Man and Machine

06/27/2013 11:44 am 11:44:06 | Updated Aug 27, 2013

The recent debate about the use of drones in warfare, and the possible use of armed drones against American citizens, reveals an interesting aspect of our attitudes about manned and unmanned machines.

A similar myopia surrounds our efforts in space exploration. We live in a new world that has made our old assumptions about what people, as opposed to robots, ought to be doing, outdated.

Consider the case of the recent death of former LA policeman Christopher Dorner, who had killed four people and who had announced on his website his intention to kill many more. He was surrounded in a cabin, and had exchanged gunfire with the police at that site. Apparently he committed suicide, either before or after the fire started that burned down the cabin. Again, apparently, the fire was associated with the kind of tear gas fired by the police at the cabin. For the sake of the argument, let's suppose that the police had decided to burn the cabin, either to kill him or force him to surrender. Does it matter whether the starting of that fire was the work of police on the ground near the fire or the result of a drone-fired missile? The result would be the same. Every day, someone in America is killed by the police. Some of those killings are justified, some not. Why is there a constitutional issue around the use of drones to kill Americans?

Another case is the killing by drone of U.S. citizen al-Awlaki in Yemen. In this case, al-Awlaki had been indicted for planning the killing of Americans. He could have turned himself in to the U.S. embassy in Sana. He probably would have been arrested, but he would have presumably had all the rights of defense accorded by our system of justice. He chose not to, and was killed in a drone strike. Does the Constitution require that special force members' lives be put at risk to try to arrest al-Awlaki in Yemen, especially where the likely result is a fire-fight in which al-Awlaki would be killed anyway? This makes no sense.

There are real issues in our use of lethal drones. It can always be claimed, and often is, that those killed were innocent civilians. Because of the inaccessibility of the places where those drone killings take place, the truth of the matter is often hard to determine. Additionally, in our struggle against al Qaeda, exactly who is a civilian is ambiguous. A person may be a farmer by day, and something else at night. Our enemies don't wear uniforms. The hard truth is that every use of lethal force produces innocent casualties, whether it be the result of shooting on the ground, from a piloted airplane or from a drone. It is the accuracy of the intelligence used to target the force that determines its success. But there is something "unfair" about using drones to kill people, even bad people, because it is so impersonal; they can't see (or try to kill) their killer.

We should also be worried about how we will defend ourselves from the hostile use of armed and unarmed drones against our troops, ships and planes, and against our civilian life. We cannot expect to keep the technology a secret forever.

In space exploration, it is obvious that robots are much better than people for this job. To keep an astronaut alive and returned safely to earth is a monumental engineering challenge, to be sure, but there are few things in space that can't be done better and cheaper by robots. If we could send a person to Mars and return that person to earth, would we learn more about Mars than we can from the robots currently working there ? Yes, there's something romantic about the idea of humans going to Mars, etc., but it simply makes no sense to let that sense of romance get it the way of a cost-effective scientific, robotic program.