The Technology of Pain
When the fantastic imaginings of science fiction ultimately materialize in the modern day, the results can be thrillingly exciting – or downright horrifying.
The latter holds true for the latest line of techno-weaponry from Massachusetts-based munitions powerhouse, the Raytheon Company. The world’s leading manufacturer of missiles, Raytheon has turned its sights on a new style of warfare in the form of “directed energy” technology. This “less-than-lethal” class of armaments incorporates lasers, microwaves, and particle beams in a series of products designed to inflict severe pain, supposedly without causing physical harm.
Earlier this year, Raytheon unveiled its Active Denial System, a millimeter-wave transmitter created for the U.S. military. Mounted atop a Humvee, the ADS beams high frequency (95 Ghz) electromagnetic radiation that boils the water molecules in the epidermis of anyone unlucky enough to be in its 500-yard range. Although the waves do not actually burn the skin and only penetrate to 1/64th of an inch deep, the sensation has been compared to being on fire. The effects disappear once the device is turned off or one escapes from the focused beam, which accounts for its marketing as a crowd dispersion tool.
Raytheon is now demoing a reduced-range version of its “heat-ray gun" dubbed Silent Guardian. Geared towards law enforcement applications, the company envisions it replacing other non-lethal crowd control techniques like tear gas and rubber bullets. In a scene oddly reminiscent of Paul Atreides’ encounter with the “pain box” in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, Daily Mail correspondent Michael Hanlon recently tried out a convention floor demonstration model of the ADS effect – an innocuous looking black box that transmits its electromagnetic sting by direct physical contact. His review is less than glowing:
“It is a horrible device … and you are forced to wonder what the world is coming to when human ingenuity is pressed into service to make a thing like this.”
While Silent Guardian’s proponents argue that it will save lives by reducing the need for more violent or potentially deadly weapons, Hanlon sees the ADS technology hidden in the small black cube as a Pandora’s Box of (ostensibly) unintended consequences. “Because it is, in essence, a simple machine,” he muses, “it is easy to see similar devices being pressed into service in places with extremely dubious reputations.”
The potentials for abuse with directed energy weaponry range from terrorism to state-sponsored torture, and it is naïve to imagine that the U.S. military isn’t already employing these devices in their information retrieval methods. But what is even more troubling is the cavalier attitude towards the infliction of pain that emerges when physical effects are removed from the equation. The capacity now exists to produce “limitless, unbearable pain” just by flipping a switch – and without leaving a telltale scratch or bruise. It is frightening to imagine the future applications of this grisly technology over the next few years.
Perhaps we can learn more from science fiction than what new gadgets might be on the horizon. Even in his freewheeling imagination, Frank Herbert understood the dark implications of his make-believe “pain box”:
He jerked his hand from the box, stared at it astonished. Not a mark. No sign of agony on the flesh. He held up the hand, turned it, flexed the fingers. “Pain by nerve induction,” she said…“There're those who'd give a pretty for the secret of this box.”
-- Dune (1965)Tweet