Phasers on Stun

University Park, Pa—A new institute dedicated to developing non-lethal technologies for defense and civilian law enforcement has been established at Penn State.

The institute may be new, but the idea is at least as old as the trap door that gave way to the medieval dungeon. (Instant crowd control, that.)

The modern revival of non-lethal technologies for military use is a post-Cold-War phenomenon. A new geopolitics means new kinds of interventions: humanitarian missions, situations where combatants mingle with civilians, what the army calls "operations other than war." Many of the weapons now or soon-to-be available are adaptations from the police arsenal. They come in several categories, and are generally intended to incapacitate, confine, delay, or dissuade, but not to harm. There's "non-penetrating ammunition," better known as rubber bullets. "Hasty barriers," made of foams that are sticky or laced with pepper spray. "Entanglement systems"—ballistically delivered nets which can be dropped, Spiderman-like, over hapless huddles of miscreants.

And more. Low-energy lasers that aim to disorient or temporarily blind. Anti-traction chemicals that can render a roadway slicker than a frozen pond. Disabling devices, for deadening engines from long-distance. (One of these, I suspect, has already been deployed on my lawnmower.)

The military is the principal clientele for many of these new products. Law enforcement is another. There's one market of very great potential, though, that so far has been overlooked. How about the development of a non-lethal civilian weaponry, for defending against the small but nettlesome aggressions encountered in everyday life?

The need is obvious. Take the rise of homicidal incidents connected to the phenomemon known as "road rage:" Given less extreme options than ramming that other, offending car into a ditch or spraying its occupants with machine-gun fire, angry motorists would no doubt take advantage of them. And there are plenty of other situations where kinder, gentler weapons would come in handy, too.

In a recent article in Issues in Science & Technology, defense analyst Lexi Alexander points to a possible bottleneck, a problem that has tended to delay technological advance in the military realm. Efficient development of new weapons, Alexander laments, is "hampered by a lack of input from potential users." The latter, he says, "rely on technology developers to generate ideas rather than articulating their own requirements."

Let's just take care of that problem right now, shall we?

Problem area: Telephone solicitors.

Nature of problem: Existing solutions (the hold button, hanging up, caller I.D., patiently repeating your preference not to be bothered) lack sufficient deterrent effect.

Suggestion(s): How hard can it be to figure out a way to send teeth-chattering ultrasound waves, or even noxious smells, through a telephone receiver? Better still, how about a signal-bouncing technology that automatically re-routes unwanted calls to the homes of telemarketing executives?

Problem area: Parking-space jumpers.

Nature of problem: Being beaten out, and lacking suitable recourse, can trigger dangerous surges in blood pressure.

Suggestions(s): Admittedly, there's no easy way to dislodge a two-ton vehicle, especially on level ground. A more subtle approach might be fruitful, however. How about a variant on the widely used remote-key system, one that would allow a person to lock the doors of another vehicle, before its occupants emerge, for a limited period of say 20 minutes? Let them sit and think about what they did.

Problem area: People who talk through movies, or too loudly in restaurants (see page 3), or sing above their already audible Walkmen.

Nature of problem: You can't hear the dialogue, or your dining companion, or yourself think.

Suggestion(s): The obvious low-tech answer, earplugs, is of course counterproductive. What then about a sort of universal mute button, similar to the one on a standard TV remote? The technology here is up for grabs. Directed-energy microwaves, maybe, or something with ultrasound. Click it at the offending party, and instantly you're awash in ambient noise. Lips move, but there isn't any sound.

Problem area: Dishonest tradespeople.

Nature of problem: They sell you stuff you don't need, at inflated prices, and you don't even know it, having majored in liberal arts (or computer science).

Suggestion(s): A household expert system, geared to home repair, would be nice but probably cost-prohibitive. Finding pertinent information on the Web is out, too—too much of a longshot. How about some sort of infrared-based lie-detector, one that fits in your palm and activates when you shake hands, or cough? In a pinch, this could prove useful in many social situations.

Problem area: Squirrels.

Nature of problem: See "telephone solicitors," above. In neighborhoods with large trees, the standard technologies—anti-traction chemicals, Hav-a-hart traps, recorded clapping—aren't enough to dissuade these marauders, whose increase is truly Malthusian. Rubber bullets seem a little harsh. Yet, in parkland and on campus, one can scarcely sit on a bench to ponder the clouds without being accosted by ravenous rodentia trained to demand food.

Suggestion(s): If it's food they want . . . why not a cleverly disguised artificial nut, one whose shell contains not the usual meat but a tiny spring-loaded snake ready to pop, or, for particularly persistent individuals, a small explosive charge? Nothing large enough to actually harm a squirrel, of course.

Just enough to scare it.

Last Updated May 01, 1998