Dragonfly drones and orthogonal invention

21.35, Wednesday 7 Oct 2020

A dragonfly-shaped and dragonfly-sized spy drone, developed by the CIA in the 1970s: the Insectothopter.

I like the control/data link: A laser beam directed at a bimetallic strip in the insectothopter’s tail guided the device. That same laser beam acted as a data link for the miniature acoustic sensor onboard the craft.

This was five decades ago!

You have to wonder, what could be done today. Smart dust, powered by energy harvested from ambient electric fields, exfiltrating voice and data on ad hoc mesh networks, controlled by long-distance laser.

And I know I’ve previously gone on about weaponised artificial weather, banned by the UN in 1976.

Artificial hurricanes and what-not.

Well you don’t have to dig very far into conspiracy theory sites until you read rumours about artificial earthquakes, triggered by satellites. The story goes that the satellites were being tried out on Afghanistan. There was a big earthquake in Iran that is a conspiracist candidate. Etc.



Here’s a paper in Scientific Reports from just recently, July 2020: On the correlation between solar activity and large earthquakes worldwide.

The tentative model put forward…

Our observed correlation implies that a high electric potential sometimes occurs between the ionosphere, charged by the high proton density generated at higher distances, and the Earth. Such a high potential could generate, both in a direct way or determining, by electrical induction, alterations of the normal underground potential, an electrical discharge, channeled at depth by large faults, which represent preferential, highly conductive channels. Such electrical current, passing through the fault, would generate, by reverse piezoelectric effect, a strain/stress pulse, which, added to the fault loading and changing the total Coulomb stress, could destabilize the fault favoring its rupture.

Activity from the Sun causes earthquakes. Perhaps. I would take it all with a grain of salt.

But if you were to take that paper seriously, IF, and if you worked in that direction for five decades, perhaps earthquake satellites is exactly where you’d end up.

For the purposes of this post, I’m not really interested in whether the above examples are true.

What I’m interested in is how a non-mainstream approach could in theory lead somewhere very, very different, simply through working in secret and the application of time.

From that perspective: it’s not that smart dust and earthquake satellites (should they exist) are particularly advanced, or at least any more advanced than, say, an iPhone. It’s that they have developed orthogonally to the rest of technology for 50 years, and so they appear to be highly advanced, from a relative standpoint.

In Neal Stephenson’s wonderful speculative fiction Anathem, communities of science-savvy monks live in communities that are isolated from the rest of the world for variously one year; ten years; a hundred years; a thousand years. In that time they are able to diverge from the mainstream, and return with new insights.

Sometimes they diverge too much… From Anathem, which includes a dictionary:

to go Hundred: (Derogatory slang) To lose one’s mind, to become mentally unsound, to stray irredeemably from the path of theorics. The expression can be traced to the Third Centennial Apert, when the gates of several Hundreder maths opened to reveal startling outcomes, e.g.: at Saunt Rambalf’s, a mass suicide that had taken place only moments earlier. At Saunt Terramore’s, nothing at all–not even human remains. At Saunt Byadin’s, a previously unheard-of religious sect calling themselves the Matarrhites (still in existence). At Saunt Lesper’s, no humans, but a previously undiscovered species of tree-dwelling higher primates. At Saunt Phendra’s, a crude nuclear reactor in a system of subterranean catacombs.

And I do sometimes wonder about us all emerging from lockdown, and households having in the meantime… meandered. And so you meet one friend and they no longer get up before noon; and another and it turns out they’ve gone really deep on weird boxsets and assume you know everything; and you meet another and they’re speaking a completely different form of English, and another and you’re like, oh so you’ve invented a new kind of trousers now, and so on, but all of us fully believe that we’re the normal ones.

Invention as working in the open vs deliberately working in a bubble.

It’s interesting because it reframes invention from being a leap, which can only be achieved by special people, a magical act, to being a series of quite ordinary steps but simply in a different direction, which anyone could do given the right setup and sufficient time.

I wonder how to capture that divergence in

  • things as small as personal creative projects
  • efforts as large as national R&D.

Maybe it would make sense to refuse to speak to anyone about your creative work for, say, a year, and not read anything new on the internet, and not look at anything that anyone else makes or says in that time. But instead having a discipline of working and building on the previous day’s work, every single day, and seeing where you get to by the anniversary.

Or, as a country or a company, get smart people who are young and don’t have built-in filters yet, and just set them to work – freely but on their own. And every so often, dip in and pluck out something from that orthogonal world and bring it back to our world, and see how it differs.

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