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.