Drones on Their Own at Home and Abroad

At the Atlantic, Brian Fung writes:

Home drone“Nothing is inevitable, but over the next few decades, it’ll be very hard to avoid the moment when autonomous drones make their way to the battlefield. … Such machines are worth worrying about not because of the prospect we’ll suffer some Terminator-style robot uprising, but because in the next few decades we’ll need to make some extremely difficult choices about when it’s okay for a computer to end a human life.”

Novelist Daniel Suarez treated this with frightening prescience in his thinking man’s (or woman’s — the protagonist is female) techno-thriller Kill Decision (Dutton Adult). Drones are programmed to make their own decisions about what — or whom — to attack.

First, fighter pilots have begun to be replaced by drone operators. Next, drone operators will begin to be replaced by robots. Also, many of the tasks of infantry will be offloaded to robots. Then, when infantry robots become autonomous, what becomes of individuals who, unable to find work in the civilian sector or pay for college, join the military for a job and a route to a college education? Not everyone can be employed in designing artificial intelligence and manufacturing robots. The obvious irony, of course, is that we wind up in the service of robots, which were designed to serve us.

At the other extreme, at Global Guerillas, John Robb continues his campaign for a “door to door, drone delivery system.” Sure, he foresees problems.

• The drones will be noisy.
• The payloads are going to be tiny (ounces) and the containers they are held in will be clunky.
• The distance drones travel will be short (less than a mile).
• There will be frequent failures (drones in trees and on rooftops).
• Hassles will occur (problems with government regulators, police, and nutty neighbors).

On the one hand, it’s encouraging to think that drones can be turned to civilian uses — aside from citizen surveillance — especially since they might be of more benefit to the economy than military drones. But, count me as a “nutty neighbor.” The prospect of them buzzing around one’s community — replete with treetops draped with pizzas they’ve dropped while still in beta — is not an attractive one.

Conceivably, commercial drones will become autonomous. No doubt, that would help acclimatize us to autonomous drones in combat. Face it: between the everyday world and war, proponents of drones have got us in the grips of their pincer attack.