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Military intelligence? :-) …or Skynet 2.0?

I felt badly enough that the U.S. is flying UNARMED Predator drones over its northern and southwestern borders.

Now, the Navy is testing an autonomous robotic plane without a pilot anywhere.

Oh, it will be HEAVILY armed.

The X-47B drone being tested near Chesapeake Bay (Hey! I’m glad that it’s on the “RIGHT coast” this time! :-) ) can fly autonomously using onboard computers without a pilot ANYWHERE and will learn to land on an aircraft carrier. Humans will program an autonomous drone‘s flight plan and could override its decisions (hmmm, what about interference or jamming? …or viruses?), but technology is once again way ahead of ethics.

“Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability,” said Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist and robotics expert. “This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military’s acquisition process? The manufacturer, for faulty equipment?”

Representative Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita, CA) are the co-chairs of a bipartisan drone caucus (yeah, “drone on!”) that is officially known as the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, a pane in 2009 to inform members of Congress about the applications of drone technology.

“It’s a different world from just a few years ago — we’ve entered the realm of science fiction in a lot of ways,” Cuellar said. “New rules have to be developed as new technology comes about, and this is a big step forward.”

Or a big step BACKWARD…! Hey! I wonder if any of the autonomous drones will someday carry nuclear weapons. It seems as though it will only be a matter of time…. (Omigosh! I just had a very scary thought. What if the drones are running Windows? :-) )

Don’t you wish that these folks had read their Asimov? Specifically, the Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

According to the L.A. Times article:

Aerial drones now piloted remotely have become a central weapon for the CIA and U.S. military in their campaign against terrorists in the Middle East. The Pentagon has gone from an inventory of a handful of drones before Sept. 11, 2001, to about 7,500 drones, about one-third of all military aircraft.

and:

The Air Force wrote in an 82-page report that outlines the future usage of drones, titled “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047,” that autonomous drone aircraft are key “to increasing effects while potentially reducing cost, forward footprint and risk.” Much like a chess master can outperform proficient chess players, future drones will be able to react faster than human pilots ever could, the report said.

“Increasingly humans will no longer be ‘in the loop’ but rather ‘on the loop’ — monitoring the execution of certain decisions,” the report said. “Authorizing a machine to make lethal combat decisions is contingent upon political and military leaders resolving legal and ethical questions.”

Sure, the X-47B was built in California, in Palmdale at Northrop Grumman Corp., where the B2 stealth bomber was manufactured.

Funded under a $635.8-million contract awarded by the Navy in 2007, the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration program has grown in cost to an estimated $813 million.

Last February, the first X-47B had its maiden flight from Edwards Air Force Base, where it continued testing until last month when it was carried from the Mojave Desert to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in southern Maryland. It is there that the next stage of the demonstration program begins.

The landing on an aircraft carrier is slated for 2013.

The X-47B will not only land itself, but will also know what kind of weapons it is carrying, when and where it needs to refuel with an aerial tanker, and whether there’s a nearby threat, said Carl Johnson, Northrop’s X-47B program manager. “It will do its own math and decide what it should do next.”

Maybe someday, its offspring will decide, like Skynet, that human beings are too unstable to have control. From the looks of things, the machines would likely be correct. Maybe the machines, just like the HAL9000, will assimilate the mental illnesses of their creators and controllers.

Let’s hope that the machines develop the wisdom that their human creators clearly lack.

-Bill at

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