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.
Pope Francis is widely believed to be a cool Pope—a huggable, Upworthyish, meme-ready, self-deprecating leader for a new generation of worshippers. “He has described himself as a sinner,” writes Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Pope Francis’ entry on Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world, “and his nonjudgmental views on … issues such as sexual orientation and divorce have brought hope to millions of Roman Catholics around the world.”
But there’s one issue that can make even Cool Pope Francis himself sound a little, well, judgy. “A society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society,” the pontiff told an audience in St. Peter’s Square earlier this year. “The choice not to have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished.”
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.
The Onion had a problem: It fell behind the times. The mock newspaper hadn’t printed an issue on actual paper since 2013, and in the period since, it never redesigned its website. As the media world changed—as the New York Times and the Washington Post adapted the ways they published stories online—The Onion lost a key satirical weapon. Visually, it no longer looked like many of the publications it parodied. And so, like it had done many times before, The Onion tagged along.
In 2008, I was elected governor of Delaware. In politics, timing is everything. You can be a fantastic candidate and run in a bad year for your party and get clobbered. You can be an absolute dud and run in the right year and get the brass ring. 2008 was a good year to be a Democrat.
But beyond the political benefit, my timing was awful. A month before I took office at the depths of the Great Recession, Chrysler closed its assembly plant in Newark, my hometown. A few months after my inauguration, General Motors shuttered its plant a few miles away. That fall, Valero closed its refinery. Those three employers had represented the best opportunities for high school graduates to get middle-class jobs for decades. Within a year, all were gone.
Rioting broke out on Monday in Baltimore—an angry response to the death of Freddie Gray, a death my native city seems powerless to explain. Gray did not die mysteriously in some back alley but in the custody of the city's publicly appointed guardians of order. And yet the mayor of that city and the commissioner of that city's police still have no idea what happened. I suspect this is not because the mayor and police commissioner are bad people, but because the state of Maryland prioritizes the protection of police officers charged with abuse over the citizens who fall under its purview.
The citizens who live in West Baltimore, where the rioting began, intuitively understand this. I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today's riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed. Everyone I knew who lived in that world regarded the police not with admiration and respect but with fear and caution. People write these feelings off as wholly irrational at their own peril, or their own leisure. The case against the Baltimore police, and the society that superintends them, is easily made:
The question that most people ask themselves as they walk into their boss's office to negotiate their salaries is likely some variant of "What am I going to say?" But according to hostage negotiator Chris Voss, that might be the least important thing to keep in mind when negotiating.
Voss, now an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, spent 24 years at the FBI. It was as an FBI agent that he started to get interested in hostage negotiations. At the time, a supervisor told him to start by volunteering at a suicide hotline to gain the set of listening abilities that a hostage negotiator needs. By 1992, he was training at the FBI's school for negotiators, and from 2004 to 2007, he was the FBI's lead international hostage negotiator. After retirement, Voss founded The Black Swan Group to bring negotiation know-how to the business world.
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.
After all the anticipation, hype, and controversy surrounding Saturday's fight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr., it was easy to forget that an actual boxing match was to occur. But sure enough, the two men entered the ring at Las Vegas' MGM Grand and fought each other across 12 tightly-contested rounds, trading jabs and dodges. In the end, the three judges awarded Mayweather, who landed 148 punches to Pacquiao's 81, a unanimous victory—his 48th without a single defeat.
The reaction was underwhelming. The fight had "no real intrigue," wrote Sharan Shetty at Slate, adding that "it’s unlikely that anyone new to boxing became enamored with the sport after watching." But this isn't really surprising. For all of its literary flair, boxing, as a spectator sport, is often rather dull. Saturday's match was no exception. Both Mayweather and Pacquiao applied a defensive strategy that aimed to wear down his opponent, neither made many attempts at landing a knockout blow. For serious fans, this strategy is simply part of the sport's charm, and as a clinical display of boxing, Saturday's match was no disappointment.
When The Last Man on Earth debuted in March to critical praise and surprisingly strong ratings, it felt like a notable anomaly on network television. In its spare opening episode, creator/star Will Forte's vision of the post-apocalypse Earth featured a white-trash Monsieur Hulot-type wreaking wanton property destruction in Tucson and pilfering antiquities from the Smithsonian in an effort to stave off the crushing emptiness of the world. When another character (played by Kristen Schaal) entered the scene, it initially felt like sweet relief—someone for Forte's shellshocked wanderer to play off of—but then more people started rolling in, and the show became something far more nightmarish: a vision of the dating life of a single, entitled, American thirtysomething.