TED Blog

Drones, Warfare, Science Fiction and Cybercrime: A Conversation with P.W. Singer

Editor's note: In an edited November 20, 2013 interview with TED Blog, Peter W. Singer discusses drones and other future military technology. The pace of recent development has been exponential, yet the U.S. government’s understanding remains glacial. Singer argues that new technologies will carry technical, political and ethical risks that must be addressed.

TED: In a recent article you discussed how science fiction writers like H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle predicted technologies that then became part of our world. And now you’re working on a novel. Do you see sci-fi today predicting developments on a further horizon than we’re talking about?

Peter Singer: The interplay between science fiction and the real world is a force that has been there for centuries. At one point, it was through writers like H.G. Wells, because the novel was the main vector for entertainment. Then we moved on to movies and TV shows — think of how powerful Star Trek was in influencing where technology would head next. Now it’s gaming. It’s like what happened in those great old episodes of Star Trek, where they envisioned something futuristic like a handheld communicator and then someone watching in a lab would see it and said, “I’ll make that real.” And now that’s the same for gaming. I was a consultant for the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops II, and I worked on a drone concept for the game, a quadcopter called Charlene. Now defense contractors are trying to make Charlene real. So it flips the relationship. Previously, the military would research and develop something and then spin it out to the civilian sector. Now the military is faced with a challenge of how to spin in technology.

TED: And of course the pace of development, on both the military and civilian sides, is extraordinarily fast. In your 2009 TED talk you described the Predator as the “Model-T of drone technology.”

Singer: Drone technology has gone from being something that’s abnormal to the new normal. It’s gone from, “Hey, there’s this new thing you might not have heard about called a Predator Drone” to “Actually, guess what, it’s out of date.”

There are many parallels with drones and what happened with flying machines. First they were science fiction. Then they became science reality, the airplane. Then they were adapted for war. Now, like with the plane coming out of World War I, you see these roles moving over to the civilian side in terms of using the drone for observation or surveillance, whether it’s law enforcement using it, or journalism, or search-and-rescue. Drones have gotten smarter, able to do more on their own, which in turns make them easier to use and opens them up for more users. So you’re now seeing kids flying them.

Go back to airplanes. They were flying literally tens of thousands of airplanes in WWI, but it wasn’t until 1919 that civilians came up with the idea of using an airplane to move cargo back and forth. That led to the multi-trillion dollar air transport industry. That came out of someone crossing innovation with profit-seeking. As exciting as a drone for search-and-rescue is, or environmental monitoring or filming your kids playing soccer, that’s still doing surveillance. It’s what comes next, using it in ways that no one’s yet imagined, that’s where the boom will be.

Read the full interview at blog.ted.com »