With the advent of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the last decade, humanity has witnessed what can be argued as the greatest technological advancement in weaponry since the nuclear devices of the Cold War. Recent research into piloting systems has led to the development of unmanned aircraft that can complete the most complex of feats. The U.S. Navy’s X-47B has successfully demonstrated its ability to take off and land on an aircraft carrier at sea, requiring detailed programming that can account for the shifts and rolls that ocean waves can produce. If there is anything we can learn from war, it is that the technology produced out of necessity can often be translated to that of convenience and progress. The question is, how do we utilize these systems to achieve a better outcome for humanity? What problems may arise in a society which incorporates “drones” in everyday life?
(X-47 First Catapult Flight, U.S. Navy, 2012)
The word “drone” itself carries with it a negative connotation which has been exploited by the world’s media. It has become synonymous with the death and destruction caused by unmanned aircraft engaged in conflicts across Africa and the Middle East. Just as worse, their primary role as surveillance aircraft has led many to believe that their only purpose is to serve as a sinister spy, a tool to be used by corrupt governments to control their people.
Lending credence to this dystopian belief is the idea of a shroud of limited responsibility created by the use of autonomous weapons. Removing the human face from behind a weapon creates a level of uncertainty as to who or what is responsible for initiating lethal strikes carried out by unmanned systems. Placing this lethal responsibility on a government entity as a whole, rather than an individual or organization, is an idea which can lead to disastrous consequences. Should this become the case, incidents resulting in the injury or deaths of innocents would hold no ground when seeking justice from a world power.
With such disastrous possibilities, why should we ever allow for the creation and use of autonomous aircraft? Once again, we come back to the point that war drives innovation. Demands created by our human conflicts have led to the development of technology with progressive solutions. Should we be able to look past the UAV’s use as a weapon, we may catch a glimpse of a better future for all. What many fail to see is the progress that can be achieved by expediting the inevitable acceptance and integration of these tools into our society.
A prime example of how we can turn these killers into a workforce is the much talked about Amazon company delivery drone. While only in a very basic research phase, a program utilizing small, pilotless aircraft to conduct deliveries is the first step in the acceptance of autonomous machines as a global workforce. In this case, machines will only be supplementing the current human workforce, not replacing it. The not too distant future could look very well like that of Iain Bank’s “Culture” series, where increased uses for machine labor can allow us to focus on other ventures, such as space travel.
(Amazon Deliveramazon-y Craft, AP Photos, 2013)
Amazon’s most recent venture is not the first time that UAVs have been considered as more than a weapon. Currently, these aircraft are conducting scientific research in dangerous weather systems and navigating territory otherwise impassible in support of emergency rescue operations across the globe. Our aerial creations are truly capable going where no man has gone before.
Despite the endless possibilities created by such a concept, our current mistrust in technology and the change it brings may prevent any significant advance in the near future. This mistrust has manifested in several Science Fiction settings, in which either machines become semi-enslaved tools at the mercy of their human masters, or they rise in rebellion against their creators.
Unfortunately for the United States, many bids to push the use of unmanned aircraft into the civilian sector are failing. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned the commercial use of pilotless aircraft in 2007, and refuses to repeal the act any time soon. Why is there such a push by the government to limit drone proliferation? How is it that private companies can manage piloted aircraft, but drones are out of the question? Is this a bid by the government to keep drone technology in military hands to allow for the further creation of a surveillance state?
It is possible that the Science Fiction genre has itself has instilled mistrust in the full cooperation we could achieve with our creations. Some conspiracy theorists almost instinctively mention lessons learned in the Terminator series or the Battlestar Galactica universe when the subject of autonomous robots is mentioned. The fear of a creation with capabilities that far surpass our own is very real. Over several thousand years, humans have established their role as the dominant force on this planet. Any perceived threat to that position, whether it be organic or not, will be met with resistance.
Will the drone forever remain a weapon?
(Raider Ship from Battlestar Galactica, 2011)
“Science fiction is the great opportunity to speculate on what could happen. It does give me, as a futurist, scenarios.”
– Ray Kurzweil