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Airplane Controls
A hand gripping the controls for an aircraft. This photograph was taken in a flight simulator.

Will killer drones make killing easier?

That, says a bioethicist, depends on who the pilots are

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger tells us that traditional aerial combat pilots tend to think the same way when piloting drones from an office:

The pilot, whose real name was not used for security reasons, dislikes the term “Play Station Mentality” to describe the emotional distance that some people believe a drone pilot has when engaging an enemy. In his experience, once he got into the pilot seat of a drone, it was very much like piloting a fast jet. Much of the information he received was in the same form as when he flew in a cockpit. In the pilot’s words,

“Once you are in that seat, once you are flying the aircraft, your mind is very much ‘I am in this aircraft’…There is the potential for you to feel that what you are doing isn’t real and there are no direct consequences. But I think that would only occur for someone who had not themselves sat in an aircraft and been shot at.”

The pilot says that when it comes to the rules of engagement, it is the same for Reapers [drones] as it is for manned aircraft. The ultimate decision to engage comes down to the pilot.

But what about a person who has never been in any such danger and so doesn’t have the same memories? Zeiger notes,

Perhaps, instead [of the “Play Station Mentality”], we should be more worried about the “Smartphone effect.” Studies have shown that people who spend more time socializing over text or through social media tend to lack empathy. Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation discusses the lack of empathy that many teens and college students have as a result of not having face-to-face conversations. Like the Reaper pilot, people who have real-life conversations can put themselves in the other’s shoes, or have empathy for the person on the other side of the text message.

The Reaper pilot is able to make a nuanced decision about whether or not to engage because he understands that he is dealing with a real human being. But what about the pilot who has not flown an aircraft or been shot at? Is this pilot more like the young smartphone addict who is emotionally and socially stunted because he has so little practice with real-life interactions?
Heather Zeiger, “Can We Trust Killer Robots and Drones to Act Ethically in Future Wars?” at MercatorNet

A lethal autonomous weapon (BAE Systems Corax) during flight testing/Brigadier Lance Mans

Our society is turning out a great many such young addicts and the future is going to be a very interesting place.

See also: Slaughterbots: Is it ethical to develop a swarm of killer AI drones? For threats like slaughterbots, the answer is the development of newer technology. Like it or not, history is replete with accounts of new military technology replacing old.  Evil, seeking influence, demands a response, so the technology to provide one must be developed. (Robert J.Marks)


Slaughterbots: How far is too far? And how will we know if we have crossed a line? A greater focus should be on restoring the foundations of our nation over building superweapons. And the key foundation is all human beings’ right to life. (Eric Holloway)

Will killer drones make killing easier?