Drones aren't robots. And to prevent civilian casualties, let's keep it that way.

Science, technology, and life.
April 25 2011 8:08 AM

Predators Need Editors

Killer drones aren't robots. And to protect civilians, let's keep it that way.

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NATO destroyed an SA-8 surface-to-air missile yesterday evening at 2040 GMT in Tripoli using the Predator Unmanned Aerial Surveillance weapon system. The operators of the Predator were able to detect a number of civilians playing football near the missile and firing was delayed until the people had dispersed.

But happy stories like this one assume we'll use drones to minimize mistakes. We might not. We might use them instead to replace human oversight. We might treat them, in short, as robots.

Britain's report says its defense ministry is  "looking to increase levels of automation," in part "to make systems more effective in performing increasingly complex tasks," and in part "to make manpower savings—enabling one operator to oversee a number of unmanned systems simultaneously." The report notes:

An unmanned aircraft with an automated control system that is designed to reduce pilot workload, so that it is monitored rather than directly controlled, may well react rapidly to self-generated inputs, but the remote operator will be less aware of what the platform is doing on a real-time basis.

This is the real danger of drones: that we'll turn them into labor-saving devices. We'll take people out of the weapon control chain because they're expensive. We'll trade civilian safety for cost control.

But that tragedy hasn't happened yet. And nothing about drones makes it inevitable.  The menace at the heart of the unmanned weapons revolution isn't robots. It's us.

(Readings I recommend: David Ignatius opposes drones in Libya because they've " become for many Muslims a symbol of the arrogance of U.S. power." Glenn Greenwald says if we use drones to target Libya's leaders, we're violating Obama's promise not to seek regime change. Kenneth Anderson at the Volokh Conspiracy thinks the drones will be used to distinguish enemy combatants from civilians—and can do this better than jet pilots can. Steven Metz argues that drones will serve NATO's initial mission in Libya, not expand it. Adam Serwer at the Plum Line says drones will probably kill fewer civilians, but they signify " a long, open-ended involvement in Libya with no foreseeable endpoint." James Fallows doubts the U.S. has a plan beyond the drones.)

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