When is a first strike not a first strike?
When it's Anticipatory Retaliation.

September 24, 2004

Evil Microchips In My Brain

Bravo Romeo Delta

UPDATE the First: More discussion on this at Asymmetrical Information

Demosophia comes across this novel idea - offering contractors the option of voluntarily getting chips implanted that will signal their location to a would-be rescue force.

This has some interesting implications, which I started to leave as comments, but got long enough such that they are better handled as a post here.

Fair warning, as I started looking into this, I kept digging up more info, so this isn't really a post, as much as it is a collection of notes gathered while doing my research, converted into prose.

So, here I go.

Well, first off, something vaguely similar to this has already been developed, but rather than a tracking system, it is more like a sort-of uber barcode. These Radio-Frequency Identification Devices (RFIDs) have been around awhile. A good primer can be found here. In the manifestation seen most often in living organisms (people, dogs, etc.), it is used as a chip that provides a response when interrogated by a scanner, rather than an active transmitter.

Now this technology can be made to work, if the military then mounts big ole' scanners on humvees and drives around looking for any responding signals that indicate that that a missing person was near by.

The other option, suggested at Demosophia, is having the chips act as transmitters that can be activated so someone can broadcast their location. This then goes to questions about range, which in turn lead to questions about power. From power requirements, we run into restrictions on battery size or whether or not something like a thermocouple between an extremity like the hands, and the core torso can be used to generate power.

In either case, it is important to note that as it stands, in a battery-less transponder interrogated by an external signal, the read range is about three feet for a chip. This is because, for battery-less transponders, small size and long range are mutually exclusive. That said, in current commercial applications, you can get high speed interrogation from as far away as a hundred feet or so. The other thing to note is the decreasing size of cellular transmitters. I don't know what the bottom limits for size are, after getting rid of all the phone stuff, and just worrying about generating a carrier signal, but it gives us a practical range estimate.

Another interesting current technology is the Emergency Radio Position Indicating Beacon (EPIRB), which basically consists of a GPS receiver and two transmission beacons.

Well, very small EPIRBs include this, which measures 3.7 x 7.2 x 4.3 in (9.4 x 18.3 x 10.9 cm) with an antenna of 7.4 in (18.8 cm) and weighs two pounds. Clearly a bit big for a chip, but certainly should be used in vehicles pronto, so as people in the process of being kidnapped can send up a "flare" instantly.

An allied technology based on the EPIRB, is the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) thingy. It functions much like an EPIRB, and here is a sheet to give you some notion of size constraints - the smallest unit on this chart without integrated GPS is 4.8 x 2.4 x 1.1 inches, and weighs 8.5 ounces. For the smallest, we do a bit better than the EPIRB, probably because maritime use design constraints are a bit of a pain.


Ok, this is interesting, the world's smallest GPS receiver measures 0.4334 x 0.5516-in and is fingernail sized. So that's a good sign. In the PLB mentioned above, inclusion of the GPS receiver added an inch to the case and 1.7 ounces to the weight. Clearly we can get around that with this little guy.

So, then the question comes to this - what accounts for most of the weight and size of the PLB? My guess is the battery, but let's explore further...

Well, here, there's a GPS kid-locator watch. Interesting that.

There's also this NEC cell phone - the world's smallest. Which is about the size of credit card (weighing 76 g, it has dimensions of 52 mm wide x 57 mm high x 21.2 mm deep). Please note that this device also contains an 1.8 inch color display, which can be gotten rid of, for our purposes. Unfortunately, there is no information about battery life.

Well, the upshot seems to be that if you want something to talk to a satellite, it can be done, but not on a small scale. This is, I suspect a problem with battery size and storage density. One method that can be used to get around such a problem is trying to use the body to generate electricity. One mechanism is the use of a thermocouple, but this won't generate anywhere near the power needed for our application. We also could do something like using the heart's pumping of blood to drive a microturbine. That mechanism certainly seems to have some potential, but I don't have a good enough sense of the numbers to do something with it. A third option that comes to mind is using the body's motion (from walking, let's say) to generate electricity. I don't know enough bioengineering to have any good sense of this, although I can't help but imagine that it is doable.

Looking at the size of the first pacemaker thought to be small enough to be considered "implantable", the device was the "size of a thin hockey puck." So, all in all, I would say that this back-of-the-napkin thumbnail assessment seems to suggest this is all entirely doable from a technical point of view.

The problems that we then have are implementation issues. First off, I get the sense that a system like this would be at least an order of magnitude too expensive (somewhere in the thousands of dollars) range, even without surgical costs. And there definitely would be some surgical costs. For a wild guess, I might throw out a figure of $1,500, based on my vastly hazy and incomplete guess as to what pacemaker implantation surgery costs. All in all, equipment and implantation could probably be done for about $5,000 a unit, for the time being. This might be too much for ubiquitous use, but at that price, you can sure as hell bet there will be some takers.

Do note once they are put into use, it will be about two weeks before the bad guys figure out the score. Once that happens, it'll will be a question of looking finding the chips and digging them out, which clearly is not optimal. Two main mechanisms can be used by the bad guys to counter this kind of thing. First off, one can use something like this to see if the hostage is transmitting. Now, if the hostage has a way to turn the transmitter on and off, then we might be able to minimize this problem. Maybe. The other option is having the guy probed, X-Rayed, or whatever to find a non-transmitting beacon. That, sadly, can't be got around.

So this is why I think it might work rather nicely is having some relatively innocuous triggering thing, like tapping your teeth together in some specific pattern, so it can be triggered unobtrusively before the kidnappers have a chance to do something about it. Either way, it won't necessarily halt kidnapping, but it will make that business a hell of a lot more troublesome and complex.

But all this said and done, look at the broader implications. For instance, this could do for individual soldiers in a Future Combat System what Blue Force Tracker has done for vehicles. Additionally, things like medical records can be carried along with the soldiers or contractors to help in prompt medical treatment. That's definitely a non-trivial edge, believe you me. That, coupled with a couple of other things could be extra-bloody powerful. Think about the notion of having something like this on a gun (with GPS receivers at the butt and muzzle of the gun), a laser range finder, and perhaps even a CCD hooked up to the scope. With that, not only could you tell where your soldier was, but also where he was pointing his gun, how far away the target was, and what the target was. Integrate that into the firepower request system that we have, and you end up with all manner of violence on tap.

As far as it goes, a military system might want to be passive, so all your soldiers don't spend their time walking around as radio beacons. We then have the problem of enemies using something to spoof the devices to trick them into going off and revealing the location of the soldier. That kind of thing, I think can be avoided by simply being careful with encryption and that sort of business.

Additionally, this would be great for executives in kidnapping prone areas such as Colombia. In these cases, we'd definitely need an active transmitter. On the other hand, these folks would definitely pay for it. On the other other hand, they wouldn't do enough to generate the kind of quantity needed to really drive prices down.

Hmm... good stuff. Whatcha all think?

Launched by Bravo Romeo Delta at September 24, 2004 03:36 AM

Retaliatiory Launches


Thanks for donning your thinking cap on this. You've taken it a good deal farther than I have. On the sunny side (and we need a sunny side to this, don't we) we are currently at that point in the development of abduction counter-measures that corresponds to the period just before Hotelling's first use of Operations Research to optimize processes. All the cheap, exciting, and easy (relatively speaking) improvements lie ahead. All we need is a "killer app," on the order of the simplex algorithm, to see the innovation curve take off. Almost all directions are "up."

Also, anything we can do to raise the cost of predation in this area, no matter how minor, pays large dividends. We have the technological advantage, and we'll eventually swamp the abduction strategy. And the technological insights gained will probably lead to an edge in whatever strategy they adopt to replace abduction.

Posted by: Demosophist at September 24, 2004 04:19 PM

Blue force tracking for dismounted soldiers is already in progress, although not yet at the trial implementation stage IIRC.

Posted by: Robin Burk at September 24, 2004 05:27 PM

I'm trying to find out some information on transponders that have a good range. Im want to find one that is tiny ie smaller that a gran of rice that can be placed inside a watch. Does anybody have any ideas????

Posted by: Alex Monro at April 20, 2005 08:44 PM

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