WASHINGTON (December 4) As fears increase that the government will actually go over the “fiscal cliff”, lobbyists are making last-ditch efforts to save threatened federal programs. Most of the reporting on the crisis has focused on the impending expiration of various tax cuts but the “cliff” also includes huge cuts in defense spending, threatening some of the Pentagon’s most sacrosanct programs. One of the biggest lobbying efforts is an attempt to save AFRAP, a development program jointly funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
AFRAP (short for “Autonomous Flying Robot Anal Probes”) seeks to develop a miniaturized version of the pilotless drones currently used for surveillance and weapon delivery, controlled by advanced Artificial Intelligence systems developed by the digital wizards at Disney’s subsidiary Pixar.
MPAA Chairman Chris Dodd claims to have already signed up more than 50 House and Senate co-sponsors for emergency legislation to save the program. “Both the Republicans and Democrats are on board with this,” he said yesterday. “I can’t emphasize the importance of this too strongly. After the failure of last year’s SOPA and PIPA legislation the American economy is threatened by a tidal wave of digital piracy, not to mention the closely associated threat of international terrorism.”
One of the sponsors is Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the author of the failed PIPA bill. “This is all about jobs,” he stated. “Millions of American jobs are threatened by piracy. Also terrorism of course.”
Representative Todd Akin (R-MI) is even more emphatic. “AFRAP is vitally important to protect America from the threats of piracy, Satanism, drug dealers and child pornography!” he insists.
Still AFRAP does have its critics. “I can understand the appeal of this,” says Mitch Kapor, co-founder of Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). “Certainly I’ve got a little list. So do most people probably. But we need to consider the implications. Every time new technology has made new forms of automated surveillance possible the FBI and local police have insisted that they can use it without a warrant. And even if the courts rule that AFRAP requires a warrant, can we really trust the robots’ programming to ensure that the proper protocols are followed?”
Kapor is also concerned by the involvement of the MPAA. “That organization has always been dedicated to the ferocious defense of the movie studios’ profits, with absolutely no concern for the rights of consumers. These are the last people I would trust with this technology.”
But such concerns are rare. A recent Gallup survey indicated that few voters had heard about AFRAP and virtually none were opposed to it.
This was confirmed by our informal survey of Christmas shoppers at Arlington’s upscale Cristal City mall. Leticia Bierkopf’s response was typical. “It does sound a bit unnerving” she said, “but if it will protect us from terrorists and drug dealers it must be a good idea.”