Thursday, September 15, 2005

John Robb's Global Guerillas

When I was doing my PhD work at Berkeley, I often said that I was interested in the intersection of science, technology and society. At the time, I focused more on how society influenced science; for instance the effect of Victorian Bengali culture on the physics and biology work of J.C. Bose. Over time, it dawned on me that it was much more interesting to look at technologies' impact on society; and warfare is one of the cutting-edge social applications of technology (sex and profit being the other two).

John Robb is flat-out the smartest thinker out there on the impact of technology on warfare; he thinks in systems, kind of a mashup of Bruce Schneier and Henry Kissinger. His blog may not be well known to a lot of people in the technology sphere, but I guarantee you that you'll spend a fascinating half hour there, or half a day if you've got the time.

A sample:
The rapid innovation of the Iraqi open source insurgency is yielding improvements in guerrilla technology. In the words of one British Army bomb disposal officer, "These guys have picked up in two years what it took the IRA a quarter-century to learn." infraredbeam.jpgThe most recent innovation (after the arrival of shaped charges) gaining popularity are infrared triggers for IEDs (improvised explosive devices). These triggers are a conversion of the simple "light" beams used in burglar alarms (see image) and as safety mechanisms on garage doors. The beams are activated remotely by radio controls when a patrol approaches. When the light beam is crossed the bomb goes off. Unfortunately, unlike radio controls the beams are not easily jammed. These new triggers have been used in numerous deadly attacks on British forces over the last several months.

This innovation may be due to Iranian involvement, but a more probable explanation is that the insurgency itself is finding low-tech solutions to difficult problems through an open source development process. Regardless, this innovation will rapidly proliferate throughout Iraq. Our problem is that the cycles of innovation that yield deployable counter-measures for US and British forces are slow and non-responsive by comparison. This is another aspect of global guerrilla math: our deployed innovation is measured in years and theirs in months. -OR- that a $1.2 billion program for IED counter-measures could be trumped by a $10 burglar alarm sensor.

Check him out.

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