Hannah Arendt once used the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe the character of Adolph Eichmann's acquiescence in committing atrocities for the Nazi regime. What this phrase means, in Eichmann's case, is that it was his "sheer thoughtlessness -- something by no means identical with stupidity -- that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period." Indeed, it is "that such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together," that evil is in this sense banal, means that there is no thought -- no decision -- to be (or to act) evil. It is so commonplace, and it is a lack of thinking that results in the most horrific of actions. Thus Eichmann's most dangerous element was that he threw away what it meant to be human -- he threw away his capacity for rational thought and reflection on right and wrong, good and evil.
We are at a similar juncture with regards to a "lack of thinking." In our case, however, it is in regards to the delegation of thinking to a machine, and a lethal machine in particular. What I mean here is that militaries, and the U.S. military in particular, envisions a future where weapons do the thinking -- that is, planning, target selection and engagement. Already the U.S. military services have capabilities that enable weapons to seek out and queue targets, such as the F-35 joint fighter and some targeting software platforms on tanks, like the M1 Abrams, as well as seeking out targets and automatically engaging them, like Phalanx or Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (CRAM) systems.
The U.S.' decision to rely on unmanned aerial vehicles, or "drones," admits to the appeal of fighting at a distance with the use of automated technology. The current drones in combat operations, such as the Predator and Reaper, show the ease with which killing by remote can be accomplished. While drones are certainly problematic, from a legal and moral standpoint in regards to targeted killings, human beings still ultimately control this type of technology. Human pilots are in the "cockpit," and for better (or worse) there are human beings making targeting decisions.
The worry, however, is that militaries are planning to push autonomy further than the F-35 joint striker (which is far more autonomous than the Predator or Reaper) to "fully autonomous" weapons. Moreover, while we might try to push this worry aside and claim that it is a long way off, or too futuristic, we cannot deny the middle term between now and "fully autonomous" weapons. In this middle term, the warfighter will become increasingly dependent upon such technologies to fight. Indeed, we already see this in "automation bias" (or the over-reliance on information generated by an automated process as a replacement for vigilant information seeking and processing). With increased dependence on the technology, this automation bias will only increase and thus will lead to a degeneration of not only strategic thinking in the services, but like the case of Eichmann, a lack of thinking more generally.
The evil here is that through the banality of autonomy, we risk not only creating a class of unthinking warfighters, but that the entire business of making war becomes so removed from human judgment and critical thinking that it too becomes commonplace. In fact, it might become so banal, so removed from human agency, that even the word "war" starts to lose meaning. For what would we call a conflict where one side, or both, hands over the "thinking" to a machine, doesn't risk its soldiers' lives, and perhaps doesn't even place human beings outside of its own borders to fight? "War" does not really seem to capture what is going on here.
The danger, of course, is that conflicts of this type might not only perpetuate asymmetric violence, but that it further erodes the very foundations of humanity. In other words, if we are not careful about the increasing push towards autonomous weapons, we risk vitiating the thinking, judging and thus rational capacity of humanity. What was once merely automation bias becomes the banality of autonomy, and in an ironic twist, humans lose their own ability to be "autonomous."
The human warfighter is now the drone.
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S.) <strong>Description</strong>: Boeing's stealth Phantom Ray took to the skies for the <a href="http://www.boeing.com/Features/2011/05/bds_phantom_ray_first_flight_05_04_11.html" target="_hplink">first time in April 2011</a>. According to Boeing, the <a href="http://www.boeing.com/advertising/bma/unmanned/unmanned_05.html" target="_hplink">Phantom Ray can perform missions</a> such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; suppression of enemy air defenses; and electronic attack. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Unknown. This is a "demonstrator" so there will likely be a future variation of the Ray.
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S.) <strong>Description</strong>: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems <a href="http://www.ga-asi.com/products/aircraft/predator_c.php" target="_hplink">Predator Avenger C</a> is a beast. According to the two-page brochure, the PAC is a "Next-Generation Multi-mission ISR and Strike Aircraft" and successor for the Predator B that can be stacked with a multitude of weaponry. <strong>Deployment</strong>: There is one <a href="http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story.jsp?topicName=unmanned&id=news/awst/2011/12/19/AW_12_19_2011_p25-406500.xml&headline=USAF Plans Larger, More Capable Predator&channel=&from=topicalreports" target="_hplink">demonstration craft currently in Afghanistan</a>.
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S.) <strong>Description</strong>: Yo dawg, I heard you like drones so I <a href="http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/10/socom-warhead-drones/" target="_hplink">put a drone in your drone</a>. One small deadly warhead-equipped mini-drone stuffed into another, to be launched from the main drone and remotely aimed at a target. <strong> Potential Deployment</strong>: This <a href="http://defensenewsstand.com/NewsStand-General/The-INSIDER-Free-Article/socom-could-have-warhead-equipped-micro-uav-by-spring-2012/menu-id-720.html" target="_hplink">warhead-equiped micro-UAV</a> could be flown by SOCOM in the skies by spring 2012.
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (USA) <strong>Description</strong>: <a href="http://www.avinc.com/uas/adc/switchblade/" target="_hplink">AeroVironment's Switchblade</a> is meant to be a portable, rapid deployment, beyond line-of-sight, "loitering munition" that is a "magic bullet." A bit of advice, AeroVironment: Don't describe a remote-controlled bomb as a "loitering munition" that you call "Switchblade," as it conjures up images of 1950's-style greasers loitering on street corners, flipping open switchblades idly as they wait for their favorite gals. Luckily, greasers won't be in charge of flying Switchblades. They're to be controlled by infantry and <a href="http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=7982421&&s=TOP" target="_hplink">according to the AeroVironment</a>, "Flying quietly at high speed the Switchblade delivers its onboard explosive payload with precision while minimizing collateral damage." <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Undisclosed.
<strong>Type</strong>: Surveillance (USA, DARPA Funded) <strong>Description</strong>: AeroVironment is at it again. In partnership with DARPA, they've actually managed to build a human mechanically engineered version of one of nature's most amazing flying machines: the hummingbird. The <a href="http://www.avinc.com/media_gallery/" target="_hplink">Nano Hummingbird</a> is a perfect bid for James Bond-esque style spy shenanigans. Once these hit the field, we'll never look at hummingbirds the same way. "Stop looking at me! That bird is following me!" <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Within five years.
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S. Army) <strong>Description</strong>: Though the military's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/30/us-army-hummingbird-a160-helicopter-drone_n_1176763.html?ref=technology" target="_hplink">A160 Hummingbird drone</a> doesn't resemble an actual hummingbird so much as AeroVironment's take, it is <a href="http://www.salon.com/2011/12/06/nprs_domestic_drone_commercial/" target="_hplink">raising just as many alarms</a> because of its potential to be deployed on the U.S. home front. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: May or June 2012, Afghanistan
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S. Navy) <strong>Description</strong>: Northrop Grumman <a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/mq8bfirescout_navy/index.html" target="_hplink">describes the Firescout</a> as a "Transformational Fire Scout Vertical Takeoff and Landing Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle system provides unprecedented situation awareness and precision targeting support for U.S. Armed Forces of the future. The MQ-8B Fire Scout has the ability to autonomously take off and land on any aviation-capable warship and at prepared and unprepared landing zones in proximity to the soldier in contact." <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: <a href="http://www.irconnect.com/noc/press/pages/news_releases.html?d=237497" target="_hplink">March 2013</a>
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (German Ministry of Defense, purchased from Northrop Grumman) <strong>Description</strong>: NG touts its <a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/euro_hawk/index.html" target="_hplink">Euro Hawk</a>, built for German Ministry of Defense, as having a "wingspan larger than a commercial airliner, endurance of more than 30 hours and a maximum altitude of more than 60,000 feet, EURO HAWK is an interoperable, modular and cost-effective replacement to the aging fleet of manned Breguet Atlantic aircraft, which have been in service since 1972 and will be retired in 2010." <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: 2015, 2016 (<a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/euro_hawk/assets/SIGINT_NewsRelease_101211.pdf" target="_hplink">PDF</a>)
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S. Navy) <strong>Description</strong>: A carrier-based combat drone, <a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/nucasx47b/index.html" target="_hplink">Northrop Grumman's futuristic X-47B</a> flew in its cruise configuration <a href="http://www.irconnect.com/noc/press/pages/news_releases.html?d=239278" target="_hplink">for the first time</a> on November 22, 2011. It can land with precision on the deck of a moving aircraft carrier, and features twin weapons payload bays that hold up to 4,500 lbs. (<a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/nucasx47b/assets/X-47B_Navy_UCAS_FactSheet.pdf" target="_hplink">PDF</a>). <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: <a href="http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/11/navy-killer-drone-refuel/" target="_hplink">2018</a>
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (British) <strong>Description</strong>: BAE System's Taranis (<a href="http://www.baesystems.com/BAEProd/groups/public/documents/bae_publication/bae_pdf_taranis_fact_sheet.pdf" target="_hplink">PDF</a>) is aiming to "Push the boundaries by providing advancements in low observability capability and autonomous mission systems operations demonstrating the feasibility and utility of UAVs." Such a statement starts to push the idea of fully autonomous flight from science fiction into science fact, though we're still a long way off from having an actual real debate on fully autonomous drones fighting our battles and flying our skies. Potential Deployment: TBD, test flights have been delayed to 2012.
<strong>Type</strong>: Communications <strong>Description</strong>: Boeing's hydrogen-powered <a href="http://www.boeing.com/Features/2010/07/bds_feat_phantom_eye_07_12_10.html" target="_hplink">Phantom Eye</a> is a High Altitude Long Duration Craft designed to fly at <a href="http://www.boeing.com/Features/2011/11/bds_phantom_eye_11_16_11.html" target="_hplink">65,000 feet for up to four days</a>. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Unknown
<strong>Type</strong>: Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) <strong>Description</strong>: <a href="http://www.darpa.mil/Our_Work/TTO/Programs/Vulture.aspx" target="_hplink">DARPA's description</a> says the "Vulture technology enables a re-taskable, persistent pseudo-satellite capability, in an aircraft package." Basically, DARPA is attempting to develop a super long duration craft capable of five year continuous flight. Think about that - the Vulture is intended to fly for up to five years continuously. If it were to launch this year it would be in the air for two Olympics. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Unknown
<strong>Type</strong>: Government Funded Space Exploration <strong>Description</strong>: While the proposal probably won't go through for this mission, this is an aerial drone we can really get behind. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/04/aviatr-probe-proposed-mission-titan_n_1184028.html" target="_hplink">AVIATR</a> would be a long distance drone that would fly the skies of Saturn's moon Titan. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Beyond 2020
<strong>Type</strong>: Surveillance (Japan) <strong>Description</strong>: Techcrunch <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2011/10/25/video-japans-defense-ministry-develops-awesome-ball-shaped-drone/" target="_hplink">tells us</a> that the drone can "stand still in mid-air, fly vertically and horizontally through narrow spaces at up to 60km/h, and (which is very cool) keep on moving when it hits the ground or a wall. Thanks to three gyro sensors in its body, the machine can keep also flying even if it's hit by an obstacle." And all for only $1,400. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Undisclosed