Monday, October 13, 2014

DRONES: Build a Foundation for Our 3-D Future

The future is now
"French high-tech venture Parrot's Japanese PR staff demonstrate a
mini-drone 'Rolling Spider,' equipped with four propellers, a camera
and detachable wheel protector in Tokyo on August 12, 2014."
(Photo: AFP-Yoshikazu Tsuno on Al-Akhbar English)

This week, audiences in Chicago and around the country will be able to see Autómata, a film about a future society in which there are explicit rules about what robots are and are not permitted to do -- and what happens when the rules get broken.

The current decade may well be remembered "The Decade of the Drones," because of the way unmanned aerial vehicals (UAVs, or "drones") have come to dominate the public discourse on national defense and domestic security, as well as beginning to dominate the imagination of university researchers and business innovators and anyone else who likes to ask, "What if . . . ?"

No Drones Network

"Make the drone killing 100% visible."
Several years ago, I began working with activists around the country to lift up the work being done to contest the current U.S. policy of killing with armed drones. There are groups of people working on this problem in nearly every state in the country, and there are websites that help the public learn more and get involved.  People can get a birds-eye view of what's going on at the central No Drones Network site.

People working in the network were able to share strategy and tactics . . . but also some very fundamental realizations.  Perhaps the most fundamental was recognizing that, at the level of phenomenology, something very significant was happening when drones were used to injure people.  For a variety of reasons, the injuries tended to be rendered 100% invisible to the general public. The response that we needed to make as activists was clear: "Make the drone killing 100% visible."

For my own part, I started thinking and writing extensively about this difficult issue. In particular, I began to focus on how drone use had come to undermine the idea that active popular consent is a prerequisite for acts of war -- and, more broadly, for government action of all kinds. (See more links to my posts about drones.)

The Snowden Reset

The major development of 2013 was the set of revelations by Edward Snowden and realization that we have a massive surveillance problem in the U.S.

Wherever you go, whatever you do, whoever you are
Department of Homeland Security
What this meant for the public discourse on drones was that two large categories of concern came to be discussed together: concern about violence and concern about surveillance.

There had long been groups working to oppose drone surveillance in the U.S., focusing on the problem of local law enforcement use of drones. Now it became clear that everyone who was concerned about one particular aspect of the drone problem -- e.g. opponents of drone killing -- needed to make common cause with those concerned primarily with other aspects (such as surveillance).

This encouraged a lot of us to connect the dots between the use of military and police force, surveillance, and broader systems of oppression.

Moreover, this development encouraged us all to become much more attuned to unseen possibilities and risks associated with drones.  Of course, it is obvious that physical injury to innocent people is deplorable; but now we started to think more deeply about the effects of drones and drone use that are not so obvious.

How are drones changing us in ways that we aren't even thinking about?

I, Robot

At the same time, we began to see more and more talk of "good uses of drones." The watershed moment was probably the announcement by Amazon that they hoped to deliver packages via drone.  That particular idea may not have been ready for prime time, but it captured people's imaginations.

Of course, when you scratched the surface you found that drone research is going on in a large number of universities.

September, 2014: Drones-eye view of protests in Hong Kong

And now, just in recent days and weeks, I've noticed more and more mainstreaming of talk of use of drones:

September 30, 2014 - "Hong Kong protests: Mesmerising drone footage shows scale of pro-democracy demonstrations " by Lizzie Dearden in The Independent. "Swooping over the Admiralty district, where demonstrations are focused around the Government headquarters, the drone captured images of protesters milling around, distributing food and making signs on Monday."

October 2, 2014 - "Drones vs. Kidneys: Google Autofill on the Economy" by Conor Dougherty in The New York Times. "Mr. Colas has been tracking Google autofill data for a while, and for most of the last three years the top three positions for completing the query, 'I want to buy…' have been won by 'a house,' 'a car' and 'stock.' . . . Last quarter, the top spot went to 'a drone'"

October 5, 2014 - "Regulation Clips Wings of U.S. Drone Makers: FAA Ban, Export Controls Weigh Down American Entrepreneurs, Even as Foreign Rivals Fly High" by Jack Nicas in The Wall Street Journal. "Outside the U.S., relatively accommodating policies have fueled a commercial-drone boom."

October 8, 2014 - "State Farm considering use of drones" by Becky Yerack in the Chicago Tribune. "Property and casualty insurers play a major role in funding the restoration of businesses and communities after major incidents, and the integration of unmanned aircraft into USAA's operations will have immediate, positive effects on the lives of Americans and the business community."

It's hard to argue with. Don't we all want -- at least a little bit -- to be freed from our earthbound existence and start to live a truly 3-D existence?

That's why I think it is particularly important to, once again, ask, "What are the unseen possibilities and risks associated with drones?"

Isaac Asimov proposed "Three Laws of Robotics"
One way to do this is to involve more people -- including the work of thinkers who are no longer living -- that are good at imagining the future and considering previously unimagined possibilities. For instance, Isaac Asimov delved in detail into the need to establish rules -- he called them the "Three Laws of Robotics" -- if we are to be able to safely use machines like drones and robots. In his 1979 essay, "The Robot As Enemy," Isaac Asimov wrote, "Will human beings deliberately build robots without the Laws? I'm afraid that is a distinct possibility . . . " (p. 448). He specifically foresaw the exact developments in the robotization of the military that we are seeing today:
"computerized planes, tanks, artillery, and so on, that would stalk the enemy relentlessly, with superhuman senses and stamina. It might be argued that this would be a way of sparing human beings. We could stay comfortably at home and let our intelligent machines do the fighting for us. If some of them were destroyed -- well, they are only machines. This approach to warfare would be particularly useful if we had such machines and the enemy didn't." (p. 449)
In the end, however, Asimov concludes: "No, I feel confident that attempts to use robots without safeguards won't work and that, in the end, we will come round to the Three Laws."

A lot of people are excited about drones. 
They're enthusiastic about "good" uses, and 
inclined to say "We'll sort out any problems later." 
But "later" is fast upon us.
Let's lay the foundation in advance for
what is shaping up to be a 3-D future.

9 More Ideas You Won't Hear

at Chicago Ideas Week . . .

Related posts

I'm marveling at the adjacency of a piece of public art -- one with a very clear message about the risk of human ambition and self-absorption and heedlessness -- to the center of political power in the city of Chicago.

(See NUCLEAR WEAPONS: Who will bring us down to earth? )

In my opinion, the reason to focus on drones is this: when we focus on drones, the general public is able to "get," to an unusual extent, the degree to which popular consent has been banished from the process of carrying out state violence. (Sure, it was banished long ago, but the absence of a human in the cockpit of a drone suddenly makes a light bulb go off in people's heads.) It takes some prodding, but people can sense that drone use somehow crosses a line. And that opens up the discussion about how our consent has been eliminated from the vast range of US militarism.

(See "Why focus on drone attacks?")

Beyond recognizing the inherent contradictions of "pre-emptive violence," we must confront an urgent problem related to technology: the automation of "pre-emptive violence" -- e.g. via drone technology -- is leading to a spiral (or "loop" or "recursive process") that we may not be able to get out of.

(See When "Pre-emptive Violence" Is Automated ....)

The Futurists loved airplanes, and other fast machines. Considering how we, in the U.S. today have been seduced by drones and drone warfare, we would perhaps do well to reflect on why people find these things so appealing.

(See A Future Inspired by Kinetics? )