Aerial drones are America’s newest frontline weapon in an escalating global campaign against Islamic militants. And they could get a lot more dangerous in coming years as their underlying technology advances.
Compared to today’s fairly rudimentary Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), the drones of the future will be faster and more heavily armed. They will also have better sensors plus more sophisticated computers allowing them to plan and execute attacks with less human participation.
But military analysts and experts on the future of warfare fear these robotic drones could also wind up in the arsenals of more US agencies and foreign governments. That, they add, raises the specter of a whole new kind of conflict which would essentially remove the human element — and human decision-making — from the theater of war.
“Advances in AI (artificial intelligence) will enable systems to make combat decisions and act within legal and policy constraints without necessarily requiring human input,” the Air Force stated in its 30-year plan for drone development. The flying branch said it is already working to loosen those policy constraints, clearing a path for smarter, more dangerous drones.
The prospect of even bloodier robot-waged warfare has some experts pleading for a ceasefire, or at least a pause in the pursuit of lethal technology. They say the technology is moving faster than our understanding of its possible effects, and leaving no time to find answers to the moral questions posed by the technological advances.
“I think the American people expect us to use advanced technologies,” John Brennan, the top counterterrorism advisor to President Barack Obama, said in an April speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.
“What has clearly captured the attention of many, however, is … identifying specific members of Al Qaeda and then targeting them with lethal force, often using aircraft remotely operated by pilots who can be hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.”
In the past 11 years, the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency have steadily built up a globe-spanning robotic strike force involving hundreds of missile- and bomb-armed Predator and Reaper UAVs, plus thousands of human controllers based in the US and abroad.
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