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.
Passengers on a domestic flight deplaning in New York were asked to present ID by Customs and Border Protection agents—a likely unenforceable demand that nevertheless diminishes freedom.
American citizens had their introduction to the Trump-era immigration machine Wednesday, when Customs and Border Protection agents met an airliner that had just landed at New York’s JFK airport after a flight from San Francisco. According to passenger accounts, a flight attendant announced that all passengers would have to show their “documents” as they deplaned, and they did. The reason for the search, Homeland Security officials said, was to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a search for a specific immigrant who had received a deportation order after multiple criminal convictions. The target was not on the flight.
After days of research, I can find no legal authority for ICE or CBP to require passengers to show identification on an entirely domestic fight. The ICE authorizing statute, 8 U.S.C. § 1357, provides that agents can conduct warrantless searches of “any person seeking admission to the United States”—if, that is, the officer has “reasonable cause to suspect” that the individual searched may be deportable. CBP’s statute, 19 U.S.C. § 1467, grants search authority “whenever a vessel from a foreign port or place or from a port or place in any Territory or possession of the United States arrives at a port or place in the United States.” CBP regulations, set out at 19 C.F.R. § 162.6, allow agents to search “persons, baggage, and merchandise arriving in the Customs territory of the United States from places outside thereof.”
The smartphone’s ubiquity has made it boring and oppressive. A new, retro handset opens the door to a different future.
They weighed heavy in pockets and jackets and bags, for they were thick and bulky, not lithe and narrow. Harried professionals never clutched one ostentatiously to say silently, “I’ve got better things to do than listen to this pitch or order this coffee.” Fashionable youth never dangled one nonchalantly from fingers as a flirty pique. Nothing was less sexy or less useful than a cell phone.
How is it possible, then, that Nokia has announced an updated edition of one of its most popular phones of the early aughts, the 3310? In short, because nothing has become less sexy or less useful than a smartphone.
* * *
First released in 2000, the Nokia 3310 emerged during the Cambrian explosion of mobile devices. Fashionless black bricks crossed the paths of colorful, candy-bar handsets. Slim, black Ericsson flip-phones shared airport security bins alongside silvered Motorola clamshells. WAP-enabled “feature phones” offered rudimentary, useless access to the internet, while the fat fingers of government officials and corporate executives mashed the keys of BlackBerry 957s and Treo 180s. Teens thumb-typed too—but texts instead of emails, on Danger Hiptops. The Nokia N-Gage even tried, and failed, to merge the mobile handset with the portable game system. Over the first half-decade of mass-market mobile devices, everything was attempted and nothing was holy.
Leaked draft legislation of a Republican Obamacare replacement shows a policy that might leave many Americans even farther behind.
The devil’s always in the details, but if the details of a new 100-page leaked draft of a House Republican plan to repeal Obamacare are too dense to parse, here’s a brief snapshot: Millions of people in rural areas where it’s already hardest to find doctors might no longer be able to afford health insurance in a few years.
The basics of that plan, which was unveiled by House Speaker Paul Ryan two weeks ago, and the rough shape of which has the support of new health secretary Tom Price and the Trump administration, are known. The plan removes the individual and employer mandates to purchase and provide insurance, respectively, and it would also repeal most of the taxes that fund Obamacare. It would roll back funding for the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and dramatically restructure the Medicaid program’s funding. Further, the plan would replace the Affordable Care Act’s cost-sharing subsidies and premium tax credits with an age-rated tax credit, all while keeping Obamacare’s popular pre-existing conditions ban.
When President Obama left, I stayed on at the National Security Council in order to serve my country. I lasted eight days.
In 2011, I was hired, straight out of college, to work at the White House and eventually the National Security Council. My job there was to promote and protect the best of what my country stands for. I am a hijab-wearing Muslim woman––I was the only hijabi in the West Wing––and the Obama administration always made me feel welcome and included.
Like most of my fellow American Muslims, I spent much of 2016 watching with consternation as Donald Trump vilified our community. Despite this––or because of it––I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump Administration, in order to give the new president and his aides a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America's Muslim citizens.
The military and older whites are the big winners in the president’s budget proposal, Democratic constituencies and Republican budget hawks are the big losers.
President Trump reportedly wants to exclude Social Security and Medicare from budget cuts while severely retrenching other domestic federal functions. That represents a frontal challenge not only to congressional Democrats but also to Republican budget hawks led by House Speaker Paul Ryan.
From one direction, the administration’s emerging budget blueprint represents a clear generational tilt toward the “gray” over the “brown”: It would elevate the spending priorities of a preponderantly white-and Republican leaning-older population over the needs of heavily diverse, and mostly Democratic, younger generations. But the plan would also prioritize the demands of seniors over the long-running effort by Ryan-led House Republicans to restrain the long-term growth in entitlement spending––which almost all budget experts consider the key to controlling long-term federal deficits.
Is the brash new president bending Washington to his will—or being tamed by the status quo?
Just over a month ago, Donald Trump thundered into the White House with a bold declaration. “We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action, constantly complaining, but never doing anything about it,” he said. Instead, he contended, “Now arrives the hour of action.”
Trump promised to steamroll the Washington status quo, disrupting both Republicans and Democrats. He would replace the elite consensus of both parties with a new, populist-nationalist philosophy, and bully Congress into submission.
One month in, Trump has certainly succeeded in kicking up a frenzy of news and controversy. It surrounds him at all times, like the cloud of dust around Pig-Pen in Peanuts. But when it comes to taming Washington, the results are decidedly mixed. Instead, it is the Republican Party—in the form of Congress and conservative institutions—that seems mostly to be in charge, and Trump who is being tamed.
Long after research contradicts common medical practices, patients continue to demand them and physicians continue to deliver. The result is an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatments.
First, listen to the story with the happy ending: At 61, the executive was in excellent health. His blood pressure was a bit high, but everything else looked good, and he exercised regularly. Then he had a scare. He went for a brisk post-lunch walk on a cool winter day, and his chest began to hurt. Back inside his office, he sat down, and the pain disappeared as quickly as it had come.
That night, he thought more about it: middle-aged man, high blood pressure, stressful job, chest discomfort. The next day, he went to a local emergency department. Doctors determined that the man had not suffered a heart attack and that the electrical activity of his heart was completely normal. All signs suggested that the executive had stable angina—chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle is getting less blood-borne oxygen than it needs, often because an artery is partially blocked.
In 1970, the small firm of Donaldson, Lufkin, & Jenrette held its IPO—and fundamentally reshaped the world of finance.
On the afternoon of May 22, 1969, Dan Lufkin, the 36-year-old cofounder of the small research-focused investment-banking and brokerage firm Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, or DLJ, walked into his first board of governors meeting at the august New York Stock Exchange, then, as now, located at the corner of Broad and Wall Streets, carrying with him a copy of a document that he had filed two hours earlier with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It was the first step in the process that would transform DLJ from a 10-year-old private partnership, with its stock owned by the firm’s partners and their friends, into a public company with shares that could be bought or sold by anyone willing to do so. It also would allow DLJ to get greater access to more affordable and badly needed capital than its partners would otherwise be able to provide.
John Krakaeur, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, has been asked to BRAIN Initiative meetings before, and describes it like “Maleficent being invited to Sleeping Beauty’s birthday.” That’s because he and four like-minded friends have become increasingly disenchanted by their colleagues’ obsession with their toys. And in a new paper that’s part philosophical treatise and part shot across the bow, they argue that this technological fetish is leading the field astray. “People think technology + big data + machine learning = science,” says Krakauer. “And it’s not.”