The arrival of the future. Part 2 of 3: Unmaned Aerial Vehicles

Predator1oClockAs children the notion of unmanned aerial attack vehicles, engaging human targets with their computer brains, was reserved for the realm of dystopian science fiction. However, vehicles that can fly autonomously are possessed by the military of the United States and Israel. Machines that engage human targets under no direct supervision by a pilot are thus no longer the realm of imagination – but of ethical discussion. Milan has discussed the topic on his blog. Rather than recognize the dystopic aspects of UAVs, he prefers to see them in a positive light:

“I think the fact that robots would not be subject to emotions like fear, the desire for vengeance, or lust does provide a reasonable chance that they could be made to behave more ethically than human soldiers.I think the fact that robots would not be subject to emotions like fear, the desire for vengeance, or lust does provide a reasonable chance that they could be made to behave more ethically than human soldiers.”

He is of course, right. Personally, I don’t find the ethical discussion concerning UAV’s particularly compelling. What is interesting is that the US army sees the need to participate in this discussion – see here a report they commissioned on UAVs, responsibility, and laws of war.

On the surface, the discussion surrounding UAVs isn’t futuristic at all. And of course, it isn’t – it’s impossible to have a futuristic discussion about something which already exists. My point is rather that the fact that UAVs are not even recognized as harbingers for a dystopic future is a sign that we are already in it. The cruel joke about the future, featured in Leonard Cohen’s song, the film No Country for Old Men, even Natural Born Killers – is that the future has already arrived. In comparison, even the worst atrocities of the past are easy to comprehend.

From Cohen’s song:

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing, Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned the order of the soul”

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26 thoughts on “The arrival of the future. Part 2 of 3: Unmaned Aerial Vehicles

  1. It’s not just the US and Israel. From The Economist:

    “Following the United States, Israel ranks second in the development and possession of drones, according to those in the industry. The European leaders, trailing Israel, are roughly matched: Britain, France, Germany and Italy. Russia and Spain are not far behind, and nor, say some experts, is China. (But the head of an American navy research-laboratory in Europe says this is an underestimate cultivated by secretive Beijing, and that China’s drone fleet is actually much larger.)

    In total, more than three dozen countries operate UAVs, including Belarus, Colombia, Sri Lanka and Georgia. Some analysts say Georgian armed forces, equipped with Israeli drones, outperformed Russia in aerial intelligence during their brief war in August 2008. (Russia also buys Israeli drones.)

    Iran builds drones, one of which was shot down over Iraq by American forces in February. The model in question can reportedly collect ground intelligence from an altitude of 4,000 metres as far as 140km from its base. This year Iranian officials said they had developed a new drone with a range of more than 1,900km. Iran has supplied Hizbullah militants in Lebanon with a small fleet of drones, though their usefulness is limited”.

  2. I don’t think the fact that UAVs appear in dystopian sci-fi has much moral bearing.

    Sci-fi also contains examples of highly moral autonomous entities, such as the Thistledown library in Eon.

  3. “I don’t find the ethical discussion concerning UAV’s particularly compelling.”

    So, I agree? I don’t understand the criticism. Is it one?

  4. “My point is rather that the fact that UAVs are not even recognized as harbingers for a dystopic future is a sign that we are already in it.”

    Us “being in” a dystopian future isn’t a moral issue.

  5. Why are autonomous aircraft emotionally compelling for you? To be part of a dystopian future, they need to be frightening or dreadful somehow.

    I don’t think the present can be dystopian any more than it can be utopian. Both terms can only refer to alternatives that satisfy or fail to satisfy certain preferences of ours.

  6. Did I say they were emotionally compelling? They are, certainly. But this was not what I was trying to show.

    What I was trying to show, most unsatisfyingly, is that the “future” has already arrived, and that its “dystopic” aspects are not in the morality or immorality of particular objects, but in the breakdown of codes, of ideals.

    Cohen says “Give me back the Berlin wall, give me Stalin or St Paul, I’ve seen the future baby and it’s murder”.

    What is “murder” in this lyric? It is not the killing of a person, but the killing of “measure”:

    “Won’t be nothing you can measure anymore, the Blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and it’s overturned the order of the soul”

    I suppose I have not adaquately connected this to the moral debate concerning UAV’s. Of course, on the surface, the fact we are having a moral debate about them seems to indicate we are still within the order of the soul – that we do have codes. The US Navy’s concern for Int. Law in the publication of the report we’ve referred to could be expressing the strength of the “order of the soul”.

    The one way I’ve been trying to connect the UAV debate with the loss of measure is our failure to see the coming of UAV’s as the fulfillment of a nightmare future we set out in films like Terminator, etc… Of course, the essential de-humanization of war is probably the developments in US marine training which Gwynn Dyer writes about in this book on War. But, we could at least believe there were humans still at play, albeit in docilized bodies.

  7. Nightmares and dystopias are emotional things. That’s what films like Terminator are engaging with.

    It may come down to differing aesthetics, but I don’t see anything fundamentally dreadful about planes that can fly themselves – even those that can use lethal force autonomously. It’s just another technology.

  8. In some form, it seems UAVs have been around since the 1950s:

    Ryan Firebee
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The Ryan Firebee was a series of target drones or unmanned aerial vehicles developed by the Ryan Aeronautical Company beginning in 1951. It was one of the first jet-propelled drones, and one of the most widely-used target drones ever built.

  9. “It’s just another technology.”

    Exactly. We dismiss UAVs as “just another technology” and our awareness of their status as notices of the arrival of the future are dismissed as “emotional”. As truth becomes more emotional, it becomes more easily dismissible.

  10. How can you deny that the responses in your posts are emotional and/or aesthetic? You’ve yet to present a logical argument for why UAVs are especially concerning. Instead, you evoke works of fiction that focus on making people fearful of such technologies.

  11. “How can you deny that the responses in your posts are emotional and/or aesthetic? ”

    Where did I deny this? The opposite: I’ve stressed the importance of the emotional and the aesthetic.

    “You’ve yet to present a logical argument for why UAVs are especially concerning.”

    What do you mean by “especially concerning”? I am not afraid of the present (the future). But, it is strange.

    “Instead, you evoke works of fiction that focus on making people fearful of such technologies.”

    Fear is really not a very important part of the future as I’ve described it here. Fear is exactly what we don’t experience vis-a-vis UAV’s. The fact we don’t experience the fear of “entering a dystopian future” is exactly the character this dystopian future has. The future is dystopian not because it is “depressing” or “immoral”, but because it has the characteristics of dystopia: a highly organized and technologically advanced society that is not at all organized with utopian (even Rawls’ “reasonable utopia”) principles in mind. Technologies of domination are completely normal, we don’t see them as scary or nasty. And yet, these same technologies as presented in films not long ago, surely did rouse fear.

    I don’t see why you think I’m saying “we should feel fear”. I don’t think there is a single normative claim about what “people should do” in this post or in my response.

  12. Going back to the post itself, I said precisely the opposite of what you claim I have said about UAVs:

    “My point is rather that the fact that UAVs are not even recognized as harbingers for a dystopic future is a sign that we are already in it.”

    In other words, they do not elicit the fear from the terminator movies. That is what is interesting. I’m not at all saying “people should be afraid”. I mean, you could try being afraid, if you like, it might be interesting. The present is scary, but for the reasons Cohen states, not because of some trashy sci fi thriller.

  13. Why do UAVs represent a “slide in all directions” or an “overturning[ing] of the soul?”

    Saying that they do either thing suggests that people feel the wrong way about them, by not being overly concerned.

  14. “Saying that they do either thing suggests that people feel the wrong way about them, by not being overly concerned.”

    When I want to make a normative claim, you’ll know. This post is entirely descriptive. If you think the “order of the soul” hasn’t been overturned, in the light of the three examples I’ve given (ipod-increasingly emotionally integrated machines, UAVs-just another technology, very little uncanniness compared to what we might have predicted, GINA – traditional form/matter divide challenged in capitalist production, “emotional goals” made explicit design objectives, transgressive art co-opted by marketing firms etc…), then you could challenge that idea as being poorly laid out and argued for, or being inconsequential. Don’t, however, assume that it has some normative content and that I think people are stupid for not having feelings, the lack of which is my evidence for a descriptive claim.

  15. “Why do UAVs represent a “slide in all directions” or an “overturning[ing] of the soul?””

    I don’t think UAV’s represent a slide, (I don’t think the slide is a representation). Strictly speaking, the UAV itself isn’t anything – only attitudes towards it, encounters with it, are meaningful. It is the attitude we bear towards UAVs as “just another technology” which may have specific moral implications or may not that signals the slide. The slide shows itself only when it has already happened. It doesn’t happen once and for all, like a revolution. It’s more like the becoming-irrelevant of the Queen in Canadian sovreignty. At some point, she made sense, whereas now she mostly doesn’t make sense (the importance of the symbolic role she plays is understood by a slim minority – and the lack of understanding lessens the roles importance).

    My claim is that this current attitude towards UAVs is historically specific to us, in this decade. Sure, UAVs have been around for a while, but not in the current futuristic computer recognition of targets form. Sure, simply firing on something that moves is effectively as old as the booby trap – the difference with modern UAVs is they have enough computing power that we encounter them as semi-conscious.

    We’ve all seen UAV’s of this kind in Science fiction before we’ve come to recognize them as part of reality. For instance, the beginning of “Empire Strikes Back” where a Star Destroyer releases thousands of drones, and the rebels come across one. Or (even better), the UAV which interrogates Princess Leia at the beginning of “A New Hope”.

    UAVs in advance show up as a huge privacy concern. They enable any established power to tenticalize its force through uninhabited regions, and investigate its enemies without putting a life (politically costly) in potential danger. As such, you would expect when they come along to be treated as a totally new category, you would expect people in the streets protesting. But we don’t – just as we became blind to surveillance cameras by balancing costs and benefits, we’ll become blind to UAVs flying around dark campuses, getting involved in gangfights, pursuing speeders and street racers.

    What’s interesting about UAVs today is that we can’t see how they take the human out of the state’s imposition of its ideals on territory. All we see are objectives, outcomes, costs and benefits, and the possibilty of “war without war” (Rumsfeld).

    I am not arguing that people are wrong by not seeing UAVs as a new moral category. This would be as rediculous as asking people to go out and smash surveillance cameras, or poison the food of police dogs. The point is to see the lack of holding a new technology to an old ideal as the presence of new ideals (or ideology). The point is to be aware of the world that waiting brings along.

  16. “On April 2nd 2003, during the second Gulf war, a hundred or so Iraqi armoured vehicles approached a far smaller American reconnaissance unit south of Baghdad. Responding to a call for help, a B-52 bomber attacked the first 30 or so vehicles in the column with a single, historic pass. It dropped two new CBU-105 bombs, and the result shocked the soldiers of both sides—and, soon enough, military observers everywhere.

    While falling, the CBU-105 bombs popped open, each releasing ten submunitions which were slowed by parachutes. Each of these used mini rockets to spin and eject outward four discs the size of ice-hockey pucks.

    The 80 free-falling discs from the pair of bombs then scanned the ground with lasers and heat-detecting infra-red sensors to locate armoured vehicles. Those discs that identified a target exploded dozens of metres up. The blast propelled a tangerine-sized slug of copper down into the target, destroying it with the impact and the accompanying shrapnel. The soldiers in the 70 vehicles farther back in the column surrendered immediately.

    The CBU-105, however frightening, may actually point the way toward less violent warfare. Cluster munitions—which release bomblets to cover a wide area—are banned or tightly restricted by an international convention. But the CBU-105 and its cousins, known as sensor-fused weapons, are considered legal because very few discs remain unexploded on the battlefield. Those that fail to detect a target are supposed to self-destruct in the air. The trigger batteries of those that do not will quickly die, so duds are unlikely to kill civilians later.

    Crucially, the manufacturer of the CBU-105, Textron Defense Systems, of Wilmington, Massachusetts, is improving sensors to allow the weapon to distinguish the heat signatures of cars, buses and homes from those of military hardware. If there is such a thing as a humanitarian bomb, this might be it.

  17. You have to admit, though, that bomb is a scary piece of technology. It’s like thirty of the roadside bombs the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents use, except exploded in the air and guided by sensors.

  18. On “measure”, which includes pointing things out as “good” or “bad”, which Cohen suggests is becoming impossible –

    “Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
    Won’t be nothing, Nothing you can measure anymore”

    we might contrast:

    ” If there is such a thing as a humanitarian bomb, this might be it.”

    with

    ” You have to admit, though, that bomb is a scary piece of technology.”

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