You might recall that a couple months ago I posted about an article on The Huffington Post in which author Michael Vlahos implied that technological advances in warfare, such as drones, that reduce human casualties are actually undesirable.
This broad concern about drone warfare — in which humans are not directing engaged in combat but control a flying, armed device from a computer thousands of miles away — has been the subject of several posts on this blog, including a full-length essay. If you’ve read any of those posts, you know that I find Vlahos’ argument, and arguments like his, deeply flawed.
However, many people are now worrying about an fresh development in the drone warfare story: new drones apparently might be able to operate without the control of computer-chair pilots. From the Los Angeles Times:
The Navy’s new drone being tested near Chesapeake Bay stretches the boundaries of technology: It’s designed to land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, one of aviation’s most difficult maneuvers. What’s even more remarkable is that it will do that not only without a pilot in the cockpit, but without a pilot at all.
The X-47B marks a paradigm shift in warfare, one that is likely to have far-reaching consequences. With the drone’s ability to be flown autonomously by onboard computers, it could usher in an era when death and destruction can be dealt by machines operating semi-independently.
Although humans would program an autonomous drone’s flight plan and could override its decisions, the prospect of heavily armed aircraft screaming through the skies without direct human control is unnerving to many.
“Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability,” said Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist and robotics expert. “This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military’s acquisition process? The manufacturer, for faulty equipment?”
Yet Sharkey clearly overlooks two important points mentioned above: that humans would both program and be able to override the drones. As such, I wonder if this new development poses any new ethical dilemma, or if drone opponents are simply continuing to oppose that which they find unethical. What do you think?
Once again, the United States’ use of drones to carry out strikes on suspected terrorists is front page news. The drone program, which I’ve discussed here in several different posts, is on the front burner because last week a U.S. strike in Yemen killed the American-born terrorist Anway al-Awlaki.
Such strikes have do not typically create enormous public controversy — in fact, the public is often supportive of actions that eliminate senior terrorists - but this one is different. Awlawki was an American citizen, and civil libertarians are angry that the U.S. did not arrest, try, or convict Awlaki. This, they say, violates the Constitutional rule of due process.
Do civil libertarians have a reasonable argument? Or is the Obama administration in the right? For more on these questions, I suggest you click over to William Saletan’s recent article on Slate for some weekend reading.