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The end of history and the last drone

Drone quadcopter operated with iPad by Ville Hyvönen

iPad operated quadcopter

On 25 February 2012 the Financial Times published Francis Fukuyama’s op-ed on drones. It addressed how the world may change when “drones are cheap and ubiquitous.” Fukuyama questioned how other countries, private individuals, rogue states, and terrorists may use unmanned and robotic systems in the future.

Access to drone technology will invariably lead to its nefarious use, suggests Fukuyama. He fails to recognize that when transformational technologies become commercially available, their widespread adoption is inescapable. More importantly, historical precedent suggests that all extensively adopted technology is overwhelmingly used for good.

The article is full of other problems and inconsistencies. Fukuyama spends three long opening paragraphs advertising his own do-it-yourself (DIY) quadcopter. His personal story is useful only as a literary prop for the sweeping generalization at the end: “That’s why I want to build mine now, before the government makes them illegal.”

Not quite the end of history, but certainly the wrong conclusion.

After an arduous opening that advertises Fukuyama’s knowledge of the word “telemetry” he proceeds to tell us the big ticket items. The Predator and Reaper drones have been used to strike “deep into Pakistan.” Hurrah. The Air Force will have more drone pilots than F-16 pilots by next year. And imagine this; they will be piloted from “half a world away.” Of course, drone strikes have also killed civilians. And manned fighter or bomber strikes have not?

Let’s not dwell on the overview. Most articles are not aimed for a drone-news-following reader. The issue here is that this introduction is so clumsy and superficial that it is painful to get through.

Fukuyama then plunges us into the future. “Down the road,” he says, “are insect-sized drones that could be mistaken for a housefly or spider, which could slip in under a door-sill to record conversations, take photos or even inject a lethal toxin into an unsuspecting victim.” And further into the future are “nanobots, particle-sized robots that could enter people’s blood streams or lungs.”

This is all true. Although it would be helpful for us all, to start making semantic distinctions between what we call a variety of unmanned and robotic systems. He never claims that this op-ed is all encompassing. But it would seem reasonable to discuss autonomy and its implications if one is to make a leap towards nanobots and lethal toxins.

Fukuyama then enlightens us that privacy is “the chief concern” and proceeds to commercialize how his own drone could “look inside a neighbor’s third-floor window.” Of course he “would never ever be tempted to use it for such a thing.” Come on! This is in the FT, who edits these anyway?

On editing… Fukuyama calls the FAA the Federal Aviation “Authority” instead of Administration. This may be petty, but get it right!

After informing us that drones are used for targeted killings, Fukuyama suggests that as “the defense budget shrinks” using drones to “project power on the cheap” will be attractive. Sure… But the correlation is shaky at best. The proliferation of drones may lead to more targeted killings, but the defense budget – other than being a headline favorite – is really irrelevant here. Drones provide the US military and intelligence community a powerful capability and will be used (for right or wrong) based on overall strategy and tactical objectives. For the purposes of this discussion, we are passed procuring drones on a cost estimate basis. At 7,494 and counting, they are part of the arsenal.

On the other hand, miniature robotic devices do change the dynamics. Soldiers could use them to look into buildings before a raid to minimize losses. And intelligence agencies could employ them for an assortment of missions. However, will this change how they spy or kill? Using drones to deliver deadly pathogens is a possible scenario. But intelligence agencies have been successful at eradicating targets before. Alexander Litvinenko’s poisoning in London is a case in point.

Fukuyama is also concerned about their domestic use. This seems to translate into his main argument that eventually the government will outlaw drones. I doubt it. For example, any enthusiast could procure advanced surveillance systems. A simple Google search using “surveillance AND DIY” returns more than 5 million results. There is a plethora of spy toys out there. Having your own drone and using it for degenerate ends won’t make this problem worse.

Fertilizer is used for bombs by some. And others use code for cyber-attacks. The government – rightfully so – now tries to keep an eye on fertilizer purchases. But it sure hasn’t made Java or C++ programming languages illegal. Drones will be used to spy on cheating spouses and to cause harm somewhere. But this should not make us “worried.”

Fukuyama continues. He asks what the world would look like when “other countries [will] operate fleets of drones.” And what would our attitude towards drones be “if our enemies could pick off visiting dignitaries as they stepped off the airplane” or attacked “soldiers in their bases in Europe or Asia.” Worse yet, Fukuyama seems concerned that China or Al Qaeda could use drones to target Americans in “Florida or New York.” He is especially petrified that drones in their ubiquity will be harder to trace and “without knowing their provenance, deterrence breaks down.”

Living in a world where we are “routinely and anonymously targeted by unseen enemies is not pleasant to contemplate.” There is a point here, somewhere. But it is lost.

Stability restored

Yes, other countries are building drones en masse and will continue to do so. And terrorist organizations may try to use them to deliver an explosive. But making them illegal domestically would in no way change this paradigm. In fact, it would make us dramatically less competitive over time. Our systems would become outdated.

How would making drones illegal domestically protect us against these threats? It seems Fukuyama suggests that some dubious activity will be possible because there will be so many of them. That makes sense logically. But as alluded to above, there are websites that give us viruses and guns that are used to kill. Yet, we continue to visit the former and buy more of the latter.

Fukuyama mentions particle-sized robots in our blood-stream, but fails to imagine technologies that would be able to trace exactly to whom a drone belongs. A network of nanobots – to stay futuristic – would easily trace the origin of other drones.

He does cite the legitimate use of drones for police work and traffic management. But there are so many others. Drones could be used to monitor our electrical grid, to take care of the elderly, to assist during surgeries (or to conduct surgeries), to repair broken tissue, to fight cancer (hey, he went there). On the battlefield their usefulness isn’t perfect, but unquestioned.  And countries will not decide to attack us just because it costs less now than it did before or saves them a pilot or two.

Drones – and robotic systems in general – will soon become part of our daily lives. Already in South Korea they are being used as prison guards and as school teachers. Their proliferation could be as transformational as the spread of the Internet or the mobile device. Fukuyama – after redeeming himself with The Origins of Political Order ­– is sadly on the wrong side of history.

Image source: from Ville Hyvönen’s public Flickr page


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