Well Known Biases

Politics, Economics, and the Law

“In the Future, There Will Be Robots…”

I had begun writing this a week or so ago, and intended to devote much more time to the ethical debate over drone use. However after reading an article this evening, much of what I would say has been rendered academic, and largely moot, in light of reports that U.S. drone operators have been deliberately targeting rescuers and mourners. I’m rarely shocked, but even I find this shocking. It is appalling, illegal, and would constitute war crimes.

[UPDATE:] Interview with Chris Woods of the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

And they will fight wars on our behalf.

As per this article on the New York Times’ website, it would seem the Iraqis continue to be annoyed by the presence of American drones in their skies, despite the fact that those drones now being operated by the Department of State instead of the Pentagon, or the CIA. I would imagine that this distinction is largely lost on them, and even if it’s not, they don’t generally see it as all that important. It’s probable they are also unconcerned with the distinction between official U.S. military equipment and personell, and that of the many private contractors who still remain in Iraq. We may have technically packed up and left, but we’ve hardly left Iraq to the Iraqis.

Drone warfare was also the topic of this article in ‘The Atlantic.’ Mr. Foust argues that our increased reliance on drones has political and diplomatic repercussions, and have yet to become a fully integrated part of our military and foreign policy decisions. Intead, we are relying on them, and in effect painting ourselves into a corner. This all seems fairly obvious, if you’ve been paying attention.

“As one example, drones carry inherent political costs to the regime that allows them. Among domestic populations, drones are almost always unpopular, as they represent a distant and unaccountable foreign power exercising the right to kill them at will.”

When discussing the political cost to regimes that allow foreign drones to operate within their territory, I would hasten to add that not only does this decision carry political consequences, but that it should carry those consequences. If the American government decided to allow Russian or Chinese drones to fly within our borders, launching missiles at whomever their operators deemed a legitimate target, we would be completely correct not only in being quite upset with the foreign power, but also in feeling that our own government had sold us out to an enemy.

When Mr. Foust writes “[…] it should concern U.S. policymakers deeply that the drone program is further destabilizing an already tenuous situation.” he ignores the very real human cost of drone warfare, and diffuses the blame for this. If you take his verbage at face value, it is as though these missle strikes which regularly kill other people in addition (and occasionally instead of) their target somehow just happen, and that the thing we need to be most concerned with is whether or not the local rulers will be able to keep their population in check. How very pragmatic. It’s true, of course, that we cannot be sure he is as unconcerned with the human cost of our drone use policy, but if he has any objetions then he should make them explicit.

“There are no immediate plans for an autonomous lethal drone yet […] but the rush to robots in warfare is worrying. There just isn’t enough thought about what consequences these systems impose on U.S. policy. There needs to be.”

While I’ve yet to hear word of the Pentagon soliciting bids for Terminators, claiming there are no “immediate plans” for them is probably only true if you define “immediate” fairly strictly. There are certainly reasons to support the development of autonomous combat robots. These reasons might even appear to be good. A standard goal of combat is to neutralize (kill, maim, or otherwise render combat ineffective) your enemy without them inflicting the same fate upon you. Substituting machines for humans would certainly appear to be an effective way to approach this problem. “Soldiers” with the precision of a computer, and without the burden of emotions, might even seem like a development that would make war a more humane endevor for all concerned.

I agree with Kenneth Anderson over at The Volokh Conspiracy that drones have a morally caustic effect, in that the lessen our restraint from armed conflict. In removing our own troops from the battle, we no longer have to be concerned with the harshest consequences of warfare, that of the death and dismemberment of our own people. Instead we can concentrate on killing and dismembering our enemies with a much more detached perspective. You might argue that this detachment would instead allow the drone operator to more objectively evaluate the situation, freed as they are from bodily harm. However I think the actual effect is quite the opposite, instead enabling the operator to approach the battle from a video game-like perspective.

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One response to ““In the Future, There Will Be Robots…”

  1. Pingback: Drones at Home « Well Known Biases

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