CRF Blog

Drones and Everything After

by Bill Hayes

In Drones and Everything After, New York magazine reports what the effects of drones may be.

If you were creating, from scratch, a taxonomy to describe all machines, these drones would not belong to the same species. They would probably not belong to the same phylum. The technology of unmanned flight has diversified so rapidly that there are now 1,500 different kinds of drones being manufactured, and they are participants in nearly every type of human endeavor, composing a whole flying-robot ecology so vast that to call every one by the same name can seem absurd. But drone, an impossible word, is also a perfect one. Each of these machines gives its human operator the same power: It allows us to project our intelligence into the air and to exert our influence over vast expanses of space. Drones have become important to the pursuit of isis, the plans of Amazon and Google, the management of farmland in Asia, the protection of pyramids in the Andes. Just within the past two weeks, Facebook has announced a trial of a drone-based wireless internet, the delivery conglomerate DHL has revealed that it will use the machines to ship packages to isolated German islands in the North Sea, and the U.S. government has decided to allow Hollywood production companies to film from drones, making possible visual angles that have so far existed only in animation.

Drones are a different kind of new technology from what we’re used to. The communications breakthroughs of the past two decades have multiplied the connections within society, but drones offer something else: the conquest of physical space, the extension of society’s compass, the ability to be anywhere and see anything. This physical presence can be creepy when seen from the ground, in ways that echo the imaginings of science fiction. “Flying,” says Illah Nourbakhsh, who ran the robotics program at NASA’s Ames facility, “creates this dynamic where people are no longer on top.” And yet to the drone pilot, maneuvering through the air, it is liberating.

It’s an incredible thing, extreme elevation. It makes you feel both alone and unsurpassable. Send a drone up, equipped with a camera, the control in your hands and your laptop rigged to see what the camera sees, and what you feel is not displacement but extension. Each of these flying robots, more than anything else, changes your perspective. Now anyone with a drone can watch the Earth from a point of view that once implied great power. This summer, the pastor of a prominent Evangelical megachurch in Texas delivered a series of sermons comparing God to a Predator drone.

Lost in the concern that the drone is an authoritarian instrument is the possibility that it might simultaneously be a democratizing tool, enlarging not just the capacities of the state but also the reach of the individual — the private drone operator, the boy in Cupertino — whose view is profoundly altered and whose abilities are enhanced. “The idea I’m trying to work out to simplify this whole thing — surveillance, drones, robots — has to do with superhero ethics,” says Patrick Lin, a technology ethicist at California Polytechnic State University. “It’s about what humans do when they have superpowers. What happens then?” [more]