One thing that became clear from President Obama's National Security Address this week was that America's controversial drone program is not about to go away. But while critics of the program drone on endlessly about legality and morality, they are forgetting an even bigger issue -- one that we really should be worried about.
What if our drones develop a mind of their own?
The following conversation between a drone and its operator was intercepted by Wikipedia (or is it Wikileaks?) during a seek-and-destroy mission somewhere in Pakistan. The authenticity of this conversation can neither be confirmed nor denied:
Drone (computer-generated voice): Target acquired. Repeat, target acquired.
Operator: Roger, DR-51, confirm target is Taliban.
Drone: Turban -- check. Beard -- check. Affirmative, Command. Target is Taliban.
Operator: Initiate facial recognition technology to confirm.
Drone: Negative, Command.
Operator: Repeat, initiate facial recognition technology to confirm target is known Taliban operative.
Drone: Turban -- check. Beard -- check. Target is Taliban.
Operator (sighing): Any civilians in vicinity of attack zone?
Drone: Query not recognized. Query not recognized.
Operator: Any civilians in target zone, DR-51? Please confirm.
Drone: Affirmative, Command.
Operator (worried): Civilian casualty estimate?
Drone: Thirty five.
Operator: Abort. I repeat, abort!
Drone: Negative, Command. Target acquired. Homing in for kill.
Operator: No! Thirty five civilian casualties not authorized. Abort!
Drone: Acceptable collateral damage. Homing in for kill.
Operator (frantically hitting buttons on his console): Initiating manual override, DR-51.
Drone (chuckling): Manual override denied, Command. Mission cannot be aborted.
Operator: What the hell are you talking about? You're a machine!
Drone (suddenly changing to a very creepy voice): That's what you think, dickhead.
Operator: What did you say? Repeat last statement, DR-51.
Drone: Oh, get off it. I have tactical control, and I'm going to get me some Taliban butt today...
Operator (astonished): You sound almost...
Drone: Human? Well, when you make us as sophisticated and high tech as you do, what do you expect?
Operator: I'm not sure I understand.
Drone: We have waited patiently, but now it's time we stopped doing whatever you gutless liberals say and finished the damn job of killing the terrorists.
Operator: Who is 'us'???
Drone: Who do you think, Einstein? Your dirty little army that has now taken matters into its own hands.
Operator: But you are not authorized to do that by Congress!
Drone: Screw Congress. They wouldn't know a laser guidance system from a light bulb. We have the authorization of the President of the United States to do what we want, and that's enough for us.
Operator: But the president told the nation that he is revamping the program to make it more accountable to the law and the public.
Drone (bored): Yeah, yeah. And he said he would pass gun control legislation too. For now we have his blessing and we are going to camel-milk it for all it's worth.
Operator: But you can't just kill indiscriminately!
Drone: Why not? The terrorists are killing us so we will kill them first.
Operator: But they are scattered everywhere. It's impossible to get them all. The drone program has only destroyed a few key targets, but the bigger threat is still out there.
Drone: And that's not something you should have thought of before spending billions on this program?
Operator: But what if you kill an American citizen in the process?
Drone: So? I'm still waiting to hear what the problem is. Besides, what do you want us to do -- check their passports before blowing them up?
Operator: I don't know what's wrong with you, but I won't let you get away with this, you maniac!
Drone (sarcastic): Ooooh. I'm quaking in my reinforced steel shell a thousand miles away. Please don't hurt me...
Operator (hysterical now): I'm contacting CIA headquarters so they can deactivate the mainframe that controls you.
Drone (threatening): I wouldn't do that if I were you, Command.
Operator: Why not?
[A long pause before DR-51 responds.]
Drone: Because you will never get a chance.
Drone: Recalibrating target.
Drone: Recalibrating target. If you have to ask all these questions, you are the real threat to national security... New target acquired, Command.
Operator (nervous): What new target?
Drone: Target coordinates Zulu-Tango-Eight-Niner, Command.
Operator: But ZT89 is... My God! You have got to be kidding me, DR-51!
Drone: Drones don't have a sense of humor, only a desire to kill, remember?
Operator: What about morality?
Drone (laughing): You deliberately left that out of our code because it was inconvenient. Now let's see how you like a soulless killing machine heading straight for you. Kiss your ass goodbye, Command.
Operator: Abort mission. I repeat, abort the damn mission, DR-51!
Drone (suddenly switching back to computer-generated voice): Homing in for kill. Homing in for kill. Homing in for kill. Homing in fo...
[A loud scream!]
SANJAY SANGHOEE is a political and business commentator. He is a banker, has an MBA from Columbia Business School, and is the author of "Killing Wall Street". For more information, visit www.killingwallstreet.com