The Future is Here: Black Hawk Drones and AI pilots

blackhawk_droneThe US Army’s most iconic helicopter is about to go autonomous for the first time. In their ongoing drive to reduce troops and costs, they are now letting their five-ton helicopter carry out autonomous expeditionary and resupply operations. This began last month when the defense contractor Sikorsky Aircraft, the company that produces the UH-60 Black Hawk – demonstrated the hover and flight capability in an “optionally piloted” version of their craft for the first time.

Sikorsky has been working on the project since 2007 and convinced the Army’s research department to bankroll further development last year. As Chris Van Buiten, Sikorsky’s vice president of Technology and Innovation, said of the demonstration:

Imagine a vehicle that can double the productivity of the Black Hawk in Iraq and Afghanistan by flying with, at times, a single pilot instead of two, decreasing the workload, decreasing the risk, and at times when the mission is really dull and really dangerous, go it all the way to fully unmanned.

blackhawk_drone1The Optionally Piloted Black Hawk (OPBH) operates under Sikorsky’s Manned/Unmanned Resupply Aerial Lifter (MURAL) program, which couples the company’s advanced Matrix aviation software with its man-portable Ground Control Station (GCS) technology. Matrix, introduced a year ago, gives rotary and fixed-wing vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft a high level of system intelligence to complete missions with little human oversight.

Mark Miller, Sikorsky’s vice-president of Research and Engineering, explained in a statement:

The autonomous Black Hawk helicopter provides the commander with the flexibility to determine crewed or un-crewed operations, increasing sorties while maintaining crew rest requirements. This allows the crew to focus on the more ‘sensitive’ operations, and leaves the critical resupply missions for autonomous operations without increasing fleet size or mix.

Alias-DarpaThe Optionally Piloted Black Hawk fits into the larger trend of the military finding technological ways of reducing troop numbers. While it can be controlled from a ground control station, it can also make crucial flying decisions without any human input, relying solely on its ‘Matrix’ proprietary artificial intelligence technology. Under the guidance of these systems, it can fly a fully autonomous cargo mission and can operate both ways: unmanned or piloted by a human.

And this is just one of many attempts by military contractors and defense agencies to bring remote and autonomous control to more classes of aerial vehicles. Earlier last month, DARPA announced a new program called Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS), the purpose of which is to develop a portable, drop-in autopilot to reduce the number of crew members on board, making a single pilot a “mission supervisor.”

darpa-alias-flight-crew-simulator.siMilitary aircraft have grown increasingly complex over the past few decades, and automated systems have also evolved to the point that some aircraft can’t be flown without them. However, the complex controls and interfaces require intensive training to master and can still overwhelm even experienced flight crews in emergency situations. In addition, many aircraft, especially older ones, require large crews to handle the workload.

According to DARPA, avionics upgrades can help alleviate this problem, but only at a cost of tens of millions of dollars per aircraft type, which makes such a solution slow to implement. This is where the ALIAS program comes in: instead of retrofitting planes with a bespoke automated system, DARPA wants to develop a tailorable, drop‐in, removable kit that takes up the slack and reduces the size of the crew by drawing on both existing work in automated systems and newer developments in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Alias_DARPA1DARPA says that it wants ALIAS to not only be capable of executing a complete mission from takeoff to landing, but also handle emergencies. It would do this through the use of autonomous capabilities that can be programmed for particular missions, as well as constantly monitoring the aircraft’s systems. But according to DARPA, the development of the ALIAS system will require advances in three key areas.

First, because ALIAS will require working with a wide variety of aircraft while controlling their systems, it will need to be portable and confined to the cockpit. Second, the system will need to use existing information about aircraft, procedures, and flight mechanics. And third, ALIAS will need a simple, intuitive, touch and voice interface because the ultimate goal is to turn the pilot into a mission-level supervisor while ALIAS handles the second-to-second flying.

AI'sAt the moment, DARPA is seeking participants to conduct interdisciplinary research aimed at a series of technology demonstrations from ground-based prototypes, to proof of concept, to controlling an entire flight with responses to simulated emergency situations. As Daniel Patt, DARPA program manager, put it:

Our goal is to design and develop a full-time automated assistant that could be rapidly adapted to help operate diverse aircraft through an easy-to-use operator interface. These capabilities could help transform the role of pilot from a systems operator to a mission supervisor directing intermeshed, trusted, reliable systems at a high level.

Given time and the rapid advance of robotics and autonomous systems, we are likely just a decade away from aircraft being controlled by sentient or semi-sentient systems. Alongside killer robots (assuming they are not preemptively made illegal), UAVs, and autonomous hovercraft, it is entirely possible wars will be fought entirely by machines. At which point, the very definition of war will change. And in the meantime, check out this video of the history of unmanned flight:


Sources:
wired.com, motherboard.vice.com, gizmag.com
, darpa.mil

Judgement Day Update: UN Weights in on Killer Robots

terminator_judgement_dayEarlier this month, a UN meeting took place in Geneva in which the adoption of international laws that would seek to regulate or ban the use of killer robots. It was the first time the subject was ever discussed in a diplomatic setting, with representatives trying to define the limits and responsibilities of so-called “lethal autonomous weapons systems” that could go beyond the human-directed drones that are already being used by some armies today.

On the one hand, the meeting could be seen as an attempt to create a legal precedent that would likely come in handy someday. On the other, it could be regarded as a recognition of a growing trend that is in danger of becoming a full-blown reality, thanks to developments being made in unmanned aerial systems, remote-controlled and autonomous robotics systems, and computing and artificial neural nets. The conjunction of these technologies are clearly something to be concerned about.

Atlas-x3c.lrAs Michael Moeller, the acting head of the U.N.’s European headquarters in Geneva, told diplomats at the start of the four-day gathering:

All too often international law only responds to atrocities and suffering once it has happened. You have the opportunity to take pre-emptive action and ensure that the ultimate decision to end life remains firmly under human control.

He noted that the U.N. treaty they were meeting to discuss – the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons adopted by 117 nations including the world’s major powers – was used before to prohibit the use of blinding laser weapons in the 1990s before they were ever deployed on the battlefield. In addition to diplomatic represenatives from many nations, representatives from civil society were also in attendance and made their voices heard.

campaign_killerrobotsThese included representatives from the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), Human Rights Watch (HRW), the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC), Article 36, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, Mines Action Canada, PAX, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and many others. As the guardians of the Geneva Conventions on warfare, the Red Cross’ presence was expected and certainly noted.

As Kathleen Lawand, head of the Red Cross’s arms unit, said with regards to the conference and killer robots in general:

There is a sense of deep discomfort with the idea of allowing machines to make life-and-death decisions on the battlefield with little or no human involvement.

And after four days of of expert meetings, concomitant “side events” organized by the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, and informal discussions in the halls of the UN, the conclusions reached were clear: lethal autonomous weapons systems deserve further international attention, continued action to gain prohibition, and without regulation may prove a “game changer” for the future waging of war.

X-47BWhile some may think this meeting on future weapons systems is a result of science fiction or scare mongering, the brute fact that the first multilateral meeting on this matter is under the banner of the UN, and the CCW in particular, shows the importance, relevance and danger of these weapons systems in reality. Given the controversy over the existing uses of the drone technology and the growth in autonomous systems, the fact that an international conference was held to discuss it came as no surprise.

Even more telling was the consensus that states are opposed to “fully autonomous weapons.” German Ambassador Michael Biontino claimed that human control was the bedrock of international law, and should be at the core of future planning:

It is indispensable to maintain human control over the decision to kill another human being. This principle of human control is the foundation of the entire international humanitarian law.

The meetings also surprised and pleased many by showing that the issue of ethics was even on the table. Serious questions about the possibility of accountability, liability and responsibility arise from autonomous weapons systems, and such questions must be addressed before their creation or deployment. Paying homage to these moral complexities, states embraced the language of “meaningful human control” as an initial attempt to address these very issues.

UAVsBasically, they agreed that any and all systems must be under human control, and that the level of control – and the likelihood for abuse or perverse outcomes – must be addressed now and not after the systems are deployed. Thus in the coming months and years, states, lawyers, civil society and academics will have their hands full trying to elucidate precisely what “meaningful human control” entails, and how once agreed upon, it can be verified when states undertake to use such systems.

Of course, this will require that this first meeting be followed by several more before the legalities can be ironed out and possible contingencies and side-issues resolved. Moreover, as Nobel Peace laureate Jody Williams – who received the award in 1997 for her work to ban landmines – noted in her side event speech, the seeming consensus may be a strategic stalling tactic to assuage the worries of civil society and drag out or undermine the process.

Chinese_dronesWhen pushed on the matter of lethal autonomous systems, there were sharp divides between proponents and detractors. These divisions, not surprisingly, fell along the lines of state power. Those who supported the creation, development and deployment of autonomous weapons systems came from a powerful and select few – such as China, the US, the UK, Israel, Russia, etc – and many of those experts citing their benefits also were affiliated in some way or another with those states.

However, there prospect of collective power and action through the combination of smaller and medium states, as well as through the collective voice of civil society, does raise hope. In addition, legal precedents were sighted that showed how those states that insist on developing the technology could be brought to heel, or would even be willing to find common ground to limit the development of this technology.

AI_robotThe include the Marten’s Clause, which is part of the preamble to the 1899 Hague (II) Convention on Laws and Customs of War on Land. Many states and civil society delegates raised this potential avenue, thereby challenging some of the experts’ opinions that the Marten’s Clause would be insufficient as a source of law for a ban. The clause states that:

Until a more complete code of the laws of war is issued, the High Contracting Parties think it right to declare that in cases not included in the Regulations adopted by them, populations and belligerents remain under the protection and empire of the principles of international law, as they result from the usages established between civilized nations, from the laws of humanity and the requirements of the public conscience.

Another is the fact that the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons – which was  adopted by 117 nations including the world’s major powers – was used before to prohibit the use of blinding laser weapons in the 1990s before they were ever deployed on the battlefield. It was Moeller himself who pointed this out at the beginning of the conference, when he said that this Convention “serves as an example to be followed again.”

Personally, I think it is encouraging that the various nations of the world are coming together to address this problem, and are doing so now before the technology flourishes. I also believe wholeheartedly that we have a long way to go before any significant or meaningful measures are taken, and the issue itself is explored to the point that an informed decision can be made.

terminator2_JDI can only hope that once the issue becomes a full-blow reality, some sort of framework is in place to address it. Otherwise, we could be looking at a lot more of these guys in our future! 😉

Sources: huffingtonpost.com, (2), phys.org

The Future of WiFi: Solar-Powered Internet Drones

titan-aerospace-solara-50-640x353Facebook, that massive social utility company that is complicit in just about everything internet-related, recently announced that it is seeking to acquire Titan Aerospace. This company is famous for the development of UAVs, the most recent of which is their solar powered Solara 50. In what they describe as “bringing internet access to the underconnected,” their aim is to use an army of Solara’s to bring wireless internet access to the roughly 5 billion people who live without it worldwide.

Titan Aerospace has two products – the Solara 50 and Solara 60 – which the company refers to as “atmospheric satellites.” Both aircraft are powered by a large number of solar cells, have a service ceiling of up to 20,000 meters (65,000 feet) and then circle over a specific region for up to five years. This of length of service is based on the estimated lifespan of the on-board lithium-ion batteries that are required for night-time operation.

solara-50-titan-640x320The high altitude is important, as the FAA only regulates airspace up to 18,000 meters (60,000 feet). Above that, pretty much anything goes, which is intrinsic if you’re a company that is looking to do something incredibly audacious and soaked in self-interest. As an internet company and social utility, Facebook’s entire business model is based on continued expansion. Aiming to blanket the world in wireless access would certainly ensure that much, so philanthropy isn’t exactly the real aim here!

Nevertheless, once these atmospheric satellites are deployed, there is a wide range of possible applications to be had. Facebook is obviously interested in internet connectivity, but mapping, meteorology, global positioning, rapid response to disasters and wildfires, and a whole slew of other scientific and military applications would also be possible. As for what level of connectivity Facebook hopes to provide with these drones, it’s too early to say.

internetHowever, TechCrunch reports that Facebook would launch 11,000 Solara 60 drones. Their coverage would begin with Africa, and then spread out from there. There’s no word on how fast these connections might be, nor how much such a connection would cost per user. Perhaps more importantly, there’s also no word on how Facebook intends to connect these 11,000 satellites to the internet, though it is obvious that Facebook would need to build a series of ground stations.

Many of these might have to be built in very remote and very hard to administer areas, which would also require fiber optic cables running from them to hook them up to the internet. In addition, Titan hasn’t produced a commercial UAV yet and have confined themselves to technology demonstrations. What they refer to as “initial commercial operations” will start sometime in 2015, which is perhaps this is why Facebook is only paying $60 million for Titan, rather than the $19 billion it paid for WhatsApp.

Google_Loon_-_Launch_EventAs already noted, this move is hardly purely altruistic. In many ways, Facebook is a victim of its own success, as its rapid, early growth quickly became impossible to maintain. Acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp were a savvy moves to bring in a few hundred million more users, but ultimately they were nothing more than stopgap measures. Bringing the next billion users online and into Facebook’s monopolistic grasp will be a very hard task, but one which it must figure out if it wants its stock not to plummet.

To be fair, this idea is very similar to Google’s Project Loon, a plan that involves a series of high-altitude, solar-powered hot air balloons that would provide wireless to roughly two-thirds of the worlds population. The idea was unveiled back in June of 2013 and has since begun testing in New Zealand. And given their hold on the market in the developed world, bringing broadband access to the developing world is seen like the next logical step for companies like Verizon, Time Warner, Comcast, and every other internet and telecom provider.

Wireless-Internet-1One can only imagine the kind of world our children and grandchildren will be living in, when virtually everyone on the planet (and keeping in mind that there will be between 9 and 11 billion of them by that time) will be able to communicate instantaneously with each other. The sheer amount of opinions exchanged, information shared, and background noise produced is likely to make today’s world seem quiet, slow and civilized by comparison!

Incidentally, I may need to call a  lawyer as it seems that someone has been ripping off my ideas… again! Before reading up on this story, the only time I ever heard the name Titan Aerospace was in a story… MY STORY! Yes, in the Legacies universe, the principal developer of space ships and aerospace fighters carried this very name. They say its a guilty pleasure when stuff you predict comes true when you are writing about it. But really, if you can’t cash in on it, what’s the point?

Consider yourself warned, Titan! J.J. Abrams may have gotten off the hook with that whole Revolution show of his, but you are not nearly as rich and powerful… yet! 😉 And the meantime, be sure to check out these videos of Titan’s Solar 50 and Google’s Project Loon below:

Titan Aerospace Solara 50:


Project Loon:


Source:
extremetech.com

Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2), med.standford.edu, news.cnet, listosaur, sci.esa.int

Judgement Day Update: Banning Autonomous Killing Machines

drone-strikeDrone warfare is one of the most controversial issues facing the world today. In addition to ongoing concerns about lack of transparency and who’s making the life-and-death decisions, there has also been serious and ongoing concerns about the cost in civilian lives, and the efforts of both the Pentagon and the US government to keep this information from the public.

This past October, the testimonial of a Pakistani family to Congress helped to put a human face on the issue. Rafiq ur Rehman, a Pakistani primary school teacher, described how his mother, Momina Bibi, had been killed by a drone strike. His two children – Zubair and Nabila, aged 13 and 9 – were also injured in the attack that took place on October 24th of this year.

congress_dronetestimonyThis testimony occurred shortly after the publication of an Amnesty International report, which listed Bibi among 900 other civilians they say have been killed by drone strikes since 2001. Not only is this number far higher than previously reported, the report claims that the US may have committed war crimes and should stand trial for its actions.

Already, efforts have been mounted to put limitations on drone use and development within the US. Last year, Human Rights Watch and Harvard University released a joint report calling for the preemptive ban of “killer robots”. Shortly thereafter, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter signed a series of instructions to “minimize the probability and consequences of failures that could lead to unintended engagements.”

campaignkillerrobots_UNHowever, these efforts officially became international in scope when, on Monday October 21st, a growing number of humans rights activists, ethicists, and technologists converged on the United Nations Headquarters in New York City to call for an international agreement that would ban the development and use of fully autonomous weapons technology.

Known as the “Campaign To Stop Killer Robots,” an international coalition formed this past April, this group has demanded that autonomous killing machines should be treated like other tactics and tools of war that have been banned under the Geneva Convention – such as chemical weapons or anti-personnel landmines.

UAVsAs Jody Williams. a Nobel Peace Prize winner and, a founding member of the group said:

If these weapons move forward, it will transform the face of war forever. At some point in time, today’s drones may be like the ‘Model T’ of autonomous weaponry.

According to Noel Sharkey, an Irish computer scientist who is chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, the list of challenges in developing autonomous robots is enormous. They range from the purely technological, such as the ability to properly identify a target using grainy computer vision, to ones that involve fundamental ethical, legal, and humanitarian questions.

As the current drone campaign has shown repeatedly, a teenage insurgent is often hard to distinguish from a child playing with a toy. What’s more, in all engagements in war, there is what is called the “proportionality test” – whether the civilian risks outweigh the military advantage of an attack. At present, no machine exists that would be capable of making these distinctions and judgement calls.

X-47B_over_coastlineDespite these challenges, militaries around the world – including China, Israel, Russia, and especially the U.S. – are enthusiastic about developing and adopting technologies that will take humans entirely out of the equation, often citing the potential to save soldiers’ lives as a justification. According to Williams, without preventative action, the writing is on the wall.

Consider the U.S. military’s X-47 aircraft, which can take off, land, and refuel on its own and has weapons bays, as evidence of the trend towards greater levels of autonomy in weapons systems. Similarly, the U.K. military is collaborating with B.A.E. Systems to develop a drone called the Taranis, or “God of Thunder,” which can fly faster than the speed of sound and select its own targets.

campaign_killerrobotsThe Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a coalition of international and national NGOs, may have only launched recently, but individual groups have been to raise awareness for the last few years. Earlier this month, 272 engineers, computer scientists and roboticists signed onto the coalition’s letter calling for a ban. In addition, the U.N. is already expressed concern about the issue.

For example, the U.N. Special Rapporteur issued a report to the General Assembly back in April that recommended states establish national moratorium on the development of such weapons. The coalition is hoping to follow up on this by asking that other nations will join those already seeking to start early talks on the issue at the U.N. General Assembly First Committee on Disarmament and International Security meeting in New York later this month.

AI'sOn the plus side, there is a precedent for a “preventative ban”: blinding lasers were never used in war, because they were preemptively included in a treaty. On the downside, autonomous weapons technology is not an easily-defined system, which makes it more difficult to legislate. If a ban is to be applied, knowing where it begins and ends, and what loopholes exist, is something that will have to be ironed out in advance.

What’s more, there are alternatives to a ban, such as regulation and limitations. By allowing states to develop machinery that is capable of handling itself in non-combat situations, but which require a human operator to green light the use of weapons, is something the US military has already claimed it is committed to. As far as international law is concerned, this represents a viable alternative to putting a stop to all research.

Overall, it is estimated that we are at least a decade away from a truly autonomous machine of war, so there is time for the law to evolve and prepare a proper response. In the meantime, there is also plenty of time to address the current use of drones and all its consequences. I’m sure I speak for more than myself when I say that I hope its get better before it gets worse.

And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video produced by Human Rights Watch:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com, thegaurdian.com, stopkillerrobots.org

Drone Wars: New Leaks Reveal Human Cost of Drone Strikes

drone-strikeIt would be an understatement to say that drones and UAVs are hot button issue right now. As an ongoing part of the “war on terror”, the use of remotely piloted vehicles to target terrorism suspects remain a popular one within the US, with 56% of respondents indicating that they supported it (as of Feb. 2013). However, when the matter of civilian casualties and collateral damage is introduced, the issue becomes a much stickier one.

What’s more, it is becoming increasingly evident that how the drone program is being presented is subject to spin and skewing. Much like the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs, it is in the Obama administration’s and the Pentagon’s best interest to present the issue in terms of “hunting terrorists” while categorically avoiding any mention of the real costs involved. And thanks to recent revelations, these efforts may prove to be more difficult in the future.

drone_mapIt was just over weeks ago, on July 22nd, that London’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism released a leaked Pakistani report that detailed numerous civilian casualties by drone strikes in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). For years now, obtaining information about civilian casualties caused by US and NATO strikes in this region has been incredibly difficult – information which these documents have now provided.

The 12-page dossier was compiled for the the authorities in the tribal areas, the Bureau notes, and investigates 75 CIA drone strikes and five attacks by NATO in the region conducted between 2006 and 2009. According to the document, 746 people were killed in the strategic attacks. At least 147 of the victims were civilians, and 94 were children.

on April 3, 2009 in Now Zad in Helmand province, Afghanistan.This directly contradicts inquired made by the United Nations, which began investigating the legality of the drone program and strikes last year. According to the U.N.’s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights (Ben Emmerson) Pakistan then claimed at least 400 civilians had been killed in U.S. strikes in the country since 2006. Quite the discrepancy.

And while a majority of other tallies relied on media reports of drone strikes, the FATA list was compiled by government officials who were sent out to investigate damage firsthand in the wake of attacks. According to the Bureau, on several occasions officials registered different casualty rates than the media outlets reported.

Drone-strike-damageThe Bureau went on record to say that there were gaps in the information provided, like why none of the names of the casualties were provided, or why civilian casualties were not provided for 2009, the last year covered in the report. It is possible that logistical factors played a role, such as the lack of accurate census data in the FATA region, and that casualty figures for the year 2009 were difficult to obtain due to the acceleration of drone strikes during that year.

It is this last aspect which is likely to give many pause, since it was the decision of the outgoing Bush administration to intensify drone strikes during the last few months of his presidency, a decision which the Obama administration adopted and maintained. And the list provided only shows a gap between the official numbers and those obtained on the ground during the years of 2006 and 2009, when the strikes began.

drone_loadoutWhat are we to make then of the years running from 2009 to 2013, where drone strikes in the western region of Pakistan became a much more common occurrence and the body count – civilian or otherwise – can only be expected to have escalated? This could another reason that figures were omitted from 2009, which is that the Pakistani government was concerned that they might spark outrage if they were to ever be made public.

However, that is all speculation at this point, and more time and investigation are certainly needed to determine what the cost in human terms has been. One thing is for sure though, the use of drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are likely to become increasingly controversial as more information emerges and an accurate picture of the death toll is presented.

drone_map1For years now, the US government has denied that large civilian casualty counts exist, but it continues to withhold the numbers. But some claim those numbers will not shed any real light even if they are released, since it is still not clear how the US forces distinguish between civilians and “militants” or “combatants”.

In a major speech on national security in May 2013, Obama strongly defended the drone program but said the administration would codify the process it goes through before ordering attacks and would work with Congress to create more oversight. However, no promises were made about the number of deaths leading up to this declaration, whether or not those facts and figured would be made public, and strikes continue to take place which violate this new mandate.

obama_dronesAs the saying goes, “the first casualty of war is the truth”. And without much effort, one can easily draw parallels between this latest phase in the “war on terror” to the vagaries of Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, where information was withheld, numbers debated and legalities issued in order to justify highly questionable acts.

And for those old enough to remember, the specter of Vietnam is also apparent here. Then, as now, the public is forced to rely on leaked information and confidential informants simply because the official stories being issued by their government are full of discrepancies, denials, and apparent fabrications. One would think we had learned something in the last five decades, but apparently not!

Sources: huffingtonpost.com, thebureauinvestigates.com