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The Jehoshua Novels


Drones Get Smarter

Last spring, when he was still Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates told cadets at the Air Force Academy that they needed to ”œshed the nostalgia” for ”œair-to-air combat and strategic bombing.” Not that they were surprised, but they weren’t exactly tickled, either. Because in all the times they had watched ”œTop Gun,” not once did Tom Cruise turn into a ”œjoystick pilot.”

It’s one of the not-so-affectionate terms they have for someone who remotely operates an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), otherwise known as a drone. That’s in the cards for more and more pilot wannabes these days, now that drones have become the muscle in the war on terrorists.

There are now as many as 7,000 drones in service; apparently manufacturers are struggling to keep up with demand. Most are used for surveillance, but increasingly they’re the weapon of choice for killing suspected terrorists, and not just in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Somalia and Yemen.

This has raised all kinds of questions”“from whether targeted killings from the sky, in any country we choose, are legitimate, to whether drones make war too antiseptic, to when do we start selling them to other countries. And once you begin to talk about where drone warfare is headed, things get a whole lot dicier.

It’s inevitable, say some experts, that drones and other military robots will become autonomous to the point where they’ll be making decisions in combat. What kind of decisions? A recent Washington Post article laid out a scenario in which drones search for a human target, make an identification based on facial-recognition software, then finish the job with a missile strike.

This is known as ”œlethal autonomy,” a concept that conjures up images of swarming Terminators without the accent. Not necessarily, argues Ronald Arkin, a scientist who has actually done a study for the Defense Department on whether robots can learn battlefield ethics. He thinks it will one day be possible to program machines to return fire at an appropriate level, minimize collateral damage, even recognize when someone wants to surrender.

scary

21 comments to Drones Get Smarter

  • steeleweed

    Suggest Teabaggers volunteer to see if a drone/robot can recognize them as ‘friendly’ or wanting to surrender.

    And “battlefield ethics”? They seem to be beyond the ability of some of our troops.


    I’m a Socialist. I sometimes misspeak by accident.
    You’re a Republican. You always lie on purpose.

  • Chickadee

    amply demonstrates that “improved” military weaponry eventually always makes its way into everybody’s hands, starting with one’s enemy nation. The Krupp Steelworks empire was an excellent example of weapons manufacturers marketing to both sides of national disputes – even heating up the rhetoric in order to get an arms acquisition race going on, before either side fired a single shot.

    North America has escaped war at home principally because the continent is vast and located far away from the reach of the conventional weaponry available to US enemies of choice. However, when everybody has acquired drones, and operators can sit in a mountain cave anywhere on earth and control (more or less) precisely targeted assassinations, that genie will not be stuffed back into its bottle. It’s not war exactly. It’s more like anti-war, but with its leadership persistently gunned down, a nation can’t function effectively and eventually defeats itself. What would you say? Ten years max, before there are targeted drone attacks on specific western citizens?

  • Chickadee

    Wired“Army Tracking Plan: Drones That Never Forget a Face.”

  • Tina

    that is even scarier. At what point will they just tag all of us. We could wear masks…

    “Easy is an adjective used to describe a woman who has the sexual morals of a man.” ~ anon :D

  • Chickadee

    Hmmmm. Burkas may soon be an idea whose time has come in the West. Designs shouldn’t be quite so restrictive, though. Unisex, for starters. More fanciful fabric colours and patterns – polka dots; stripes; plaids for the Scots etc. The name has to go, too. We’ll need to run a national marketing contest for that. “Drone Blaster”? Nah. “Privacy Shield”? Double nah. I dunno.

  • Jelco Cathlon

    on 5 years.
    Drones could take-off from merchant ships and probably from aircrafts.
    Remember when every AEROFLOT planes could be turned into bombers basically just by unlatching a few screws?

  • JustPlainDave

    …ex-Soviet airliners were manufactured with heavier than normal floor structures so that they could better carry military cargo.

    In combat one should be very suspicious of painless moral choices. When you are confronted with a seemingly painless moral choice, the odds are that you haven’t looked deeply enough.” ~ Karl Marlantes

  • JustPlainDave

    …and the SATCOM bandwidth and the local basing for ground stations that are the long poles in the tent.

    In combat one should be very suspicious of painless moral choices. When you are confronted with a seemingly painless moral choice, the odds are that you haven’t looked deeply enough.” ~ Karl Marlantes

  • Escher Sketch


    “The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential.”

    - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  • Escher Sketch

    by finding a six-buck ghetto method around those long poles.


    “The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential.”

    - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  • adrena

    By 2016 the US will have an anti-drone weapon system operational.


    Sexual inequality is “The Mother of all Inequalities”.
    Liberate female sexuality and you will eliminate racism, homophobia, financial greed, and violence.

  • adrena

    Goodbye drone. The only thing we have to worry about is bird poop.


    Sexual inequality is “The Mother of all Inequalities”.
    Liberate female sexuality and you will eliminate racism, homophobia, financial greed, and violence.

  • Escher Sketch

    after that rim accumulates a couple of pounds of it there’s no knowing where it’ll fail first. Perhaps a guano gutter could be installed to the rear…

    “Jack – where’s our cow? And where did you get those ‘magic beans’?”


    “The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential.”

    - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  • Chickadee

    Been trying to get a better handle on bandwidth issues. Given that space is only 100 km away, what’s to prevent evil doers du jour from popping up their own dedicated satellites? What’s on a simple satellite anyhow? I presume all you need for accurate positioning is some method to triangulate, so given a stationery terrestrial receiver, do you really need anything more than a mirror in the sky from which to bounce back a signal at a couple of points in its orbit? Obviously I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about. Help, please.

  • Tina

    Predators and Robots at War
    SEPTEMBER 29, 2011, NY Review of Books
    Christian Caryl

    Drones are in the headlines. We read daily about strikes against terrorist targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—remote-controlled aircraft equipped with elaborate sensors and sometimes weapons as well. Earlier this summer the US sent Predator drones into action against militants in Somalia, and plans are reportedly afoot to put the CIA in charge of a drone offensive against al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. NATO has dispatched UAVs to Libya. State-of-the-art stealth drones cased the house where Osama bin Laden was living before US Navy seals staged their now famous raid. And in a speech a few weeks ago, White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan made it clear that drones will continue to figure prominently in the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy. On August 22, a CIA drone killed the number-two al-Qaeda leader in the mountains of Pakistan.

    Most of us have probably heard by now how extraordinary this technology is. Many of the UAV strikes in South Asia are actually orchestrated by operators sitting at consoles in the United States. US Air Force Colonel Matt Martin gives a unique first-person account of the strange split consciousness of this new type of warfare in his book Predator. Even as his body occupies a seat in a control room in Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, his mind is far removed, following a suspicious SUV down a desert road in Iraq or tailing Taliban fighters along a mountain ridge in Afghanistan. “I was already starting to refer to the Predator and myself as ‘I,’ even though the airplane was thousands of miles away,” Martin notes ruefully.

    Notifying Marines on the ground that he’s arriving on the scene in Afghanistan, he has to remind himself that he’s not actually arriving anywhere—he’s still in his seat on the base. “Although it was only shortly after noon in Nevada,” he writes, “I got the yawns just looking at all that snow and darkness” on the ground outside Kabul. He can hardly be blamed for the confusion. The eerie acuity of vision afforded by the Predator’s multiple high-powered video cameras enables him to watch as the objects of his interest light up cigarettes, go to the bathroom, or engage in amorous adventures with animals on the other side of the world, never suspecting that they are under observation as they do.

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    Even though home and wife are just a few minutes’ drive down the road from his battle station, the peculiar detachment of drone warfare does not necessarily insulate Martin from his actions. Predator attacks are extraordinarily precise, but the violence of war can never be fully tamed, and the most gripping scenes in the book document Martin’s emotions on the occasions when innocent civilians wander under his crosshairs in the seconds just before his Hellfire missile arrives on target. Allied bomber pilots in World War II killed millions of civilians but rarely had occasion to experience the results on the ground. Drone operators work with far greater accuracy, but the irony of the technology is that its operators can see their accidental victims—two little boys and their shattered bikes, in one especially heartrending case Martin describes—in excruciating detail. Small wonder that studies by the military have shown that UAV operators sometimes end up suffering the same degree of combat stress as other warfighters.1

    And yet the US military does little to discourage the notion that this peculiar brand of long-distance warfare has a great deal in common with the video-gaming culture in which many young UAV operators have grown up. As one military robotics researcher tells Peter Singer, the author of Wired for War, “We modeled the controller after the PlayStation because that’s what these eighteen-, nineteen-year-old Marines have been playing with pretty much all of their lives.” And by now, of course, we also have video games that incorporate drones: technology imitating life that imitates technology.

    more
    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/sep/29/predators-and-robots-war/

    “Easy is an adjective used to describe a woman who has the sexual morals of a man.” ~ anon :D

  • JustPlainDave

    …of physics. Either one can have a constellation of lots [numbering in the moderate tens] of comms satellites in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) or one can have a small number of satellites in geostationary orbits. Geostationary orbits (with a period of 24 hours) are very high orbits (on the order of about 20,000 klicks). Conversely, the period of, say, a 100km orbit is about an hour and change. Either choice has a significant logistical overhead far beyond some guys in a cave – more along the lines of some guys in a cave tapping the resources of a Tier 1 space power. At their most basic, these birds are essentially relays – they receive and re-transmit a signal. In this sort of application they tend to “cross-deck” the feed between satellites – uplink from a transmitter to the bird, crossing between a multiple birds depending on the configuration of the constellation and then downlink to a receiver.

    In combat one should be very suspicious of painless moral choices. When you are confronted with a seemingly painless moral choice, the odds are that you haven’t looked deeply enough.” ~ Karl Marlantes

  • JustPlainDave

    To control at a distance you’d need a terrestrial comms link to a base station. Obviously this still doesn’t get around the basing requirement.

    Quite apart from that, the vehicles themselves are far from “six bucks” – huge differences between what Tier 1 and lower tier powers can pull off. I’ve seen enough assessments of say, Iran’s capability in the area not to be too worried about guys in a cave without the resources of state level infrastructure over anything less than a multi-decade horizon.

    In combat one should be very suspicious of painless moral choices. When you are confronted with a seemingly painless moral choice, the odds are that you haven’t looked deeply enough.” ~ Karl Marlantes

  • Tina

    if they were used to disperse biological attacks like anthrax or sarin.

    “Easy is an adjective used to describe a woman who has the sexual morals of a man.” ~ anon :D

  • JustPlainDave

    …dispersal mechanisms than a UAV for those payloads.

    In combat one should be very suspicious of painless moral choices. When you are confronted with a seemingly painless moral choice, the odds are that you haven’t looked deeply enough.” ~ Karl Marlantes

  • Tina

    but even if one only killed a few, the fear would be widespread. I can just see it now, all remote control toys will be banned… ;)

    “Easy is an adjective used to describe a woman who has the sexual morals of a man.” ~ anon :D

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