In the liberal British newspaper, The Guardian, available online worldwide, "The 'Obama doctrine': kill, don't detain" (April 11), Asim Qureshi reports "a completely new trend has emerged that, in many ways, is more dangerous than the trends under Bush." President Obama's "extrajudicial killings and targeted assassinations … have taken the death count well beyond anything that has been seen before."
Indeed, as the Wall Street Journal (April 14) reported ("(Defense Secretary Robert) Gates says civilian deaths test war strategy") civilian casualties by U.S. drones are "a cause of public anger in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in Pakistan."
However, during the growing controversy here about these unmanned Predator and Reaper drones, not enough attention has been paid to the possibility of a future battle between our robots and those of our enemies.
In the May issue of a magazine in which I continually find out how much I don't know "Discover: Science, Technology, and The Future" there is a report which Jurgen Altmann of Dortmund Technical University in Germany warns, "With up to 50 nations around the world developing military robots, aerial drones could ultimately square off against each other."
Because there has been so little discussion in this country about a future robotic war, I strongly recommend that members of Congress, the president and the rest of us read the extensive section on "The Robot Revolution" in the May issue of "Discover" especially Mark Anderson's "The Terminators," in which he emphasizes how much money and research the United States is devoting to this new technology transforming the nature of combat as well as the far away humans involved in it.
I was not aware that "National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001 mandated that by 2010 (here we are now!) one-third of the military's combat aircraft be unmanned and that by 2015 one-third of all combat vehicles be unmanned."
As I recently reported, there is a strong push to make the drone planes autonomous by equipping them with "a conscience" so that each can decide when to launch the Hellfire missiles.
"To qualify for full-fledged combat roles," Anderson writes, "autonomous robots would have to master the art of discrimination, recognizing schools, hospitals, and city centers (where civilians cluster) and distinguishing a bomb-packing insurgent from a book-toting schoolboy before firing a shot."
Anderson goes to introduce a dark scenario of possible future robotic dysfunction. He summons from the New School (on the street where I live in New York City) Peter Asaro, co-founder of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.
Says Asaro: "glitches in an autonomous aerial drone that lead to accidental missile strikes may not be easily distinguishable from a drone's 'intentional' missile strikes. The more politically tense the situation, the more likely that unpredictable military actions by autonomous drones could quickly descend into all-out warfare."
The International Committee for Robot Arms Control was also formed by professor Altmann of Germany, ethicist Robert Sparrow from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and robotics researcher Noel Sharkey at Sheffield University in Britain. After days and nights of intense debate, they drafted a founding document, declaring: "Machines should not be allowed to make the decision to kill people."
Obviously, President Obama does not agree, nor do the 50 or so nations developing autonomous drones and other military robots.
In this country, there have been few voices of alarm. Predictably, among them is former constitutional law attorney Glenn Greenwald, a trenchant analyst at Salon.com (often quoted elsewhere on the Web).
He is aware, and as I have reported, that Dennis Blair, director of U.S. intelligence, said explicitly that American citizens are on the drones' lethal target lists if they are believed to be involved in terrorism (Reuters, Feb. 3). At least one citizen has been included in a Yemen attack.
Greenwald, referring to Obama's increasing warrantless surveillance of us, charges: "Here you have Barack Obama not merely eavesdropping on or detaining Americans without oversight, but ordering them killed with no oversight and no due process of any kind."
He then adds a crucial point: "The reaction among leading Democrats and progressives is largely non-existent. … Just imagine what the reaction would have been among progressive editorial pages, liberal opinion-makers and Democratic politicians if this story had been about George Bush and Dick Cheney targeting American citizens for due-process-free and oversight-less CIA assassinations." (Salon.com, commondreams.org. April 8).
And at last, a liberal Democrat in Congress has spoken up Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, "Kucinich: White House assassination policy is extrajudicial" (The Nation, April 15).
"I don't support it period. I think people in both parties that are concerned about the Constitution should be speaking out on this."
Added the Nation: "He has sent several letters to the Obama administration raising questions about the potential unconstitutionality of the policy, as well as possible violations of international law, but has received no response." And very disappointingly, "Several Democrats refused, through spokespeople, to comment on the assassination plan when contacted by The Nation, including Senator Russ Feingold."
I, too, tried to reach Feingold, but got no answer from his usually responsive press secretary.
In a future column, I shall return to robotic warfare's dangers including to us. Will the enemy put consciences in their drones as we are doing? And, as Mark Anderson reminds in "Discover" magazine: "The spotty record of artificial intelligence research does not inspire confidence."
As for the U.S. citizenry, Justice Louis Brandeis warned of the dangers to liberty from "an inert people." And not only inert about drones.