Public meeting – ‘Technology out of control? Drones, killer robots and the arms trade’ – July 2013 – report

The first BTF meeting was a resounding success with a very lively discussion and a general appreciation of Fairly Square’s food and drink!

Ann Marie O’Reilly of Campaign Against the Arms Trade gave an introduction to general issues related to military technology, including the astonishing cost of, for example, the £100 billion Trident missile system. She highlighted ongoing efforts in the UK government to promote arms sales, often to repressive regimes, and pointed out that, although the arms trade is often promoted as creating jobs, twice as many jobs could be created by investing in transport, because military budgets are dominated by hardware rather than jobs for people. She also highlighted the crossover of military technology and general surveillance of the population, which the recent revelations about the US National Security Agency internet surveillance program has underlined. Finally, she asked for people’s responses to the recent announcement that an arms company is developing a new hybrid bus: should we applaud this? This led into issues that will be discussed at our meeting next January on the politics of alternative technology and workers’ plans.

Chris Cole from the Drone Wars blog gave an overview of the increasing importance of drones in UK and US strategy, which is driven in part by the lower cost of drones compared to fighter aircraft. Other reasons driving the increased use of drones is that they can stay airborne longer than jets, due to pilot fatigue, and the increasing availability of military hardened satellites.  2000 institutions in the UK have permission to fly drones (generally much smaller than armed military drones). These are currently restricted in their flying areas, in order to protect people from the dangers of crashes but there is lobbying to remove these restrictions. Chris highlighted a number of reasons for concern. Firstly, drones can make going to war more likely, since they avoid the political cost of service personnel fatalities. Drones are the perfect weapon for the ‘war on terror’, because they encourage the belief that ‘we can just take out the bad guys’ – the glamour of technology encourages an unfounded belief in their ‘magical’ precision.  Secondly, because the distancing of the operators from the actual battlefield a ‘Playstation mentality’ may operate: according to an inquiry into a 2010 incident in Afghanistan which 24 civilians were killed, one factor in the incident was that the drone operators were suffering from boredom. One comment that was made was that drones are an example of ‘asymmetrical warfare’, ie they are used against adversaries with a much lower level of technological sophistication and firepower. They are of relatively little use in conflicts between hi-tech military powers because they can be easily shot down.

Richard Moyes of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, raised the issue of the next step in military strategy, involving drones and other weapons systems including eventually robot soldiers: making these systems ‘autonomous’, i.e allowing the systems to choose targets to strike without any human intervention. He pointed out that the Phalanx System for shooting down incoming missiles in naval situations already allows the on-board computer to choose the target, and there are other current examples of this. This obviously raises the specter of Terminator robots, but also creates more immediate problems, such as how to write an algorithm that can distinguish between a civilian and a combatant, and who is responsible when these weapons commits an atrocity. It’s encouraging that, in contrast to the situation with other weapons, there is already an international campaign building up to ban these weapons before they are ever developed, and there is progress at the UN towards international treaty. Some of the issues raised by these robots are discussed in Richard’s post on the Breaking The Frame blog.

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