably didn't see it either.

It seems that a British Royal Air Force unit is currently working out of a nearly anonymous U.S. Air Force base located in an equally anonymous suburb of Las Vegas ... remotely controlling unmanned Predator aircraft as they spy on Iraqi insurgents and, occasionally, take them out with Hellfire missiles. Then, after a long day of virtual warfare, the RAF airmen head into Sin City for R&R at the Bellagio and New York, New York.

Though as I write this it hasn't been verified, but I'm betting that it was these airmen who ran the Predator that tracked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi right into his big concrete mausoleum. Scratch one homicidal mass murderer. Popping Zarqawi has got to be a whole lot better than drawing a royal flush at video poker.

You just can't make this stuff up. It is yet another reminder of that old rule of mine: New technologies always take longer than we predict, and arrive sooner than we are prepared for them.

I remember as a kid when remotely piloted vehicles were the stuff of Popular Science magazine cover illustrations (they had hang glider wings back then). The assumption then was these weapons would soon -- say, 1965 -- appear above some battlefield in Southeast Asia.

Well, it took another quarter-century, and the Predator, with its bulbous nose and upside-down V-tail, not only doesn't look quite like what most people expected, but its very existence still seems kind of shocking and futuristic. It also operates a lot differently than sci-fi buffs back during the Kennedy administration might have predicted: not a fast-moving robot fighter drone, but a slow-moving, high altitude camera and missile platform.

By the same token, though it was never made entirely clear, I suspect the vision of a robot plane back then was of something like a superduper version of a remote-controlled toy plane, with machine guns controlled by a soldier hiding in a foxhole somewhere nearby, always within sight. I'm also pretty sure that nobody back then, not even the most forward-looking Rand Institute whiz kid, could have predicted a bunch of RAF guys sitting in Vegas, directing missile launches from a snowmobile engine-powered pilotless airplane doing lazy-eights half-a-world away, four miles above Iraq -- whacking this generation's Rudolf Heydrich -- and then heading off for celebratory shooters and slots at the MGM Grand.

The reason this seems to me such a perfect symbol of our time is that it is that the nexus of so many of the defining characteristics of the age. For that Predator to get circling over Iraq required huge advances in materials science (the drone's Kevlar skin), CCD chips (on-board cameras), infrared technology, microprocessors, microwave (radar), reliable and efficient motors, sensors and flight control circuitry.

And that's just the plan. Now add to that the multibillion dollar Mil-Sat network that covers the globe with satellite communications, the Internet, computer technology, information storage, displays. Oh, and don't forget big servers to process the incoming data, user interfacing and other command and control software for the RAF operators. And, of course, the guidance system, the GPS and control technology in the wire-guided Hellfires (though in this case, it was good, old-fashioned 500-pound bombs that did the job on Z-man -- though even bombs these days have microprocessor brains and digital eyes).

That's just one pathway converging in the zeitgeist with this story. There is also the triumph of pop culture in our time, and nothing personifies this more than Las Vegas -- founded by a mobster and evolved over the last 60 years (ironically, it is almost exactly the age of the digital revolution) from Rat Pack Retreat to Tackyland to Family Fun Center w/Hookers to Post-modern Gomorrah.

Las Vegas has self-consciously become a video game that you can inhabit and, if you choose, play out your own private Grand Theft Auto. With its casino games increasingly computerized and the line between real and virtual increasingly irrelevant, what better place is there for the Predator operators -- sitting at their consoles, staring at computer displays and moving cursors around with mice -- to be stationed?

Iraq, perhaps? Terrorism and the war on terrorism are, of course, yet another thread converging on this symbolic image. The terrorists (am I allowed to use that word, Google?) are also doing their best to fight via remote control. Witness their videos, from the turgid bin Laden monologues to the horrifying beheadings to Zarquawi's embarrassing showboating with the machine gun he tried to fire with the safety on. It's their own attempt to hijack the pop culture -- if not here, then in the Middle East, for their own nefarious ends. And let's not forget that al Qaeda's use of the Internet as a branding, recruiting and communications tool has put most Fortune 500 companies to shame.

Their fighting style is equally detached. The terrorists fire a mortar and run like hell before the round hits, set off an IED under a passing truck using a remote control, and blow up a car in a schoolyard using a cell phone as the detonator. By all evidence, even their suicide bombers are either losers or morons -- essentially remote control meat. So, al Qaeda is fighting its own virtual war in Iraq; it just can't back as far away as we can. But you've got to know that it would if it could -- which is why we've got to get even better at this Predator stuff.

And we will. Moore's Law will make sure of it. And, as always, just as it makes military weapons and platforms like the Predator more and more effective and powerful, it will also make possible less-expensive versions of the same items for civilian use.

That's why the airmen of RAF Flight 1115, sitting at their screens and joysticks in a cabin at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, are such a perfect symbol of our time. Those drones may be flying over Afghanistan and Iraq now, but someday soon their descendents will be flying over every corner of the world, watching all of us -- Predators watching predators in a predatory world. And the image of each of us -- fleeting if unimportant, locked-on if otherwise -- will be watched by some human operator (or more likely some computer searching for recognizable patterns) at some distant node on the Web.

The interesting question is: Will we care? Will technology also give us defenses against these intrusions and potential threats? And what will it be like to live in a world where there are no secrets, and no privacy?

Maybe this is where the Vegas thread comes in. In Las Vegas, as the clever advertising campaign reminds us, since no one has secrets, by common consent everyone does. "What happens Vegas, stays in Vegas." In a world where everyone's movements and actions are known, will we all simply agree (except for the really nasty stuff) to just not notice?

The answer may lie with those RAF airmen. They may be already living our future.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public-television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.