The U.S. military has a non-lethal toy straight out of dystopian science fiction. It is, literally, a pain gun. Known as “Active Denial Technology,” the pain gun shoots extremely high frequency microwaves from a truck hundreds of meters away. When these waves hit your skin, you feel like you’re being cooked alive. Last year, Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman volunteered to get shot by the non-lethal weapon:
When the signal goes out over radio to shoot me, there’s no warning — no flash, no smell, no sound, no round. Suddenly my chest and neck feel like they’ve been exposed to a blast furnace, with a sting thrown in for good measure. I’m getting blasted with 12 joules of energy per square centimeter, in a fairly concentrated blast diameter. I last maybe two seconds of curiosity before my body takes the controls and yanks me out of the way of the beam.
Here’s what it looks like to get shot, as experienced by Ackerman:
The Active Denial pain ray is big and scary, sure. But it’s also mounted on a huge expensive truck, and thus, unlike tasers or rubber bullets, is not a thing you’ll likely see in real life right now. But that may soon change. According to New Scientist, Raytheon, the defense contractor behind the pain gun, is working on a portable version:
Raytheon is now building smaller versions for law enforcement or commercial maritime use – designed to be placed inside buildings, such as prisons, or mounted on ships for defence against, say, pirates. And soon there could be handheld versions of the pain ray. Raytheon has developed small experimental prototypes, one of which is about the size of a heavy rifle and is intended for police use.
As a non-lethal weapon, the pain ray is actually incredibly effective. The weapon causes a burning sensation so strong that it triggers “reflexive ‘repel’ reactions.” People just want to get out of the way. And, from the testing done so far, the pain gun has a low chance of doing any real damage. So far, 11,000 people have been shot, and only eight of them got burned. But these were all under proper testing conditions, not out in the field in the middle of a riot.
But as a non-lethal weapon, the pain gun has something rubber bullets and tasers and tear gas do not: it is invisible—people being shot by it will likely have absolutely zero idea what is going on, and in most cases the gun leaves no physical wounds.
This distinction, says New Scientist, got a plan to use the portable version of the device in a California prison shut down.
On the eve of going live, the trial was cancelled. It was not over health concerns, explains Chris Tillery of the NIJ’s Office of Science and Technology… The test was shut down, he says, because of an unexpected outcry in the media and elsewhere about the potential for abuse of the technology.
And this goes to the heart of the moral dilemma raised by a technology that can induce pain invisibly. It may be medically safe if used properly, but in the wrong hands, it could also be a tool of oppression and torture.
For now, says New Scientist, the potential to use the weapon in law enforcement is under review by the National Institute of Justice.
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