Increasing along with the number of pilotless drones appearing in the skies worldwide are the gee-whiz news reports about them. For instance, in “Global Race on to Match U.S. Drone Capabilities”: “More than 50 countries have purchased surveillance drones, and many have started in-country development programs for armed versions because no nation is exporting weaponized drones beyond a handful of sales between the United States and its closest allies” (www.washingtonpost.com, July 4).
And keep this in mind: “Last year, (Iran) also claimed two of its drones, the Rad and Nazir, were ‘capable of conducting long-range reconnaissance, patrolling, assault and bombing missions with high precision’” (“Iran Running Drone Competitions to Upgrade Unmanned Air Force,” www.wired.com, Sept. 23).
On this planet, perfecting killing capacities is a powerful motive for research. But one particular look ahead scares me: “A Future for Drones: Automated Killing,” (www.washingtonpost.com, Sept. 19). This story begins with a demonstration last fall at Fort Benning, Ga.:
Climbing to 800 and 1,000 feet over the military base, “the automated, unpiloted planes worked on their own, with no human guidance, no (distant) hand on any control. … This successful exercise in autonomous robotics could presage the future of the American way of war: a day when drones hunt, identify and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans.”
In this well-researched, vital story, reporter Peter Finn should have added at this point that these murderous robots presage the future of more and more countries’ way of war, as well.
He does return to the present: “But humans still make the decision to fire, and in the case of CIA strikes in Pakistan, that call rests with the director of the agency.”
And ultimately, as one would surmise, with the commander in chief in the White House.
Our president has clearly made drones his favorite weapon of war against terrorists (“U.S. Assembling Secret Drone Bases in Africa, Arabian Peninsula, Officials Say,” Washington Post, Sept. 20). I have seen no indication yet – in Congress or in the continuous debates among Republican aspirants for the presidency – that a Republican administration will differ with Obama’s enthusiasm for advancing drone warfare.
There are, however, some experts on drones who counsel strongly about rushing ahead so confidently in the robotic autonomy of drones. They are not only fearful about our enemies’ developing drones but also about the ability of those hostile drones to disable ours.
Finn reports that these experts worry “that hostile states or terrorist organizations could hack (our) robotic systems and redirect them. Malfunctions also are a problem: In South Africa in 2007, a semiautonomous cannon fatally shot nine friendly soldiers.”
A founder of International Committee for Robot Arms Control, Peter Asaro, a professor at the New School in New York, said to the Washington Post: “The worry is that these systems are going to be pushed out too soon, and they make a lot of mistakes, and those mistakes are going to be atrocities.”
How many Americans – so intimately conversant with Herman Cain’s alleged amorous intentions – are even aware of this debate about how humans will be able to prevent self-directing Predator and Reaper drones from committing atrocities?
But there are experts who believe that there are indeed people who can create ethical, responsible robots. Enter Ronald C. Arkin, author of “Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots.” Among his credentials: This study was financed by the U.S. Army Research Office. Don’t you trust the judgment of that official government level of validation?
Arkin, assures the Washington Post and us that “lethal autonomy is inevitable,” robots having graduated from science fiction into real-time existence; competing with human chess champions, for one widely publicized example. But on the warfare level we’re discussing, Arkin, reports Finn, “believes it is possible to build ethical military drones and robots, capable of using deadly force while programmed to adhere to international humanitarian law and the rules of engagement.
“He said software can be created that would lead machines to return fire with proportionality, minimize collateral damage, recognize surrender, and, in the case of uncertainty, maneuver to reassess or wait for a human assessment.”
If you are still skeptical, Lora G. Weiss, chief scientist at Georgia Tech Research Institute, adds: “How a war-fighting unit may think – we are trying to make our systems behave like that.”
Is it possible, then, that eventually we’ll have such corrosive distrust of our incompetent government, as we have come to know it, that we will put our faith in a robotic president so precisely and totally connected to the Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitution that we will have no reason to doubt it?
You think I’m kidding? I sure hope so. I am glad to introduce Johann Borenstein, in charge of the Mobile Robotics Lab at the University of Michigan.
He tells the Washington Post that human skills will remain critical in battle far into the future, emphasizing: “The foremost of all skills is common sense. Robots don’t have common sense and won’t have common sense in the next 50 years, or however long one might want to guess.”
But how long will future generations want to guess? In any case, why now, President Barack Obama, is it wise to conduct our warfare against terrorists who may ultimately have pilotless technology to kill us? And beyond the next election, what will future presidents think of saving the lives of our human soldiers by depending on soulless robotic drones?