To Drone or Not to Drone

Editor’s Note: On April 2, 2012, Peter Singer appeared on a panel during “To Drone or Not To Drone: Writing Conflict, Law Enforcement & Legalities in the 21st Century,” an event held by Muslims on Screen and Television (MOST) in partnership with the Writer’s Guild of America. The event was moderated by NPR’s Steve Inskeep, and the other panelists included author Mark Bowden, journalist Catharine Crier, and CBS News consultant Jere Van Dyk. The panel discussion focused on the rise of drone warfare, and the ramifications such tactics may impose on the future of warfare overseas and law enforcement and civil rights here at home.

Steve Inskeep: Does this add up to a new kind of war?

Peter Singer: It’s a technology that’s revolutionary, and by that I don’t mean that it’s a silver bullet solution to our problems. It’s more that it’s a technology that’s like gunpowder, or the airplane, or the atomic bomb – it’s a game changer. It’s giving us new capabilities that we didn’t imagine we’d have a generation ago, but it’s also leading into new kinds of questions, and politics, and military doctrines, and law and ethics that we did not imagine we’d have a generation earlier – everything from, ‘Are we are at war in Pakistan?’ to ‘How did the Geneva Conventions control for this?’ So I don’t describe it as a new kind of war because there are still enduring parts of war that are the same, but at the end of the day whether you are talking about the Trojan War or these modern conflicts it’s still driven by our human failings, our human flaws. Human psychology comes into it whether you are using a sling or you are using a Predator. But there are again, new challenges that we have not wrestled with before, and what’s amazing to me is that we are talking about technology that is at the very early stage – it’s still mostly human operated human-in-the-loop – and yet the technology is quickly moving past that. We are integrating more and more autonomy, more and more AI, so if we are already saying, ‘Are we in Pakistan right now’ and we’re talking about remotely operated drones, what about ten years from now? Fifteen years from now?


Singer: Everyone wants to focus on the shoot or not shoot question but actually there’s other aspects that are being automated that may be more important, for example, the sensor. I said that the cameras can detect a milk carton from sixty thousand feet. Well now we are creating “smart sensors” so the human may decide whether to shoot or not, but you have a sensor that, for example, there’s one that can detect a footprint from above. ‘Here is a disruption in the dirt that you humans call a footprint,’ track where that footprint came from, ‘here is the compound that they are in,’ and ‘this person matches a profile.’ So it’s doing target recognition software. So you go, ‘what’s the most important part: is it this part? Or is it the thinking part?’ Those are some of the challenges we are already moving into. And again, these carry over into issues of law, whether we are talking about laws of war, or how we do profiling in a domestic setting.

Watch the panel discussion at »