In response to:

Predators and Robots at War from the September 29, 2011 issue


To the Editors:

The review by Christian Caryl of two books on UAVs, or unmanned aerial verhicles, commonly known as drones, raises a troubling question but doesn’t pursue its implications [“Predators and Robots at War,” NYR, September 29]. “Given that more than forty countries are now experimenting with military robots of their own,” Mr. Caryl writes, “the United States cannot rest on the assumption that it will retain a monopoly over this technology forever. The day when US forces are attacked by a drone—perhaps even one operated by a terrorist—is not far away.” Previously Mr. Caryl mentions in passing that small drones or robots might be linked together into “‘swarms’—clouds or crowds of [such] machines that would share their intelligence, like a hive mind, and have the capability to converge instantly on identified targets.”

The author fails to ask the obvious question: What if some of these forty-odd countries at work on UAVs were to create swarms of such vehicles, each component armed with a miniaturized nuclear weapon aimed for example at the United States or China? Would this not realize the fantasies of infuriated pubescents to destroy not merely their classmates but all life on earth? Is it wise to entrust our frustrated and easily enraged species with such armaments? Or is it no longer possible to keep these terminal weapons out of our hands? Is the situation like climate change, a once preventable calamity, but now no longer in our control?

Jason Epstein
New York City

Christian Caryl replies:

Jason Epstein is certainly right to ask this question. The use of drones as systems for the delivery of weapons of mass destruction is one of many potential areas of concern that arise from this technology. Happily, there is a near-term barrier to the particular scenario he mentions, which is that—for the foreseeable future, at least—miniaturizing nuclear weapons remains much more of a formidable engineering challenge than building unmanned aerial vehicles. Fortunately, the number of countries that can reduce nuclear weapons to the point where they can be mounted in the nose cones of missiles is still quite small even many decades after the detonation of the first atomic bomb. That said, I have no doubt that the possibility of using drones to disperse chemical or biological agents is already being tested by some nations as I write.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find that the notion of governments deploying insect-sized drones for purposes of surveillance already quite frightening in its own right, and this is one application that already appears to be well within the realm of the feasible. In any event, I certainly share Mr. Epstein’s worries, and I believe that it is already time for us to start thinking about possible constraints on the use of military robotics, including the drafting of an international legal framework to govern the technology’s use—assuming, of course, that it is not already too late, given how rapidly the know-how is spreading.