The Dangerous Gamification Of War
We’re already dealing with the nightmare of a militarized police force. What happens when we bring drones and robotic soldiers onto American streets?
Image via Percepto
by Justin Rosario
Netflix’s sci-fi action flick “Outside the Wire” was well-written, had fantastic action, and the special effects were top notch. The dialogue was funny at times and meaningful at others, and both Anthony Mackie and Damson Idris, who took up the majority of the screen time, were excellent (as was the rest of the cast).
However, the message was a bit muddled, which is a shame since it’s a very important message: drone warfare is not a future we should be pursuing.
Never ending war
This is going to be full of spoilers so if you haven’t watched OTW yet, you have been warned.
The premise of of the movie is pretty straightforward: 25 years in the future, the United States has developed robots to fight alongside our troops called “Gumps” (as in “Forrest Gump” because they’re dumb but effective). At the same time, an android (like a robot but far more sophisticated), built by the US to look, act, and, most importantly, feel pain and emotions like a human is stationed in Ukraine to keep the Russian-allied faction in a civil war from winning.
Anthony Mackie’s Captain Leo is fast, strong, extremely lethal and sort of ‘anti-Skynet’ character. He does not actually enjoy being a weapon of war, so he goes rogue.
He accomplishes this with the unwitting aid of Damson Idris’s Lt. Harp, a dispassionate drone pilot who had disobeyed direct orders and coldly sacrificed two marines to save 38 others. It was the right call, technically, but made without compassion. To a drone pilot, Marines are simply pixels on a video screen.
This is the point of the movie and one we don’t talk about enough: increasing our reliance on drones will inevitably lead to more war. Making them more sophisticated will lead to greater devastation. Making them autonomous will all but guarantee never ending war.
We are, right now, working on autonomous drones so this is not an abstract philosophical point. This is real and has to be considered, immediately.
One of the main reasons the Vietnam War ended was because the nightly news started to show us hundreds of caskets coming home with American flags draped across them. We also started to see the appalling violence being committed in our name on the other side of the world. The public became horrified by the atrocities in Vietnam, and soon joined the hippies demanding we stop.
There’s a reason the first Bush administration stopped allowing the press to show the caskets coming home from the Middle East during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the 90s. The American public is generally fine with waging war as long as they don’t have to see the cost. Out of sight, out of mind works, even with military conflicts. When was the last time you thought about the fighting in Afghanistan? Yes, that’s still going on.
Now, imagine if there is no emotional cost at all. We no longer send troops in to be killed. All of the fighting is done by machines we control from thousands of miles away. Killing is easy when it’s a video game. Here’s how drone operator Michael Haas recalls missions he flew over Afghanistan and other conflict zones:
The aim of the missions was to track, and when the conditions were deemed right, kill suspected insurgents. That’s not how they put it, though. They would talk about “cutting the grass before it grows out of control”, or “pulling the weeds before they overrun the lawn”.
And then there were the children. The airmen would be flying the Predators over a village in the tribal areas of Pakistan, say, when a series of smaller black shadows would appear across their screens – telling them that kids were at the scene.
They called them “fun-sized terrorists”.
Drones are a tool but they are an easily abused tool. We made killing easy and we abused it immediately. If we were to ever develop “Gumps”, we would absolutely wage never ending war. We’re already doing it because of how (relatively) few troops we lose a year. If we reduce that number to near zero? We would be involved in every single conflict across the globe and those conflicts would somehow never resolve. Too bad for the hundreds of millions caught in the crossfire, though. They’re not our problem, right?
Science Fiction Has Been Warning Us About This For Half A Century
On February 23, 1967, The original Star Trek aired the episode “A Taste of Armageddon”. In this episode, the U.S.S. Enterprise is “destroyed” in a simulated nuclear attack that takes place between two planets at war. The entire conflict is run by computers which determine where the strikes land and how many people are “killed.” Then those people report to disintegration chambers to be painlessly eliminated, thus sparing both planets the actual horror of a real nuclear exchange .
Everyone is more than happy to keep fighting this war forever because it’s easy, clean, and bloodless. Except for all the people who are dying. But everyone else is fine and completely unburdened and that’s just the way they like it.
The two planets have made war a video game. There is no blood. There is no rubble. There is no suffering. There is just a quick and sad “goodbye” and then painless oblivion.
Captain Kirk, as is his wont, smashes the computer, forcing the two worlds to either talk and find a peaceful end to their war or risk all the horrors they know await them. Presumably, they choose peace because Star Trek is one of the most hopeful TV series ever conceived but you never know...
Obviously, the writers of Star Trek did not have drones in mind. This particular episode was a commentary on the Vietnam War and how public opinion changed when the public started to see the bodies. Regardless, the point remains the same: making war as sterile as possible, either through deception or policy, leads to more suffering in the long run.
We are very much on the path to gamifying war and that can only lead to bad things. Among them, what happens when we bring the war home.
Drone Warfare In American Cities
We’re already dealing with the nightmare of a militarized police force. Between the proliferation of body-armor, military-grade weapons that should only be found on the battlefield, and literal tanks, American law enforcement has become more like an occupying army than, well, law enforcement.
When the police first started to use drones for surveillance, there was (and still is) tremendous concern about privacy, abuse, and constitutional rights. People should be able to live their lives in their backyards, homes, and apartments on the 10th floor without having to worry about the police “accidentally” seeing everything they are doing. Then they strapped a bomb to a drone to kill a suspect and public backlash was, understandably, intense.
Yes, it saved lives, but the police have shown they cannot be trusted to use their power responsibly. Put aside the massive amounts of systemic racism that has been terrorizing Black communities for decades; once the police were equipped with billions in military surplus, they immediately started to treat American cities like war zones. The “warrior cop” mentality overtook American law enforcement like a virus and now “shoot first, assume acquittal later” is standard operating procedure.
These are not people you want to give weaponized drones to. And yet, that’s exactly where we’re heading.
The New York police department has acquired a robotic police dog, known as Digidog, and has deployed it on the streets of Brooklyn, Queens and, most recently, the Bronx. At a time that activists in New York, and beyond, are calling for the defunding of police departments – for the sake of funding more vital services that address the root causes of crime and poverty – the NYPD’s decision to pour money into a robot dog seems tone-deaf if not an outright provocation.
Right now, the drone is “just for surveillance” but that is not going to last. After a few years of harassing Black communities (because it certainly will not be used to patrol and pester White people), drone dogs will be deemed a “huge success” in deterring crime regardless of any proof to the contrary. Then the case will be made that they can apprehend criminals safely with “non-lethal” measures like tasers and pepper spray. Then, hey, they can save lives by taking down armed bad guys, right? Just give them a gun!
This escalation will be concurrent with the growing use of autonomous drones. Conveniently, AI just happens to be deeply biased against Black people. Garbage in, garbage out. So when these newly weaponized drones start prowling the streets, guess who’s going to feel the brunt of it? Exactly who is meant to.
The War on Drugs, designed explicitly to destroy communities of color, is going to end in the near future as marijuana legalization pulls its fangs. Once this favorite tool of state terrorism is gone, American law enforcement will need a new way to target brown skin en masse. Would you care to wager on how many laws will be in place to protect the manufacturers and the police from being held responsible when these “smart” drones disproportionately target Black people?
But before we even get to racist AI, we’ll have to deal with racist remote operators who will be extremely trigger happy. Remember, they’re playing a video game with no consequences and the police are already trained to view the population as an imminent threat. This is a recipe for disaster. The operators won’t be able to claim they were afraid for their lives and it will not make a lick of difference.
The police fight every attempt to hold them accountable tooth and nail and this will be no different. This entire past summer, we watched departments all over the country become rioting mobs in response to the idea of having constraints put on their violence. Once they start using drones to hunt us down, they will never give them up.
Defund And De-escalate The Police Before It’s Too Late
I have an autistic son and at just shy of 13 years old, he is already 5’10” with the kind of frame football coaches take notice of. Of course, with his autism, Jordan is as harmless as a fly (and I mean that literally, he runs away from our cats) but you can’t tell that from looking at him. So what happens if, someday in the future when Jordan is the mountain of an adult he is clearly going to be, has a meltdown in public, crying and screaming, and the police send a drone to deal with a “mental health crisis”?
People in mental distress are scary and dangerous so why wouldn’t the police send a drone instead of a real person? Much safer that way. Jordan, seeing this thing and already upset, runs away, terrified. Just like that, a weaponized drone decides my son, who runs away from small cats, is a threat to public safety and guns him down.
The police do this all the time. There is every reason to believe their drones will behave accordingly. Garbage in, garbage out.
The millions being spent on police drones can be used to hire professionals to deal with people having a mental health crisis. The billions being spent on military-grade weapons, surplus military gear, and fucking tanks can be diverted to community programs so the police don’t have to deal with the homeless and truants and people not emptying their garbage cans. When you defund the police, they’ll have no choice but to de-escalate.
Closing the money spigot becomes even more necessary now that drones have entered the picture. Once drones, especially weaponized drones, become entrenched in American law enforcement, prying them loose will be infinitely more difficult than keeping them out of untrustworthy hands in the first place.
A Plague Of Drones
Military drones as we understand them today were science fiction just 40 years ago. Drones controlled by an AI were science fiction 10 years ago. So were drones that could walk. Now we are in the process of testing autonomous drones and a drone is roaming the streets of New York City. The technology is advancing faster than our understanding of its impact on our lives.
But that’s not really true. We do, in fact, have an understanding of the impact. It will make some people rich, others drunk on power, and the rest of us miserable. Or dead.
I’m a huge fan of scientific progress. I’m all in favor of self-driving cars and personal jetpacks and robot maids. The future Star Trek promised cannot get here fast enough for me. But weaponized drones are a tool we cannot be entrusted to use responsibly in the long run. It’s clear that we will not unilaterally abandon the technology but if we don’t start putting strict ethical and legal guidelines into place governing the use and development of drones, we’re all going to pay a steep price within our lifetime.
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Watching Sean Hannity won’t just make you stupid, it might actually get you killed.
by Ben Cohen
The seemingly never ending winter is over, there is a new administration in power, and vaccine distribution is ramping up at breakneck speed. Our battle with the Coronavirus is beginning to pay dividends, and there is real light at the end of the tunnel. That being said almost 1,000 people a day are still dying from COVID-19 — an astonishing number that should command pretty much all of our attention.
Liberal America is still paying attention to this. In my neighborhood in Takoma Park, Maryland, the infection rate is low, but almost everyone still wears a mask outside. Families are still isolating, relatives haven’t been seen in many months, and daily life is nowhere near back to normal. Everyone we know follows the CDC’s advice, checks the latest news on the pandemic status from reputable news sources, and gets their medical advice from actual doctors.
This is decidedly not the case in Fox News’s America. According to recently polling, a third of all Republicans are not willing to take the vaccine, and almost 50% of Republican men. There are a number of reasons for this — from Donald Trump’s early politicization of the pandemic to rabid online anti vaccine disinformation in right wing circles and vaccine skepticism from people like Tucker Carlson, Republicans are completely immersed in a fact free echo chamber.
More than that, many Republicans don’t really appear to be aware that the pandemic is still happening, or care.
Observing right wing madness
As an experiment, I checked through Sean Hannity’s Twitter feed to find articles he had promoted about the Coronavirus from his website SeanHannity.com. I then sifted through the responses from his followers to see what the general consensus was about the article and the pandemic. After 10 minutes of scrolling it became clear that most of the people responding were not only skeptical about the pandemic, but completely disinterested in it. Instead, they were more interested in a completely unrelated topic that has almost no impact on their lives.
This was the original tweet was about an article on the CDC’s recent warning about a new Coronavirus surge:…
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