We get along in life, I believe, by routinely ignoring the rather constant dangers that surround us.Oh, we’ve taken care of the larger faunal predators, but we’ve replaced them with ourselves.Our success as a species leads us to places we might not be comfortable being.I was recently exposed to the documentary National Bird.It’s about drones.Not the friendly ones from Amazon that we hear will soon be delivering books to our doorstep, but the military grade kind.I first became aware of how pervasive the military use of drones is while reading Wired for War (on which I posted here some years back).The difference between that academic knowledge and watching the documentary is the human element.Drones are assassination machines with high explosives and they are subject to no regulation.
Many of us feel, occasionally, some level of discomfort with how much information “they” have on us.We don’t even know who “they” are or what they want.Using the internet, we give them our information.Caving to our desire for instant communication, we carry around smart phones that know where we are constantly.Martin Luther once said you couldn’t stop birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from making a nest in your hair.It’s becoming harder to shoo them away. The nest is well established.Our houses are easily found on Google maps, and drones can keep constant watch, like weaponized guardian angels.Only they’re not our guardians.As National Bird makes clear, drones kill civilians.Women and children.The conversations of the operators reveal how much they’ve bought into the jingoism of the “war on terror.”The film also deals with the human cost of those who operate drones.
Technology stands to make life better, for some.Watching people who have very little, who live in what would be considered poverty in this part of the world, being bombed by people remotely, is disturbing.The operators, trained as if they’re playing a game, kill and then have to deal with it.The use of tech to try to sanitize brutality was dealt with decades ago on a particularly famous episode of Star Trek appropriately called “A Taste of Armageddon.”Rather than try to resolve conflict we, like those of Eminiar 7, readily accept it if it’s kept at a distance.Only drones aren’t science fiction.We’ve been using them for over a decade now, and we prefer not to think about it.This isn’t an option, unfortunately, for those who’ve been targeted by technology.The predators are still out there after all.
Later today—at this time of morning the use of the word “day” feels ironic—I’ll be on a plane heading out of civilization. Well, to be more precise I’ll be flying to a place from which I can drive out of civilization. Airports only serve cities, after all. Until we get individual drone service to remote locations I guess we’re stuck with jets and their inconveniences. I have to admit I’m more nervous than usual about this. I’ve been reading the stories about airline thugs who, like terrorists, beat and drag passengers off the plane. I try to take extra care to choose an undesirable location on the jet—next to the restroom, for example, or really near an engine—so that an airline employee would rather wait for the next flight than to sit here. I remember when flying used to be fun.
One year I’d lingered a little too long with my girlfriend and I had to rush to Logan Airport to catch my flight to Pittsburgh for the holidays. Arriving maybe half an hour before my scheduled flight, like a pre-murderous O. J. Simpson I ran through the concourse with nary a TSA agent in sight. To the what I am now sure was annoyance of the other passengers, I arrived at the gate just as the door was closing. With a sigh they let me board. I tried to ignore the angry stares of those already seated and belted. We all made it to Pittsburgh, however, in time to celebrate with our families. Now flying means adding at least two hours to your travel time so that you can get through security that makes you feel no more secure. I’m frisked and prodded and made to feel guilty for doing nothing more than wanting to get away from civilization for a while. We call it civilization anyway.
The wait in the airport is the hard thing. They’ll offer wifi, but you’ll have to pay for it. I’ve trained myself to read on the bus, but when you’re awaiting the announcement of your flight when you’ll have to line up just like at the Port Authority, it’s difficult to concentrate on your book. You don’t want to be lost in another world when they call your zone. There are, after all, airline employees hovering, seeking empty seats. I remind myself at the end of this ordeal a lack of civilization awaits. This is why we do it, and there’s a reason we call it getting away. Time to end this flight of fancy and head toward an actual flight that will be anything but fancy.
Drones have become a fact of life. Our robotic future is already present as unmanned vehicles do the bidding of their remote commanders. They are our conscience-free assassins and our great UFO hoaxes. They offer a chance to view the world from an angle previously limited to those with access to airplanes and pilot’s licenses. And academics are now starting to take a serious interest in the ethics of such remote viewing and remote warfare. Human to human interaction has always involved emotion. That’s what we’ve evolved to be—emotional thinkers. Even animals react emotionally to each other and to us. The drone removes all feeling from the equation. Programmed to fulfill a function, like Hal, it simply does as it’s told.
All this thinking about drones reminded me of a book that someone pointed out to me decades ago. I have a copy that I’ve never read, but I suppose eventually I should. This post isn’t about the book per se, but about the cover image (yes, people do judge books by these). Some time ago, I watched a young person playing with a quad. That word is so ubiquitous that I need to specify that I mean quadcopter. Quadcopters are popular drones, available for children’s amusement as well as for military and industrial utility. Their arrangement of four horizontal propellers gives them stability and maneuverability, as well as their sometimes annoying mosquito hum. The quad I saw reminded me of this book gathering dust on my shelf. Josef Blumrich wrote The Spaceships of Ezekiel to suggest that the psychedelic prophet saw space aliens coming to earth. I wonder if, in the light of developments, this thesis calls for refinement.
On the cover of the book is something that looks very much like a quadcopter. Even as a teenager, I wondered what these propellers would do in space travel. If there’s no atmosphere to give them lift, then they are rather superfluous and potentially an impediment. I would think that aliens would be a bit more advanced. Now that quads are a reality—just a block from work I can see a toy store clerk regularly flying one over the streets of Midtown—maybe Ezekiel was seeing into the future. Is that something prophets ever did? The biblical scholar in me says “no,” of course. Prophets were forth-tellers, not fore-tellers. Even so, I have a book in front of me that calls my beliefs into question. In the end, I suspect, that’s what most books are intended to do.
As a child, Memorial Day signaled the start of summer. Most of the time it announced that the obligations of school were nearly over and that was sufficient cause to celebrate. It was not until well into adulthood that I realized the holiday commemorated those who’d died in the armed services. I’d noticed the flags in cemeteries, of course, and we often visited the graves of civilian ancestors buried close enough to reach. The message did not penetrate my head, however, that all of those little flags should be telling me something. I grew up not knowing my father, but I did know he was a veteran. When all his children gathered for a (mostly) impromptu picnic yesterday, for the first time in well over thirty years, I realized how much of a mystery he was to me. At his funeral the flag on his coffin was presented to my older brother as part of military tradition, although he had died in peacetime, and pretty much isolated from all his progeny. It is a somber thought even now, although it was eleven years ago.
I have been a pacifist since my youngest days. Sure, I played with toy guns and G. I. Joe, but that was the culture of kids growing up during the Vietnam War. Only vaguely did we realize the actual horrors that were happening daily thousands of miles away. In my mind there was no reason to go to war. In Sunday School we were taught to settle our differences nicely, even if it meant that you had to be cheated or take less for yourself. This always seemed the central tenet of Christianity to me, and I wondered why the most conservative of Christian presidents seemed the most hawkish, the most ready to sacrifice the fathers, sons, brothers, and now mothers, sisters, and daughters of others for so little. The number of flags even in that little country graveyard where my grandparents were buried haunt me.
We still have members of the armed forces over seas. The military budget of one of the most prosperous nations on the planet is astronomical. We can now kill with drones so that we don’t even have to see the carnage we create. When did the lives of young adults become small change? I know it’s idealistic of me, and probably terribly naive, but I still can’t make sense of our cultural perception of how cheap human life can be. Maybe I’m just a little overly sentimental about a father I never really knew. But looking over my siblings, I see that he produced some nice, generous, and peace-loving children over half a century ago. And while we have our picnics and enjoy a rare day off of work or school, thousands of silent flags will be flapping in cemeteries all across this country reminding us that better ways exist to resolve our differences. If only we could take a holiday from war and violence we might see fewer flags and even more holidays.
When I read Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics as a child, I assumed that I’d not live to worry about them in real life. What we don’t know can indeed hurt us. Time magazine frightens me sometimes. This week’s offerings include a small blurb about drones. When I was a kid, a drone was a bee—dangerous in its own right—or it was a verb used to describe an uninspired teacher or preacher’s monotoned wisdom. Now drones are robotic planes that can operate themselves without human input. Time reveals that technology has been developed that would allow drones to kill without human input. Asimov’s laws have become truly science fiction. Proponents argue that “collateral damage” might be minimized if we allow robots to kill with precision, and some have argued that the research should be prohibited. The fact that it has been developed, however, means the line in the sand has been crossed. If it has been done once, it will be done again.
Even as a daily user of technology, a deep ambivalence besets me. Maybe if it weren’t for the fact that every once in a while my computer (most often at work) freezes up and issues a command I can’t understand, I might feel a little more secure. Instead I issue a ticket for IT and when they call on me sometimes even a specialist can’t figure out what went wrong. Once the bullets are flying it’s a little too late to reboot. Maybe I’m just not yet ready to crawl into bed with a technology that might kill me, without feeling.
Just five pages earlier Time notes that 1 in 5 is the “Ratio of people who would have sex with a robot, according to a U.K. study.” All things are fair, it seems, in love and war. The part of the equation that we haven’t accounted for in our artificial intelligence is that thought requires emotion—which we don’t understand—as much as it requires reason, upon which we have only a toddler’s grasp. And yet we continue to build more and more powerful devices that might kill us with ease. Isaac Asimov was a prescient writer and a forward thinker. He was from the generation that aspired to ethics being in place before technology was implemented. At least as an ideal. We’ve reversed the order in our world, where ethics is continually playing catch-up to the new technologies we’ve invented. Now it’s time to decide whether to make love to it or to say our final prayers.
We’re nearing the competition season for FIRST Robotics. The animated, mechanical creatures created from scratch since early January are now set to compete for a kind of ultimate, ultimate frisbee. Only you can’t call it “frisbee,” for copyright reasons. Ironically drone bombers have been in the headlines this past week. Drones are robotic planes that fly their missions with human pilots sitting safely hundreds, or even thousands of miles away from the action. People are beginning to wonder—is this ethical? I pull out the Scientific American I purchased at Bush International in Houston last week. There’s an article about robo-bees. In a scare that seems like it could have come straight from the X-Files, I’ve been reading about the disappearance of bees. There are people seriously worried about this. It does seem that we failed to learn the lesson of Rachel Carson, and a land of milk and honey just doesn’t appeal without the honey.
The robo-bees are the size and roughly the shape of biological bees. They can be programmed to behave like bees and pollinate plants that our missing bees have been, well, missing. There may be hope for the flowers after all. But I wonder about the honey. No doubt, technology will come to the rescue. Those labs that gave us sucralose, aspartame, and stevia can surely invent a golden, viscous liquid sweetener that drips from a pipette. No cause for worry here. We can recreate the natural world in the laboratory. Honey has been reputed to have medicinal effects, but we can synthesize medicines in the lab as well. You might not want to dribble those on your biscuits, however.
Honey is made from nectar, the mythological food of the gods. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism all recognize the religious significance of honey. Those of us who’ve been stung realize that a price has to be paid for such divine sweetness. The gods are like that. Roses have thorns for a reason. Not that I’m not impressed with the technology behind robo-bees. I am astounded that tiny robots can be built to fly and perform as we understand nature to dictate the Apis genus. They don’t, however, have the minds of bees. Mind is not the same as brain, as we’re beginning to learn. And minds are not limited to Homo sapiens. I recall when in our arrogance we thought we could improve the productivity of bees (capitalist bees) by breeding them with their Africanized cousins, biologically separated by an ocean. Many nightmares haunted me of the resulting killer bees. Yes, I had been stung as a child. Just by regular, garden-variety bees. From those painful events I learned a valuable lesson. We tinker with nature at our own cost. I, for one, am willing to deal with real-life stingers to taste the very food of the gods.