The boys and their toys: Drones R Us

A seldom acknowledged dimension of the U.S. military today is what the impish historian of technology David F. Noble used to call "the boys and their toys."  The logo above from the "Program Executive Office" of the "Unmanned Aviation and Stike Weapons" program shows the ghoulish fun that the guys are having with the latest collection of gadgets in their toybox -- the drone aircraft.  Yes, your tax dollars are paying to  produce menacing graphics of The Grim Reaper surrounded by the circular bureaucratic logo on what appears to be a Pentagon door or in a military Power Point display.

The idea that designing, building and using lethal weaponry is a kind of game is a common obsession in America today.  It is clearly on display, for example, in the "build a robot to smash other robots" competitions that are commonly used to attract middle school, high school and college students to careers in computer science and engineering.  The subtext is that killing and destruction are all part of the enjoyment that sophisticated technology involves.   To point out (as I sometimes do) that this approach is ultimately pathological and certainly not a great way to attract young people to lives as technical professionals is dismissed as "denying the kids their fun," and "rejecting the best way to recruit the next generation of engineers."  

In the interest of truth in advertising, my suggestion would be to include the Pentagon's stylish new grim reaper on advertisements for the next round of killer robot games we take to the country's school children.  They need to know what they're getting into.  (Perhaps they do already.)

Small robot drone for monitoring political demonstrations

At a robotics industry trade show in Washington, D.C. recently one of the corporate vendors, AEE Technology based in Shenzhen, China, unveiled its small drone aircraft, the F50, advertised to be  especially good "as a tool for monitoring protests."

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the device is "about the size of a pizza pan" and shows "the burgeoning international competition in the market for unmanned aerial vehicles and military robots." 

Although a drone for watching people who gather in public to express their views  may seem ominous defenders of free speech, the drift of opinion at the show had a more upbeat, market oriented slant.  Thus, P.W. Singer, author of the book Wired for War, observed, "The market for military robotics has gone global, and China is looking to be a major producer and exporter in that market, just like the U.S."

To my way of thinking, Singer's statement  is a good example of how an academic can become a flack for the arms industry.  Indeed, at a conference I attended this summer, Singer enthusiastically regaled an audience of philosophers with news of  the burgeoning field of "killer apps" in the robotic arms race, and then asked the crowd to ponder "the ethical implications" of these things.  How uplifting.

The road to slaughter and, now, police surveillance is paved by very clever, well paid intellectuals with seemingly noble intentions.  From the WSJ  story: "Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said China's interest in developing unmanned aircraft as a tool for policing crowds or responding to emergencies was 'totally understandable, and legitimate.'"

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From now on a new dimension -- one might even call it an "innovation" -- will be added to attempts to exercise the right of free speech and assembly worldwide -- fear of drone aircraft hovering overhead.