Of drones and democracy

P.W. Singer has a fascinating article in last Sunday’s edition of the New York Times about the implications of the current robotics revolution in warfare for democracy.

Singer’s reputation of someone who asks the hard questions (and asks them first) about war was gained in his studies of the rise of privatized warfare  and the increasing use of children in warfare.  On both of those issues, Singer was among the first to correctly identify disturbing trends. His perspective shows little ideological bent, merely the search for truth. On these issues he was almost a lone voice crying in the wilderness, as he is in bringing to our knowledge the troubling questions being brought about as the revolution in computer technology and robotics finds itself increasing applied to war. His goal, as always, appears to be to reveal the obvious trends in front of us to which we are blind, and in doing so start a conversation we should already be having.

I think a short review of Singer’s Wired For War  is in order, so that his N.Y. Times article can be seen in its full context.  In that book Singer takes readers on a wild ride through the current robotics revolution in warfare. He sees our era as akin to WWI when new technologies like the tank and airplane were thrown into the field, but no one new yet how to actually use them. (224)

The military now funds over 80% of American spending on artificial intelligence. Much of this funding flows through the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA).  Joel Garreau of the Washington Post SAYS the mission of DARPA “is to accelerate the future into being”. (78)

Not only the US Army, but also the Navy and Airforce (which wants 45% of its bomber fleet to be composed of unmanned vehicles) are rushing to develop unmanned systems. Some of these systems seem straight out of science-fiction, whether swarming insect sized robots or super-sized planes able to stay aloft for months or even years.  (117-118).

Many of the new robots resemble animals, such as a robotic dog .

What does all of this have to do with democracy?

In his article, he makes the point, that increasingly, the US is relying on its advantage in military technology, the most famous of which, are the use of unmanned drones, to wage, what is in effect a constant war, with out the democratic oversight and control that is supposed to be the job of our elected representatives in the Congress. The biggest cost in war, the lives of citizens, no longer at risk, the American government can wage war on terrorist targets throughout the world with seeming impunity.

As a prime example, he cites the recent US military action in Libya.

Starting on April 23, American unmanned systems were deployed over Libya. For the next six months, they carried out at least 146 strikes on their own. They also identified and pinpointed the targets for most of NATO’s manned strike jets. This unmanned operation lasted well past the 60-day deadline of the War Powers Resolution, extending to the very last airstrike that hit Colonel Qaddafi’s convoy on Oct. 20 and led to his death.

Choosing to make the operation unmanned proved critical to initiating it without Congressional authorization and continuing it with minimal public support. On June 21, when NATO’s air war was lagging, an American Navy helicopter was shot down by pro-Qaddafi forces. This previously would have been a disaster, with the risk of an American aircrew being captured or even killed. But the downed helicopter was an unmanned Fire Scout, and the story didn’t even make the newspapers the next day.

Singer’s conclusion:

We must now accept that technologies that remove humans from the battlefield, fromunmanned systems like the Predator to cyberweapons like the Stuxnet computer worm, are becoming the new normal in war.

And like it or not, the new standard we’ve established for them is that presidents need to seek approval only for operations that send people into harm’s way — not for those that involve waging war by other means.

WITHOUT any actual political debate, we have set an enormous precedent, blurring the civilian and military roles in war and circumventing the Constitution’s mandate for authorizing it. Freeing the executive branch to act as it chooses may be appealing to some now, but many future scenarios will be less clear-cut. And each political party will very likely have a different view, depending on who is in the White House.

America’s founding fathers may not have been able to imagine robotic drones, but they did provide an answer. The Constitution did not leave war, no matter how it is waged, to the executive branch alone.

In a democracy, it is an issue for all of us.

The Dispossessed

The State recognizes no coinage but power: and it issues the coins itself. 


I just finished The Dispossessed, a 1974 novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. This wonderful book tells the story of an “ambiguous” anarchist utopia. Though written during a period much different from our own, The Dispossessed  might have lessons for us today, especially for those in the OWS movement whose political philosophy and hopes represent what might be seen as a triumph of anarchism.

The novel is set on the anarchist colony on the moon of Anarres, founded as a breakaway settlement of a movement called Odonianism- a moral and political philosophy created by Odo a woman who railed against the capitalist system of Urras, the rich and beautiful mother planet.  The two worlds under “The Terms of the Closure of the Settlement of Anarres” have interactions limited to a space freighter that exchanges necessities between them 8 times a year. There is a “wall” between Anarres and Urras, and it is the efforts of the protagonist of The Dispossessed,  a brilliant physicist named Shevek to brake down this wall between worlds that form the essence of the story.

Without doubt, Odonianism has created a moral utopia. The inhabitants of Anarres, constantly subject to a harsh climate and in constant danger of scarcity and famine, are bound together tightly and suffer continuously for one another. The needs of the whole community come before all others, even those of family. As Shevek and his loved partner Takver separate in the name of the needs of the community.  Anarres is an organic community that in the words of Shevek arguing with a Urratzi social Darwinist:

Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species are those who are the most social. In human terms the most ethical. (195)

The people of Anarres have no real government, though it can not really be said that they have politics either. Like Saint-Simon had suggested, without the class war endemic to the state, politics would become the mere “administration of things”.  A series of councils/syndicis make important decisions such as the allocation of work (though an individual is always free to refuse to go where a work syndic requests.  To my ears, these councils sound much like the “working groups” of the OWSM each tasked with a very particular need or goal of the movement. On Anarres they are a place where rotation and openness to debate mask the fact that they can be manipulated for political ends such as the machinations of the scientist Sabul who uses his ability to control the flow of information between Anarres and Urras, and even to control the publication of scientific papers to use the brilliance of Shevek for his own advantage, and take credit for what is mostly Shevek’s work.

It is this ability and desire to control the flow of knowledge and insight (including the insight brought by travelers from other worlds) whether stemming from the flawed human condition of someone like Sabul, or the tyranny of the majority implicit in an egalitarian society, that is the sin of Anarres. For, when combined with an internalized moral code that commands them not to be egoist, the Anarrresti are unable to express their own individual genius. Whether that be in a case like Shevek’s where he is constantly thwarted from constructing a theory that would allow faster- than- light communication, and therefore the enable the strong connection of interstellar peoples to become possible, or the comedy of a non-conformist playwright, such as Tirin, who writes a play about a comic character coming from Urras to Anarres. This suffocation of the spirit of the soul is the primary, and growing, flaw of Odo’s utopia.  As Shevek says:

That the social conscience completely dominates the individual conscience instead of striking a balance with it. We don’t cooperate –we obey. (291)

In an effort to break free from the control of knowledge, Shevek and those around him set up a printing syndicate of their own. This syndicate eventually starts communicating with the outside, with the Urratzi, which ultimately results in the ultimate attempt to breakdown walls- Shevek’s visit to Urras itself.

The capitalist nation of A-Io invites Shevek out of the belief that he is on the verge of discovering a unified theory of time which they will profit from.  Shevek’s journey is a disaster. What he discovers on Urras is a beautiful yet superficial world built on the oppression of the poor by the rich. Not surprising for the time period the novel was written, a Cold War rages between capitalist A-Io and the authoritarian communist nation of Thu. The two-powers fight proxy wars in less developed nations. When the poor rise up to protest the rich in A-Io they are brutally massacred, and Shevek flees to the embassy of the planet Earth. The ambassador of earth shelters Shevek, but expresses her admiration for Urras, with the civilization on earth having almost destroyed itself. Explains the ambassador:

My world, my earth is a ruin.  A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left and then we died…

But we destroyed the world first. There are no forest left on my earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot.

She admires Urras for it’s  beauty and material abundance, which has somehow avoided environmental catastrophe. She does not understand the moral criticism of Shevek- a man from a desert world of scarcity, and famine.

Earthlings were ultimately saved by an ancient, sage like people the Hainish. They return Shevek to Anarres, along with a member of the Hainish that wants to see the world anarchist have built. The walls Shevek sought to tear down continue to fall…

What might some of the lessons of this brilliant novel be for our own times? Here are my ideas:

1) For the OWSM itself: that the “administration of things” always has a political aspect. That even groups open to periodic, democratic debate are prone to capture by the politically savvy, and steps make sure they remain democratic need to be constant.

2) One of the flaws of Le Guin’s view of utopia is that it seems to leave no room for democratic politics itself.  Politics, therefore can only be in the form of manipulation (Sabul) or rebellion (Shevek) there is no space, it seems, for consensual decision making as opposed to a mere right to debate and be heard.

3) There is a conflict between the individual (the need for creativity, love of family) and the needs of the community that is existential and cannot be eliminated by any imaginable political system. The key is to strike the right balance between the individual and the community.

4) That the tyranny of the majority is a real danger for any consensus based community and not just a mere bogeyman of conservative forces.

5) The most important thing we can do to preserve the freedom of the individual and health of the community is to keep the lines of communication and connection open. That includes openness to the viewpoints of ideological rivals.

All quotes from: The Dispossessed, An Ambiguous Utopia, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harper and Row, 1974

The Future of Freedom and Tyranny

Cory Doctorow delivered a fascinating talk  at the Chaos Communication Congress . Doctorow is an incredibly engaging speaker, and I suggest you really take sometime to sit down and watch it. My take away on it is this:  In this talk he makes the claim that the current copyright wars are but the opening chapter of a “century- long struggle” regarding the freedom of information, of which SOPA, and PIPA are mere opening skirmishes, that is to be fought out by forces against some element of that freedom trying to do away with general purpose computation machines. What does he mean? As I take it corporate and political interest have what will only be an increasing desire to diminish the “hackability” of the information exchanging devices and software we use. So that a computer company might, for instance, want to create the ability to monitor and erase pirated software on my computer. A government might want to be able to monitor people engaged in criminal activity, a power which, when taken to an extreme, might see a tyranny only allowing software or hardware to be sold with extensive surveillance capabilities in its borders. This is, of course, what is known as “spy-ware” and Doctorow sees corporate and government efforts to control information to increasingly be in the form of “spy-ware”.

Doctorow briefly touches on the extension of this conflict between the freedom and control  to new forms of hacking such as 3D printing or DIY biology. As he admits general purpose computation may result in things that “freak even me out”, but he nevertheless appears to think we should always lean more in the direction of freedom than control.

There are is a question I wish I would have been able to ask  Doctorow directly, so asking it here will have to suffice.  My question relates to what might be called the inevitability of efforts to control information, and the ultimate source of such legislation.

One of his listeners pointed out how regulation of the internet might ultimately resemble the laws of the sea with pockets of control and pockets of freedom. Doctorow responded that the analogy was inaccurate. The internet was an interdependent network in a way that the oceans, where something happening in the middle of the Pacific might have no effect elsewhere, is not.

My question is this: if some attempt (a very likely to fail attempt) at governance of the open information system we now possess is inevitable, wouldn’t it be a good idea to try and see if the very liberating and democratic potential of that system was used to provide that governance rather than fight for a kind of perfect freedom of information and hackability?

As Paddy Ashdown recently pointed out one of the features that make our era unique is the dis-junction between the power of the nation-state and the international nature of our problems, that we have yet to evolve institutions, not of world government, but international governance. Attempts , even failed attempts, at such governance their certainly will be as institutions emerge to fill this power vacuum. As Doctorow points out, this is now beginning to be done by secretive, non-democratically accountable institutions such as The Trans-Pacific Strategic Partnership   and ACTA.

A clear example might help better explain my question. I wish Doctorow would have mentioned his thoughts the recent request by the National Science Advisory Board for Bio-security that scientist not publish recent work on the evolveability of the bird flu to a form that would be pandemic in humans for fear that it might be used by terrorists. No doubt, this is but the first of many cases, and not just involving security, but primarily posing deep ethical questions, such as the crazy planet of the apes scenario that a group of British scientist recently warned about. Certainly, in addition to questions of security and crime, there will be the desire and efforts to control the hackability of life, even our own personal selves, on ethical grounds.

What I really want to know, is if knowledge, and even more importantly technological and genetic practice,  is bound to be regulated, then can we construct democratic mechanisms to do it which avoids the problems of the tyranny of the majority, is not motivated by a hysterical fear of technology, and bridges the gap between expert knowledge and common understanding?  That is the question of the century.

Machines Rule!

Science Fiction writers, who are perhaps the only group of thinkers taking these questions seriously, usually assume that the era when artificial intelligence rules over human-societies will only arrive after AI achieves human level intelligence or greater. But there is perhaps a way in which AIs already rule, long before they have reached such a level.

JP Morgan recently won the prize for ‘Most Cutting Edge IT Initiative’ at the American Financial Technology Awards 2011. It won this award on the basis of taking end of day risk calculations down from eight hours to 238 seconds. According to its backers, the continued use of super-computers for financial trading will allow the company to:

to minimise its risk and respond more effectively than its competitors to rapidly changing marketing conditions, particularly the financial turmoil in Europe,” said John Barr, research director of financial markets and head of EU research at the 451 Group.

JP Morgan is not alone in its quest to use Teraflop performing computers, fiber-optic networks and black box algorithms to seek to master the financial markets. Kevin Slavin, the founder of the gaming company Area/Code, of all things, gave a beautiful TED Talk in which he discusses the power of algorithms in our world (and not just the financial world).  In that talk, Slavin points out how computer based trading, so called black box or algo trading now comprises 70% of the US stock market- in other words 70% of stock market transaction are now decided by not just mediated through computers.

Black box trading puts a premium on speed, and so Slavin points out how this has led to the strange phenomenon of whole buildings in the heart of Manhattan being hollowed out and filled with computer servers for the advantage of a few nano-seconds. By far the biggest existent absurdity is an an 825 mile trench dug over the last several years to house fiber-optic cables linking Chicago and New York. As Slavin points out, a massive project of terraforming in the name of a slice of time unperceivable by human being, which portends other transformations of even greater scale. His argument is hammered home by recent plans to build a trans-Atlantic fiber optic cable that will cost 400 billion and save traders a whopping 5 milliseconds.

David Brin has a great article on what might be called an ecological understanding of such high speed trading. He compares financial algorithms to parasites.

Want the exact parallel in nature for these systems? It is those gut parasites or e-coli or salmonella, or Typhus, who nibble away the gradient of potential profit that the human trader perceives, between the current asking price and what he or she feels the stock may soon be worth.  These programs can now detect people getting ready to buy a stock they like, and pounce to snap it up first, then offering it to you at just a little higher price. You lose a bit of that gradient, because someone – a program – who did none of your research simply pounced faster than you ever, possibly could.

His solution to this problem is the imposition of a very small Tobin-Tax that would slow trading down to be closer to the level of “human-thought”. So far, so good.

The problem begins when Brin, by suggesting that the kind of super-conscious and dangerous AI, which is the persistent bogey-man of Sci-Fi writers, might emerge from such civilian rather than military sources,  looses sight of the brilliant argument he had been making. For super-computed algorithms need never be as smart as us to “gain control”. They might in fact be given control without ever evolving beyond the level of an extremely efficient and rapidly evolving virus. For, if 70% of the market is now controlled by algorithms, and financial markets are increasingly more powerful than democratic politics, then the machines, in some sense already rule. Something which would indeed have come, as Brin points out, as a “surprise”.

Replace the words markets with algorithms in the comments below by historian of democracy Mark Mazower and you should see what I mean.

MAZOWER: Part of this, I think, is because of the timeframe that we are now becoming accustomed to. If we are in an age in which the markets rule and the markets are not the trading and commodities markets, but they are the financial markets, then the politicians feel that they have to respond to everything in seconds and minutes. And so, part of this is a tussle between how important decisions will be made. Will they be made by the market and on the basis of the ribbons dictated by the market, which is to say extraordinarily short-term and fluctuating?

Or will they remain in the hands of the politicians and those people who elected the politicians?

SIEGEL: You mean that the nature of European democracy is actually at stake in this process of trying to deal with the financial crises?

MAZOWER: European democracy is not under threat. I don’t see alternatives of the kind that existed in the early 20th century to democracy. I discount those. But the extent to which politics remains an area for autonomous decision-making, that is very much up for grabs or will politicians simply be driven by their anxiety about the markets and how the markets will respond to this or that measure? And that is where, it seems to me, that the Franco-German axis has its interest. Because, whether or not you see Sarkozy and Merkel acting in a particularly democratic manner, they are acting as politicians in the name of the state to preserve a political enterprise.

The grand struggle, seems to me, markets versus politics. And then how democratic that politics is, well, that’s the question we have to think about.

The, one might say, almost algorithmic logic of it all appears to be this: Our financial markets are evermore dominated by a myriad of machines without self-consciousness or human-level intelligence. This machine-run market is increasingly at odds with our own democratic self-governance, and has, throughout the financial crisis, been proven to be more powerful than our democratic institutions. In other words, the machines, in a sense, already rule.