Friday, June 11, 2010

1W Blue Laser for less than $200! This is madness!

I'm really torn about this.

It's an incredibly powerful laser, twice as powerful as anything available for even 10 times as much money.

On the one hand, I think that in the proper hands, this could be a valuable tool for someone doing holography or other serious research.

On the other, it's being marketed as a "gee-whiz" nerd toy, and it is most definitely not a toy. This is an incredibly dangerous device if not handled EXTREMELY carefully. It can blind you in an instant, long before you can blink, and maybe even through your eyelids. Even exposure to diffuse blue laser light may be enough to permanently damage the ability to see some colors. There was a warning that it may be strong enough to cause melanoma if unprotected skin is exposed or even set skin on fire.

The barrier to entry is so low ($200!) and the difference between the perceived danger and the real danger so great that some jackass is going to buy one of these and show off somewhere and blind a lot of people. People know guns are dangerous, and they still manage to shoot themselves and others accidentally all the time. But with this, people are used to laser pointers and such, and they may not realize how incredibly fast something bad can happen with a laser of this power. It's like if you could buy an AK-47 for a couple of hundred dollars when all anybody had ever seen was a paintball gun. It really scares me.

But even more importantly, it's the harbinger of a trend - as tech gets cheaper, faster and more powerful, the kinds of technologies for which we have counted on cost and knowledge to create barriers to wide availability will instead become universally available. When any fool with access to Google and a few hundred bucks can build himself a microwave pain ray, or worse, what then? When somebody bent on terror buys three or four of these lasers, builds them into a housing that looks like a flashlight and blinds a few thousand people at a football game, what then? It's not hard to conjure a what-if scenario that's really plausible and genuinely frightening.

I don't have a good answer here. I'm someone who's always believed strongly in the free flow of information and the maker culture. But what do we do when somebody builds a gun that shoots blindness at the speed of light for $200?