Drones, robots and thinking

Few will argue that innovation makes life easier.

From electricity to the automobile to mechanized manufacturing processes, our lives are much simpler than what was experienced by previous generations.

Computers, the internet, nuclear energy, super-glue, epi-pens and duct tape were brought to light by military innovators.

The irony of that point is not lost on us. Organizations given a mandate to protect yet kill when required, hardly seem to be the wisest incubators for mankind’s latest inventions. But they are.

The point has been debated for decades, with those questioning the status quo often written off by hawkish politicians as left-wing radicals running amok and playing on the public’s fears. Hmmm. We might one day be glad they did.

Our first military drone sighting was in Washington, DC. They come in many sizes and this one on display may have been six or eight feet long, suspended from the ceiling. At the time we were a bit mesmerized by the device, knowing it was great for surveillance but equally capable when it came to firing a missile.

Quickly our imagination drummed up an image of a drone on the horizon and how a more primitive population would view it as a powerful bird of destruction. We remember at the time thinking how unsporting such a weapon is. It even looked sneaky.

Fast forward three years and the New York Times just published an editorial last week in which drones were described in part as a “seductive tool of modern warfare (with) a dark side”.

Through hundreds of strikes, thousands have perished, including villains and innocent bystanders. It seems to us the predatory nature of such devices and the fallout from their deployment makes it pretty easy to make devastating choices, particularly when it doesn’t involve risking personnel in hand to hand combat.

Military brass seem to be gaining some traction with President Donald Trump, claiming that they alone should handle such operations without the level of civil oversight used in the Obama years.

While we agree with the notion that everyone has a job to do, and certainly respect the military and their professionalism, there are reasons to keep the element of sober second thought in the room. A civilian, despite being a politician, may just not have the stomach for dispatching death where innocent people are at risk.

The expansion of artificial intelligence and its application within a military setting makes the absence of final say by a human even more troubling.

Another article, this time in a recent issue of USA Today, explored the current capabilities of robots and cautioned about the use of artificial intelligence to command them.

The very issues humans have, those being issues of morality or ethics, may well present themselves within the logic of how such machines are programmed.  

The cultures or mindset of the programmer cannot help but show up in the pseudo-psyche of these machines. There have been dozens of science fiction movies based on what happens when a machine goes rogue.

The public shouldn’t be blind to that possibility.

Though humans themselves are prone to poor decisions, there is always the chance of redemption or a glimmer of hope that a soul would speak out for the defenseless. That generally is a Hollywood ethos, about good winning over evil, but there is no guaranteed outcome in the real world.

Hopefully decision makers think long and hard before handing the task of protecting humanity to a computer chip.

There is too much at risk.