Weapons systems that fire autonomously are the apotheosis of elites insulating themselves from accountability.
The aversion I have to autonomous weapons dates back to a bygone afternoon when I sat playing Golden Eye, a James Bond-themed video game that I was progressing through with all the alacrity of its lead character until I reached the jungle level. Expert as I was at evading enemy soldiers, I found myself gunned down in a spray of machine-gun bullets, which turned out to be motion activated. "Oh bollocks," I cursed, determined to stay in character. "That's hardly sporting."
I suppose some of you will think I'm a nutty conspiracy theorist when I inform you that many inside the Defense Department are eager to deploy machines on the battlefield that autonomously kill rather than requiring human intervention to "pull the trigger." It sounds like dystopian fiction. But it has its champions, and most informed observers think it's inevitable that they'll win victories in coming years. There aren't even many objections to autonomous military hardware that doesn't kill: Think of drones that take off, surveil, and land entirely on autopilot. Is the day coming when drones like that are armed, programmed to seek out certain sorts of images, and automated to fire in certain circumstances? The short answer is that, given present trends, it's a realistic possibility.
Noel Sharkey is shaken and stirred -- and he isn't alone. As he recently noted in The Guardian, Human Rights Watch is so concerned that they're calling on international actors to immediately "prohibit the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons through an international legally binding instrument; and adopt national laws and policies to prohibit the development, production, and use of fully autonomous weapons." Would that President Obama listened.
The same Guardian column flags a quotation from a recent Pentagon directive on autonomous weapons that is worth bearing in mind. The lethal machines of the future could conceivable fail due to "a number of causes," the directive states, "including but not limited to human error, human-machine interaction failures, malfunctions, communications degradation, software coding errors, enemy cyber attacks or infiltration into the industrial supply chain, jamming, spoofing, decoys, other enemy countermeasures or actions, or unanticipated situations on the battlefield."
The arguments against adopting this technology nearly make themselves. So I'll focus on a tangential but important observation.
In recent decades, America's elite -- its elected officials, bureaucrats, and CEOs, for starters -- have succeeded spectacularly at insulating themselves from responsibility for their failures. As the global economy melted down, Wall Street got bailouts. CEOs who preside over shrinking companies still depart with "golden parachute" severance packages. The foreign-policy establishment remains virtually unchanged despite the catastrophic errors so many of its members made during the Iraq War. The conservative movement is failing to advance its ideas or its political prospects, yet its institutional leaders and infotainment personalities are as profitable as ever. It is a self-evidently pernicious trend: Once someone achieves insider status, their future success is less and less dependent on how competently and responsibly they perform.
An innocent who dies at the handlessness of an automated killing machine? How easy to phrase the obligatory apology in the passive voice!
It's no wonder that some military leaders are so eager for the advent of autonomous weapons. At present, if WikiLeaks gets ahold of a video that shows innocents being fired upon, the incident in question can be traced back to an individual triggerman, an officer who gave him orders, and perhaps particular people who provided them with faulty intelligence. But an innocent who dies at the handlessness of an automated killing machine? How easy to phrase the obligatory apology in the passive voice! How implausible that any individual would be held culpable for the failure!
And would there ever be accusations that a supposed mistake was actually an intentional killing being conveniently blamed on autonomy gone wrong? I hardly think such suggestions would come from within the establishment. Levying that sort of accusation against a sitting president or the "brave men and women of the United States military" is precisely the sort of thing that bipartisan Washington, D.C., culture declares beyond the pale of reasonable discourse. And when autonomous Chinese drones "accidently" fire upon some Tibetans? Even a genuine accident in America's past would make it that much harder to refrain from giving the Chinese the benefit of the doubt that we ourselves had requested.
Most areas of American culture would benefit if the relevant set of elites were more accountable, but nowhere is in individual accountability more important than when death is being meted out. The secrecy that surrounds the national-security establishment and outsourcing drone strikes to the CIA already introduces a problematic lack of accountability to the War on Terrorism. Autonomous killing machines would exacerbate the problem more than anything else I can imagine.
Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Four hours after learning about Saturday's devastating earthquake in Nepal, I received a Facebook notification I had never seen before: Sonia, a journalist friend based in northern India, was "marked safe." An hour later, the same notification about a different friend popped up. Then another. Soon, several of my friends wrote that they, too, had learned via this strange new notification that their friends in Nepal were okay.
A few hours later, the mystery was solved. On Saturday afternoon, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on his timeline that the notifications came from Safety Check, a service the company launched last fall. "When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe," he wrote, "It's moments like this that being able to connect really matters."
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
After a five-month delay, Loretta Lynch made history last week. On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Lynch as the next U.S. attorney general, the first African American woman ever to hold this Cabinet position. Her long-stalled nomination sometimes seemed in doubt, held hostage to partisan jockeying between Democrats and Republicans. But one political bloc never gave up, relentlessly rallying its support behind Lynch: the black sorority.
During her initial hearing, the seats behind Lynch were filled with more than two dozen of her Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters arrayed in crimson-and-cream blazers and blouses, ensuring their visibility on the national stage. These Delta women—U.S. Representatives Marcia Fudge and Joyce Beatty among them—were there to lend moral support and show the committee that they meant business. The Deltas were not alone. The Lynch nomination also drew support from congressional representatives from other black sororities: Alpha Kappa Alpha members Terri Sewell and Sheila Jackson Lee took to the House floor to advocate for a vote while Sigma Gamma Rho members Corinne Brown and Robin Kelly and Zeta Phi Beta member Donna Edwards used social media and press conferences to campaign on Lynch’s behalf.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal early on Saturday, centered 10 miles below the surface, less than 50 miles from the capital of Kathmandu. At least 2,200 are already reported to have been killed by the quake and subsequent avalanches triggered in the Himalayas. Historic buildings and temples were destroyed, leaving massive piles of debris in streets as rescue workers and neighbors work to find and help those still trapped beneath rubble. Below are images from the region of the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Nepal in decades. (Editor's note, some of the images are graphic in nature.)
Soon, thousand of police officers across the country will don body-worn cameras when they go out among the public. Those cameras will generate millions of hours of footage—intimate views of commuters receiving speeding tickets, teens getting arrested for marijuana possession, and assault victims at some of the worst moments of their lives.
As the Washington Post and the Associated Press have reported, lawmakers in at least 15 states have proposed exempting body-cam footage from local open records laws. But the flurry of lawmaking speaks to a larger crisis: Once those millions of hours of footage have been captured, no one is sure what to do with them.
I talked to several representatives from privacy, civil rights, and progressive advocacy groups working on body cameras. Even among these often allied groups, there’s little consensus about the kind of policies that should exist around releasing footage.
There is a tendency, when examining police shootings, to focus on tactics at the expense of strategy. One interrogates the actions of the officer in the moment trying to discern their mind-state. We ask ourselves, "Were they justified in shooting?" But, in this time of heightened concern around the policing, a more essential question might be, "Were we justified in sending them?" At some point, Americans decided that the best answer to every social ill lay in the power of the criminal-justice system. Vexing social problems—homelessness, drug use, the inability to support one's children, mental illness—are presently solved by sending in men and women who specialize in inspiring fear and ensuring compliance. Fear and compliance have their place, but it can't be every place.
“People skills” are almost always assumed to be a good thing. Search employment ads and you will find them listed as a qualification for a startling array of jobs, including Applebee’s host, weight-loss specialist, CEO, shoe salesperson, and (no joke) animal-care coordinator. The notion that people smarts might help you succeed got a boost a quarter century ago, when the phrase emotional intelligence, or EI, entered the mainstream. Coined in a 1990 study, the term was popularized by Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book . Since then, scores of researchers have shown how being in touch with feelings—both your own and other people’s—gives you an edge: compared with people who have average EI, those with high EI do better at work, have fewer health problems,and report greater life satisfaction.
In Baltimore, where 25-year-old Freddie Gray died shortly after being taken into police custody, an investigation may uncover homicidal misconduct by law enforcement, as happened in the North Charleston, South Carolina, killing of Walter Scott. Or the facts may confound the darkest suspicions of protestors, as when the Department of Justice released its report on the killing of Michael Brown.
What's crucial to understand, as Baltimore residents take to the streets in long-simmering frustration, is that their general grievances are valid regardless of how this case plays out. For as in Ferguson, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, the people of Baltimore are policed by an entity that perpetrates stunning abuses. The difference is that this time we needn't wait for a DOJ report to tell us so. Harrowing evidence has been presented. Yet America hasn't looked.