Technology of deception

The art of technological make-believe.

August saw millions glued to their TVs anticipating the start of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but a widely reported news story following the extravagant opening ceremony had an intriguing technological angle. As revealed by the Beijing Times, TV images of the 29 'firework footprints' - designed to tread their way from Tiananmen Square to the Bird's Nest Stadium - were faked because of doubts that the spectacle could be filmed 'live'.

Although the fireworks themselves were real, they were only seen by spectators outside the stadium. Those inside the Bird's Nest, and the millions of viewers around the world, saw a 55-second computer graphics insert, which reportedly took almost a year to create. 

According to Gao Xiaolong, head of the visual effects team, they took advice from the Beijing meteorological office in simulating the city's notorious smog and added a 'camera shake' to imply the use of a helicopter platform.

Along with the revelation that the nine-year-old "smiling angel" who charmed crowds with a rendition of 'Ode to the Motherland' was, in fact, miming to a seven-year-old with a better voice but crooked teeth, the story illustrates how easily technology can be applied to deceive.

Benign deception

The fact that an Olympic opening ceremony takes many of its cues from the theatre should not come as a surprise - it was one big theatrical extravaganza. But it is worth reminding ourselves how often technology allows the human senses to be deceived, if only in a benign way.

Television is, of course, one huge deception, as is cinematic film. Most fundamentally, the eyes and brain are deceived into believing that they are viewing a moving image, as opposed to a sequence of still images. So much for 'the movies'!

Audio hi-fi, too, smacks of technological deceit. Since the introduction of stereo, quadraphonic and surround-sound systems, the human ear and brain have been gladly fooled into thinking they are 'at the concert', 'inside the recording studio' or 'right in the action'. Indeed, we pay good money to deceive our senses… and then pay again to deceive them better when the upgrade comes along.

Technology can also be invoked to convince us that unwanted, extraneous sounds do not exist, thanks to noise-cancelling headphones. Essentially, they sample extraneous noise using a microphone and generate 'anti-noise' of opposite polarity which is introduced alongside the wanted signal. This results in destructive interference with the unwanted noise and reduces it to acceptable levels.

In effect, whole industries have been built on our desire for improved and enhanced deception: from audio, TV and film to computer gaming and virtual reality. The technologies involved range from pixel manipulation and noise reduction at one level to stereo vision and force feedback (for gaming and teleoperation) at another. These technologies are bundled together in the production of simulators for anything from high performance aircraft to nuclear power stations.

Deception of war

It is in the industry of war, however, that the most creative effort in technological deception has been lavished. One of the earliest examples - if we believe in Greek myths - must be the Trojan Horse. This large, hollow model of a horse is said to have been left outside the gates of Troy, ostensibly as a gift to the Trojans. It was, however, full of heavily armed Greeks, who burst out once the horse had been dragged inside and opened the city to the final assault.

Though wooden horses might not count as high-tech today, a similar technology was used in the Second World War, most famously at the battle of El Alamein, in northern Egypt. As part of General Montgomery's 'Operation Bertram', about 2,000 dummy tanks, made of timber and canvas, were positioned well to the south of the proposed point of attack, where 1,000 real tanks had been disguised as lorries. To deceive General Rommel's army into believing that the Allies were in no hurry to attack, a fake water pipeline to supply the simulated armies was built, in a somewhat leisurely manner. Its progress could be tracked from the air by German planes. The operation was a success and contributed to Montgomery's victory.

The creative force behind Bertram was the unlikely-sounding Jasper Maskelyne and his Magic Gang. Maskelyne was a well-known stage magician of the 1930s, who could apparently trace his ancestry back to the 18th-century astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne. At the start of the war, he abandoned the stage to enlist in the Royal Engineers, convinced that his professional skills in concealment and deception could be put to use on the battlefield. Although his superiors were sceptical - and initially employed him as a troop entertainer - once posted to North Africa he gathered together a number of like-minded individuals, including experts in analytical chemistry and electrical engineering, who were known informally as the Magic Gang.

Among their many exploits, they succeeded in diverting German bombers from the port of Alexandria by setting up a fake harbour in a nearby bay, complete with dummy buildings, lighthouse and even anti-aircraft batteries that fired thunderflashes.

They also made it difficult for bombers to locate the Suez Canal by fitting searchlights with a revolving cone of mirrors, which reportedly produced a dazzling wheel of spinning light beams nine miles across.

Potemkin villages

The general term for this type of construction is 'Potemkin Village', named after the fake cardboard settlements of plenty that Russian minister Grigori Potemkin is supposed to have erected to impress Empress Catherine II during her visit to the Crimea in 1787. Though their origin is disputed, more recent Potemkin Villages have been built to disguise wartime concentration camps and the phrase has entered the language of politics and diplomacy.

In fact, the art of deception had been elevated to the ranks of industry by the time of the First World War, at least in part as a countermeasure to the technology of aerial surveillance, which led to the need for camouflaged guns, equipment and buildings.

In the view of the Imperial War Museum, London, one of the most "innovative and dramatic" developments during this period was the attempt to confuse German U-boats by creating Dazzle ships. The brainchild of marine painter Norman Wilkinson, Dazzle painting was a camouflage system comprising fractured and disjointed lines intended to confuse the enemy regarding the vessel's size, distance and speed, supposedly making it more difficult to hit. 

Although the technique was still in use towards the end of Second World War, its effectiveness is uncertain. The British Admiralty is said to have concluded that it had no effect against submarine attacks, but conceded that it was a "morale booster". As rangefinders improved, and certainly with the introduction of radar during WWII, it lost whatever advantages it had.

While Dazzle was a passive technique, other, active techniques that altered the appearance of a ship or plane in were also developed. Isoluminance was the effect of matching the brightness of a vehicle to its background as viewed by an observer. This was engineered by equipping planes with adjustable lights to effectively screen their approach from U-boat look-outs.

As technology developed, the methods of deception became evermore complex: from the radio transmissions - indeed whole radio programmes - designed to deceive the enemy, to the thin metallic strips called 'chaff', dropped from aircraft to confuse enemy radar. Of course, the nature of the beast is to continually 'up the ante' with the development of countermeasures and counter-countermeasures, one example being the introduction of heat-seeking missiles (initially designed to detect the characteristic infrared emissions of jet engines) and the decoy flares developed to confuse them.

Today, a key military technology of deception is 'stealth', a term that has evolved to become almost synonymous with 'invisibility' (at least at radar and thermal wavelengths and, to some extent, acoustic-ally). Most well known are the USAF's F-117A Stealth Fighter, publicly announced in 1988, and B-2 Stealth Bomber, introduced in 1993. The F-117 is being replaced by the F-22 Raptor, which was brought into service in 2004 and displayed for the first time at this year's Farnborough Air Show. Interestingly, aviation sources were keen to reveal that the Raptor was escorted to Farnborough from RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire by a non-stealth-equipped F-15 Eagle, ostensibly so that air traffic controllers would know where it was. Others immediately suggested that the escort was, instead, provided to prevent an accurate characterisation of the Raptor's actual radar cross-section.

Of course, the ultimate in stealth technology must be the technique that makes a vehicle disappear completely. This brings to mind the story of Project Rainbow, more commonly known as the Philadelphia Experiment, which allegedly resulted in the momentary invisibility of the USS Eldridge in Philadelphia's naval shipyard in 1943. Now widely believed to be a hoax - but still exciting conspiracy theorists around the world - the experiment was supposed to invoke some part of the Unified Field Theory to bend light around an object so as to render it invisible to the observer.

Unlikely as the Philadelphia Experiment may sound today, science and technology has a way of making boyhood dreams and outrageous fictional concepts suddenly appear to be normal, everyday possibilities (take heavier-than-air flight, men on the Moon, cordless telephony, videophones and magnetic resonance imaging as examples).

To prove a point, in late 2006 a group of scientists based at Duke University, North Carolina announced that they had 'hidden' a small copper cylinder from a microwave detector by deflecting the microwave beam around the test sample. They used an artificial composite comprising fibreglass rings and copper elements, termed a 'metamaterial', to engineer a change in the path of the electromagnetic waves.

This was followed, in 2008, by news that researchers at the University of California in Berkeley had developed a material that could do the same for visible light frequencies, making the fabled 'cloak of invisibility' appear possible [see E&T Vol 3, #8]. Now, while it might be premature to pop down to Marks & Spencers for the latest in visible fashions (or should that be invisible fashions?), it would be foolish to dismiss the early results from a physics lab because they seem to be the stuff of science fiction; it was, after all, pure research into solid state physics that eventually led to semiconductors, the transistor and the microchip.

And, as is often the case, one piece of research sparks others in different directions. In this case, two independent teams have borrowed some of the underlying principles of the invisibility cloak to create an 'acoustic cloak' which, it is said, could improve the acoustics of concert halls or even screen a submarine from enemy sonar.

Weather... or not?

It's one thing to remove clouds or brighten skies in Photoshop, but what about doing it for real? Weather modification has a potentially beneficial role in agriculture and population protection, but its clandestine application as a window-dressing technology for totalitarian regimes is more likely to provoke debate.

For example, in Stalin's Soviet Union it was apparently common to arrange good weather for the May Day and October Revolution parades using cloud dispersal technologies - effectively orchestrating a political deception that the Sun always shone on Red Square.

The technique, also known as cloud seeding, involves spraying chemicals, such as silver iodide, from aircraft into potentially rain-bearing clouds to encourage them to drop their rain in a more controlled manner. Raindrops form in a process of water vapour coalescence around hygroscopic nuclei (particles that attract water). The effect of silver iodide particles was discovered by American atmospheric scientist Bernard Vonnegut (elder brother of novelist Kurt) in 1946, although the Russians have reportedly also used dry ice and cement.

China went public on weather modification during the 2008 Olympics, revealing its use of rocket-borne silver iodide to avoid drizzle turning the opening ceremony into a damp squib.

Indeed, according to some reports, the China Meteorological Administration (CMA) oversees local 'weather-changing offices' employing some 39,000 staff equipped with 7,000 anti-aircraft cannons, which, in 2006, were used to fire a million rounds of silver iodide into the atmosphere (at a cost of over $100m a year). Western experts are sceptical of the details and China's claims that, between 1999 and 2006, it produced some 250 billion tonnes of artificial rain, but weather modification is more than an instrument of deception in the political toolbox. In the US, at least, it is a business.

Commercial companies such as Weather Modification Inc of North Dakota offer services from "turn-key operational programs for rainfall increase... snow pack augmentation, hail damage mitigation... and fog clearing... to technical assistance and/or technology transfer for all of these".

Meanwhile, the California-based Weather Modification Association, formed as long ago as 1950, attempt to "cultivate a better understanding of weather modification techniques, impacts, and expectations among program sponsors, program operators, and the scientific community, and to promote ethical professional conduct and a free exchange of information".

In addition to publishing the Journal of Weather Modification, it promulgates standard practices in precipitation enhancement, hail suppression and supercooled fog dispersal.

Despite this, it seems the jury is still out on the efficacy of cloud seeding and other techniques, mainly because the 'experiment' has no control in a scientific sense: it is difficult to know whether it would have rained even if a given cloud had not been seeded. For example, William R Cotton of Colorado State University's Department of Atmospheric Science, states in 'Weather Modification by Cloud Seeding - A Status Report 1989-1997' that "there are only a few limited examples of where cloud seeding has been scientifically shown to be effective in enhancing rainfall".

And while the potential to relieve droughts, mitigate the effects of hurricanes and engineer a dry day at Wimbledon is enticing, others fear the development of 'weather weapons' that could be deployed against enemy nations without entering their territory or remotely bombarding their cities with munitions. But is this more Kurt than Bernard?

The swirling fog of Web content on the subject suggests that we risk being deceived more by conspiracy theorists than rain dancers.

Virtual deception

Like it or not, in today's world, we are immersed in a sea of deception... not least within the virtual world we increasingly inhabit.

The technology of the Internet has permitted the relatively benign deception inherent in social networking constructs such as Facebook and MySpace, and in online gameworlds such as RuneScape and Second Life. Sadly, it has also provided a new avenue for fraudulent deception, from banking fraud and investment scams to outright identity theft. We even have the online version of the Trojan horse myth, though, unfortunately, the virus version is more real than we'd like.

We are surrounded by technologies of deception, some benign and some malicious. There may come a point - which some may already have reached - where the technological deception is so sophisticated and complete that we don't know what is real and what is not. If you've seen 'The Matrix', you'll know exactly what I mean (you may think you're reading this article, but how do you know you're not a program on a mainframe running software that instructs your character to read E&T?). Come to that, did I actually write this article? Or am I deceiving myself?

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