The Townhouse (Ch. 4) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 004

Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast, episode 4. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, national security expert and “insecto-phobe”.

First off, a personal update. I just finished my second draft of Project Gecko, Book Two of the Lara Kingsley Series. I’ll be sending it to my editor on May 1. I’m thrilled to finally reach this next step in my writer journey. If you’re a writer, you know the constant struggle against the voices in your head. Even though I’ve successfully published Bionic Bug, sometimes I worry about whether that was just a fluke. Well, I’ve about to prove to myself and you all that I can do it again.

I’m really excited about the story in Project Gecko which delves deeper into Lara’s backstory and follows her journey through her grief over the loss of her best friend Sully. Over the next few months, I’ll be rewriting the book several times to finalize the manuscript in August. I expect to release it on Kobo in September so stay tuned for further updates.

Let’s talk tech. The headline that caught my attention this week is a doozy. It’s from April 27 on CNN online: “Police used free genealogy database to track Golden State Killer suspect, investigator says.” Before I talk about this, I need to make a few points for context.

For the past decade, most of us have signed up for free gmail from Google (or other services) and interacted with Facebook and other social media for free. It’s important to understand that these services are not really “free” in practice. Yes, you don’t have to pay for them, but there are hidden costs. I can’t count the number of times I’ve downloaded an app or signed up for an online service where I simply clicked that little box, agreeing to accept the terms and conditions without even reading them.

I’ve peeked at the terms and conditions a few times and then quickly moved on. Let’s be honest… even if we read those agreements, they’re full of lawyer-speak, wordy, extremely long, and difficult to understand. That’s why we just click yes and move on. The terms are conditions are designed with that intention. Because if you did read through the terms and conditions and understand their meaning, you probably wouldn’t like everything you just signed up for and you might not sign up in the first place.

It’s important to understand that for many of these online services, YOU are the product. The company offers you free services because they are getting something from you. Something that is extremely valuable. That something is data about YOU. It’s time for us to become more cognizant of the data that we’re offering. At least when you’re aware of the costs and benefits, you can make the best decisions for yourself.

Every time I talk about emerging technologies, I poll the audience for the number of people who have sent their DNA samples to companies like 23&Me or AncestryDNA to find out more about their genetic background. Every time, there are at least a few hands. Then I ask them if they’ve read the terms and conditions. No one raises their hand. When you submit your DNA sample to these companies, you give them ownership of that sample. They can sell it to other companies. That’s your genome. You don’t have another genome. You can’t change your genome. It’s not like a credit card.

Let’s go back to the headline for today.

Police think they have caught the Golden State killer, believed to be responsible for killing 12 people and raping more than 50 women in the 1970s and 1980s. Police used the GEDmatch database to match DNA found at the crime scene. GEDmatch database is free to use and publicly accessible. In that sense, it’s not a paid service like 23andMe or AncestryDNA. People enter their own DNA profile they receive from these paid services to find other possible family members.

Police entered DNA thought to be from the killer into the database to locate potential matches and were able to identify relatives of the suspected killer. More than 100 users matched as a distant relative. Police began contacting distant relatives of the killer. After four months of studying online family trees, they came up with Joseph James DeAngelo, 72 years old, as a potential suspect. They retrieved a discarded DNA sample from his garbage and matched it to the culprit’s DNA.

This genealogy database is yet another example of us offering up our data without thinking about the long-term consequences. If you want to understand some of the implications, you should watch the film Gattaca again with Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. In the film, health insurance and employment decisions are made based on the presence of certain health risks illuminated by your genome. The basic premise of the movie is that your DNA is not your destiny.

If you’re interested in learning more about the risks posed by personal data, I recommend reading the book Future Crimes by Marc Goodman. But you should probably not read this right before you go to bed.

Last week, in Chapter 3, Lara goes after Sully who was in the stands at Nationals Park operating some sort of device and possibly interacting with the drones. She finds him out in the corridor of the baseball stadium. He’s stumbling around as if he is drunk or sick. She follows him into a dark hallway and finds him convulsing. Right before he dies, the tries to talk to her and give her his keys.

Read “The Townhouse” (Chapter 4).

Let’s go behind the scenes. Why did I choose a beetle as the object of horror for my first book? My earliest childhood memory involves a beetle. My first memory as a child dates back to my third year. I was playing in my sandbox in the backyard. A giant beetle entered my sandbox. I remember it being the size of my fist. Since I was 3 years old, it probably was close to that size since everything is relative. I panicked and ran to my mom screaming in terror. My mom took a shovel, scooped up the beetle and tossed it into our neighbor’s yard. I’ve been somewhat terrified of insects ever since.

The idea for the first story in the Lara Kingsley Series came to me as I was reading through lists of emerging technologies for my research at National Defense University. I came across an article published in 2009 by the MIT Technology Review about a remote-controlled beetle being developed by scientists at the University of California for the U.S. Army and funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to support surveillance and search and rescue missions.

Advances in microelectronics, in particular the miniaturization of microprocessors and batteries, have made it possible to create “insect-computer hybrids” also called cyborg beetles blending a beetle’s natural capabilities and blend insect with machines.

Beetles have several advantages over other insects and their electronic alternatives such as microdrones.

  • First, beetles require only a small amount of energy to power the microelectronics. Beetles use their own energy to fly, do not run out of energy mid-flight and can replenish their energy supply by consuming food. Drones of the same size require far more energy to produce life and stabilize their flight. Moreover, these small drones can only carry tiny batteries, limiting their flight time and thus range.
  • Second, beetles are heaver than other insects and can carry heavier payloads. In addition to the microelectronics package, beetles can carry small heat sensors or cameras to support surveillance or search and rescue missions.
  • Finally, with the exception of the tiny microelectronics package and electrodes, there is no assembly required. A downside of using beetles instead of micro drones is their limited life span.

The microelectronics package designed by scientists at the University of California and National Technical University of Singapore looks like a tiny backpack. It contains a microprocessor, a radio receiver, a battery, a circuit board, and six electrodes. The electrodes are implanted into the optic lobes and wind-folding muscles to control the beetle’s flight.

Photo Credit: National Technical University, Singapore

Electrical signals are delivered via electrodes to command the beetle to take off, turn left or right, hover, and land. Commands are sent over a radio-frequency transmitter from a nearby laptop. Scientists managed to control the flight of cyborg beetles for the first time in 2015. Although they had previously understood the potential, it took additional study to enable control of free-flying beetles within the laboratory environment.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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