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.

5 comments on “Of drones and democracy

  1. […] Since 9/11 multiple forms of robots have been perfected, developed, and deployed by the military, intelligence services and private contractors only the most discussed and controversial of which have been flying drones. It is with these and other tools of covert warfare, such as drones, and in his quite sweeping unders… […]

  2. […] Intelligent machines are now increasingly called upon to fight our wars despite the ethical and political implications of using such machines in this way. Artificial intelligence can now win trivia games, […]

  3. […] Cultural traits that seemingly have nothing to do with technology may foster divergent singularities as well. Take Japan. With its rapidly collapsing population and its animus to immigration, Japan faces a huge shortage of workers with might be filled by the development of autonomous robots. America seems to be at the forefront of developing autonomous robots as well- though for completely different reasons.  The US robot boom is driven not by a worker shortage, which America doesn’t have, but by the sensitivity to human casualties and psychological trauma suffered by the globally deployed US military seeing in robots a way to project force while minimizing the risks to soldiers. […]

  4. […] Since 9/11 multiple forms of robots have been perfected, developed, and deployed by the military, intelligence services and private contractors only the most discussed and controversial of which have been flying drones. It is with these and other tools of covert warfare, such as drones, and in his quite sweeping unders… […]

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