THE BLOG
07/12/2013 08:21 am ET | Updated Sep 11, 2013

Welcome Proto-Skynet

Skynet, are you in there somewhere? An artificially intelligent drone landing on an aircraft carrier, revelation after revelation of pervasive global surveillance systems, some uncanny makings are coming together.

If you look at the X-47B in the U.S. Navy video below making the world's first drone landing on an aircraft carrier, driven by AI software, it looks more than a little like the craft we saw in the Terminator movies. It's a great and exciting accomplishment, to be sure. But what could go wrong? By an odd coincidence, a new Terminator has just been greenlighted for release in June 2015, and it is not unlikely that former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will feature in a rebooted series. No sign at this point of the involvement of director James Cameron, whose creation so tellingly pointed up the excitement and danger of our fixation and dependence on technology.

The U.S. Navy successfully completed the world's first drone aircraft landing on an aircraft carrier Wednesday off the coast of Virginia when an X-47B using artificial intelligence software landed on the deck of USS George H.W. Bush.

Of course, we aren't actually at the point at which an evolved artificial intelligence, meant to protect against another threat, determines instead to eradicate the supposed true threat to the planet: Its own creators. Software doesn't have independent consciousness, much less a malevolent one.

But we do suddenly find ourselves at the point at which some dramatic major ingredients are in place.

A very major development came Wednesday with the first landing of a drone aircraft on an aircraft carrier.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus made this announcement via Twitter from aboard the carrier: "America's Away Team just added a whole new dimension to its ability to provide presence."

The X-47B drone -- much bigger and faster, at just under the speed of sound, than current drones -- landed aboard the USS George H.W. Bush cruising in the Atlantic off the Virginia coast. And unlike the usual sense of a drone being controlled entirely by a human operator, this one did it using its artificial intelligence software, after being waved off on its first pass.

It's important to note, with regard to the Asia-Pacific Pivot (see the Pivot archive here) and the rise of China, that the Chinese Navy still is not landing manned aircraft on its new aircraft carrier, which is actually a converted old Soviet cruiser purchased from Ukraine and painstakingly converted to handle air operations.

The drone which carried out this feat is not going into the fleet. It's part of a two-bird demonstration project, a seedbed for tech and testing.

These craft will be followed in a few years, after contracts are made and fulfilled, by a regular carrier landing surveillance and assault drone, capable of being remotely piloted by humans but designed to be run by computer during most flight operations.

The program is called UCLASS, for Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike aircraft.

The X-47B comes from Northrop Grumman, the longtime California-based aerospace/military contractor which in 2011 moved its headquarters from LA to the DC area to be close to the money.

The firm may have a leg up in competition with General Atomics-Aeronautical Systems, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin for the follow-on operational version of the new drone.

After having its first test flight at Edwards Air Force Base in the California high desert in February 2011, the X-47B made big strides, earlier this year becoming the first drone to launch from an aircraft carrier before carrying out the much trickier task of landing on one. Next year the craft will carry out mid-air refueling operations, vastly expanding its time on target capability, especially without the fatigue factor of a human pilot.

The drones could be used in situations in which risk of the loss of a human pilot would be high. The use of weapons by these craft will, say program designers, remain in human hands.

So it's not exactly Skynet as seen in the Terminator films. But the tech is moving into that general vicinity.

Incidentally, what is the great political advantage to having carrier-launched drone aircraft? No need for a compliant government to host an American drone base, increasingly a problem as drones become more controversial.

And what is one of the great military advantages? The ability to mount relatively low-risk long distance air operations in and around places with vast numbers of land-based anti-ship missiles. Like, say, China.

First test flight of the X-47B, on February 4, 2011 at famed Edwards Air Force Base in the California high desert.

With these advantages, the next generation of drones are fantastic assets for purposes of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting. And they will be able to deliver strikes of their own, operating with ranges and speeds that will make the Predator drone look like a model airplane.

That much if not most of the globe is blanketed by surveillance satellite coverage has long been known. But the revelations from Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency contract analyst since 2009, show that surveillance has become much more personal than that, with direct access to records of personal computer and phone operations.

The reality is that human analysts are already overwhelmed by all the data collected by our increasingly automated surveillance systems. NSA Director General Keith Alexander says that the previously secret surveillance programs have foiled dozens of potential terrorist attacks. What those might have been is, for the most part, unclear.

What is not unclear is that the suddenly vaunted system absolutely failed around the Boston Marathon attack.

There a brutal attack took place, killing and maiming large numbers of absolute innocents despite the fact that the two apparent perpetrators exercised only the slightest tradecraft.

Not only did the communications surveillance system fail, we in fact had not one but two warnings from Russian intelligence.

But the Boston bombings went forward anyway.

Why set up a system that the agency of the present can't really service? Probably because highly automated artificially intelligent analytical systems are on the horizon.

Instead of government employees and contract analysts, who may end up disliking the system they are running, highly sophisticated algorithms, already much in play in their current levels of development, will increasingly manage things. And those are only as good as the assumptions built into their programming.

Meanwhile, Snowden apparently remains stuck in Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport. He has asylum offers from three Latin American countries unfriendly to the U.S. but must find a way to get to one of them which does not allow the U.S. to block or apprehend him. Behind the scenes, President Barack Obama seems to be orchestrating a full-court press to prevent Snowden's movement.

Ironically, a big new poll indicates that U.S. popular opinion is somewhat surprisingly pro-Snowden, despite massive efforts to paint him as a traitor by many politicians and media folks.

The Quinnipiac national poll has startling results.

American voters say 55-34 percent that Edward Snowden is a whistle-blower, rather than a traitor. In a massive shift in attitudes, voters say 45-40 percent the government's anti-terrorism efforts go too far restricting civil liberties, a reversal from a January 10, 2010 survey, when voters said 63-25 percent that such activities didn't go far enough to adequately protect the country. Almost every party, gender, income, education, age and income group regards Snowden as a whistle-blower rather than a traitor. ... Some of the largest growth in those concerned about the threat to civil liberties is among men and Republicans, groups historically more likely to be supportive of governmental anti-terrorism efforts.

How do Americans feel about the fast-emerging world of which the Snowden revelations -- involving overly busy human analysts who might look at their personal data -- are only a part? Hard to say. After all, few know about it yet.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

William Bradley Huffington Post Archive