Out of control

EDITORIAL: While states eagerly invest in autonomous weapons and employ drones more frequently, we should ask ourselves if we understand the long-term consequences.
Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review
Published date: August 1, 2019

As the drone that the US sent into Iranian territory last month was shot down, it was exploited politically by the Americans in accordance with their tendency to exacerbate the military-industrial madness worldwide. As it now stands, the world has become a more dangerous place to live. They have succeeded in provoking Iran to commence enriching uranium for nuclear arms. The Earth can already be devastated in about 7-8 minutes.

But this is not my point when I choose the title «Out of Control». In a public and mental environment where the act of taking offence is ubiquitous – a tendency eagerly supported by the mass media – people constantly search for new enemies. And with a sufficient number of enemies or «terrorists» lurking around every corner, the expenditure of a dizzying 1600 billion dollars pr. year is spent to keep the military industry going. In such a climate new weapon systems are constantly developed, such as unmanned drones.


For example, the time where spies swam ashore from submarines is soon to be over. Drones take their place. The American Marine Force has developed Heterogeneous Collaborative Unmanned Systems (HCUS), releasing one or more drones («encapsulated payload» from the submarines. Or schools of underwater drones are left hovering in the water, waiting for orders – to acoustically identify enemy warships and submarines.

As The Economist mentioned on July 22., the drones – maybe the next one over Iran – be able to release a series of solar-panel fueled sensors, disguised as stones, which will report back information from their cameras and microphones from their various positions, and who may also listen in on radio traffic and local signals.

Presumably, drones will be produced that will be self-sufficient, supplying themselves and arming themselves – to repeat their actions. Swarms of drones will also be able to cooperate and adjust to new situations – in the ongoing battle between machine and human.

We are already familiar with how unmanned armed drones, (like BlackWing) can obliterate vehicles, local arsenals or selected individuals. In contrast to living spies who may suffer capture and interrogation, drones are cheap «consumer products», whose origin is hard to trace.


Scientists, business leaders, and politicians recently signed a campaign against the development of deadly autonomous weapons – so-called killer robots. Toby Walsh, Professor at University of New South Wales, who visited the University of Oslo in June, told us that 4500 active scientists in the field of artificial intelligence and robots have signed the treaty – together with 30 000 others. And the Oslo Mets pro-rector Morten Irgens told us that Norway also has gained 680 signatures from academics, university directors to scientists in the field. Their aim is to bring about an agreement to ban deadly autonomous weapons as we did with chemical weapons, land mines and cluster bombs.

«Machines that have the power and the discretion to take human lives are politically unacceptable, are morally repugnant, and should be banned by international law»

For as General Secretary of the UN, António Guterres points out, artificial intelligence might unleash a new arms race – which is out of control. «Machines that have the power and the discretion to take human lives are politically unacceptable, are morally repugnant, and should be banned by international law». In the UN, 28 countries, among them, Austria, Brazil, and Chile have taken the lead in proposing a ban – which tellingly was blocked by the US, Israel, and Russia.

At the same time, some will claim that effective war machines can be better than humans, full of aggression and fear. And what if we could make algorithms in accordance with the Genève-convention about inhuman weapons and other laws so that warfare could spare civilians.

More control. Yes, why not let the «killer robots» fight each other. Or even better: let the enemies play their wars as a chess-game. But as the panel concluded: this is not how the world’s leaders wage their wars. Yet, Walsh hopes that Oslo will be able to lead the way – like they did when they started the campaign against cluster bombs in 2007.


The military analyst Cecilie Hellestvedt who attended OsloMet had doubts if a ban would be as effective as the one directed against cluster bombs. She takes part in the committee of ethics in Norway’s Petroleum fund, working with the investments, considering which parts of the military-industrial-complex the assets should be pulled out from.

No, artificial intelligence can’t simply be banned, so we need further deliberations. And when asked whether states would heed such a ban, he mentions how the employees of Google protested, out of concern for the civilians. They stopped Google’s Pentagon project. And if you scrutinize the matter, you will also note that Google introduced «ethical guidelines» to control artificial intelligence. Besides serving social purposes and the right to privacy, Google shall not work with weapons or «harmful technologies breaching international law or human rights».


But how about future scenarios where new weapons developed by the army will be employed against us from non-governmental parties. Autonomous weapons programmed to irreversible actions will someday end up in the hands of terrorists or militant groups outside the government’s control. Whatever comes from governments and armies will also become a means for those who «strike back».

25 years ago the IRA attacked the Heathrow Airport with bombs on three different occasions. Nobody got killed, even if the airport was closed for some hours. Extinction Rebellion (XR) threatened with sending inn cheap 100 dollar drones to stop all air traffic – an average of 1300 flights with 220 000 passengers. The action was a protest against the construction of a third airstrip. The campaign was canceled one day before the planned date on June 18. – followed by threats that it would recommence later. Dangerous? XR suggested that they would fly just a couple of meters above ground in the five-kilometer zone…

Does an airport have a real capacity to defend itself against such actions of civil disobedience, which also can lead to losses of innocent human lives? Today, there are as many as 200 anti-drone systems constructed to discover and trace intruders. An advanced form of radio jamming, electronic drone-capture, and nets are deployed as well as birds of prey like eagles and hawks.

And other civilian actions? Drones can be employed for more innocent purposes like spraying graffiti, but also to start fires and fire handguns. In Venezuela, someone tried to kill the president this way. And according to The Economist (June 15.), an activist landed a drone containing radioactive matter on the property of the Japanese Prime Minister – which remained undiscovered for weeks.

Autonomous weapons develop gradually, so we still have some time to act before they spread. If we do want a ban.