The latest buzz?

…goes by the name zenana. According to an article in this morning’s Washington Post, that’s a middle Eastern word loosely translated as buzz; but in Egyptian the term is slang for a relentlessly nagging wife. The buzz in this case is literal; it’s the sound made by low-flying drone aircraft used by the Israelis to provide surveillance over the Gaza strip.

American drone aircraft are a similar presence over the region – over Pakistan’s tribal areas, east Africa, the Arabian Peninsula. [See, for example, an article from the October issue of The Economist. This material provides a thoughtful, detailed background on the issue.] And many of these aircraft do more than watch; they’re weapons, carrying missiles and laser-guided bombs. Worldwide, the number of casualties of drone aircraft now totals in the thousands, and that number is growing.

On the one hand, drones perform a valuable service; they contribute substantially to American security (and arguably, world security) in the face of a terrorist threat at minimal risk to American lives. Drone aircraft are often less expensive than their manned counterparts, because they needn’t take account of human factors (oxygen supply; ejection mechanisms in the case of equipment malfunction; maximum g-forces, etc.). [They still require that people be involved, in surprisingly large numbers.   According to that Economist article, the Reaper, a more-capable drone than the more-familiar Predator, requires nearly 200 people to keep it flying.] Numerous advantages are propelling a rapid growth in their use, and a rapid expansion of their functions. No longer is their primary advantage confined to the ability to stand watch for hours at a stretch “without blinking,” or other so-called dull, dirty, dangerous and difficult tasks. Increasingly they’re becoming part of aggressive action. And, as artificial intelligence matures, they’re being given more and more autonomy.

As you’d expect, there are limitations. Dependence on satellite communications is one. Latency – the small time delay required to receive signals, and send back instructions from a remote location – is another.

More importantly, legal and ethical issues are emerging. Should an unmanned aircraft be able to launch a weapon based on its own internal data analysis? Here’s a quote from The Economist, citing a British Ministry of Defense study:  “…the answer is: perhaps… if the controlling system addressed the principles of the law on armed conflicts (military necessity, humanity, proportionality and the ability to distinguish between military targets and civilians) and if the rules of engagement were satisfied, then an armed strike would meet legal norms. However, [the report goes on to say] the software testing and certification of such a system would be expensive and difficult. And decisions about what is proportionate often require fine distinctions and sophisticated judgment. The authors conclude: “As technology matures and new capabilities appear, policymakers will need to be aware of the potential legal issues and take advice at a very early stage of any new system’s procurement cycle.”

 However, the key issues will be policy. And they’ll have to address many concerns, including the one that it seems a bit eerie on some level for one person to “surgically strike” insurgents half a world away; then take a break for a latte, or leave an office for a relaxed, comfortable family meal. Abroad, some attack this kind of approach, and our nation, as “cowardly.” It doesn’t help the United States, or Israel, or any other country project a notion that “we’re all in this thing called life together.” And this is before we get to entrenched policy interests, such as defense leaders, former USAF pilots, and many more, who may prefer the status quo.

Whew! Why this long preamble, Bill? Is this going somewhere?

Yes. In a way, we’re taking an unmanned-airborne-vehicle-approach to the planet we live on. Time was, that our experience on-the-ground with water resources, agriculture, and other resource use was extensive, hands-on, and ongoing. Today, most of the leaders, professionals, and experts wrestling through decisions on resource extraction, environmental protection, and public safety in the face of natural hazards are working in front of a computer screen, or in an office, or meetings many steps removed from the front lines, where the action is. The work is accomplished in terms of rather abstract policies, legislation, and regulations that are a number of steps removed conceptually from the real objectives of humankind. Decide whether to build a levee or a dam in Asia and where to place it? Tax U.S. and European carbon use or continue environmental subsidies? Build in the floodplain? Protect Japanese rice farmers through price supports and tariffs? Provide food for Saudis and Chinese by buying African lands? In these and thousands of similar instances, the decision-making and the action is occurring remotely from the consequences.

Both the concrete and the ethical implications of such practices have yet to be fully explored.

That’s a major problem. Quite a risk. Ought to be occasioning more of a buzz.

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