Could We Lose Control of Drones?

Is any technology inherently “good” or “evil”? The deciding factor would be how it’s used (or misused), right? Consider drones. Drones—unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or aircrafts without human pilots on board—have been around since the early 1900s, and the U.S. Air Force was developing them in earnest as early as 1959. Today, the use of drones has grown dramatically. National Geographic reported this past March that at least 50 countries now use drones, and several—Iran, Israel, and China, for example—make their own.

Drone image via Shutterstock
Drone image via Shutterstock
Drone image via Shutterstock

Is any technology inherently “good” or “evil”? The deciding factor would be how it’s used (or misused), right?

Consider drones. Drones—unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or aircrafts without human pilots on board—have been around since the early 1900s, and the U.S. Air Force was developing them in earnest as early as 1959. Today, the use of drones has grown dramatically. National Geographic reported this past March that at least 50 countries now use drones, and several—Iran, Israel, and China, for example—make their own. In the U.S., drones are used increasingly in overt military operations and covert C.I.A. missions.

There are two sides to the drone coin, writes Bruce Upbin at Forbes.com. Drones are increasingly deployed for all sorts of reasons, not all of them troubling. Covering TED Edinburgh, Upbin profiles speaker Andreas Raptopoulos, whose company, Matternet, is “creating invisible highways for drones to deliver critical goods such as medicine in the developing world … built on the same principles used to build the Internet: decentralized, scalable, operating in the background 24/7, peer-to-peer, bi-directional, with very low infrastructure and ecological footprint.”

But Upbin reports that the very next TED speaker, science fiction writer Daniel Suarez, revealed the dark side of our increasingly drone-filled world. Suarez talked about “very different kinds of drones: killer robots and autonomous combat drones, the kinds that will someday soon (unless we do something about it) make lethal decisions beyond our accountability.” Upbin warns that with more than 300,000 hours of video surveillance footage in the U.S. alone, “Drones are going to have to make their own decisions soon.”

So—back to the question of use and misuse—what happens when we lose control of our own technology? In the wrong hands–or left to its own algorithmic devices–can a technology shift from a tool for good to an instrument of evil? Will it play out like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with a mutinous swarm of HALs buzzing overhead?

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