On Wednesday, Mar. 6, United States Senator Rand Paul conducted a 13-hour filibuster in response to the Attorney General’s refusal to provide a clear answer to the question of whether the President has “the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil.” Paul’s impressive feat of stamina was praised by partisans on the Left and Right alike, and caused Attorney General Eric Holder to declare the next day that under no circumstance would drones ever be used to kill American citizens on American soil. While sympathetic to the thrust of Paul’s complaints, it seems that there was a large amount of irrationality surrounding his question, bringing clearer into focus the overblown fears about drones in general.
To put it simply, Paul’s question to Holder was ludicrous, revealing the paranoia surrounding drone technology. Imagine a Senator asking the same question to the Attorney General, but substitute the word drone with “helicopter,” “gun,” or “F-35”—the Bill of Rights clearly defends citizens’ right to live, and it is correspondingly obvious that the President is not granted the power to kill citizens by the Constitution. The only conclusion one can draw from this episode, then, is that drones are singularly unsettling in the mind of the average American.
This sense of fear was evident during the police manhunt for the fugitive ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner. As Dorner fled into the mountains, the police department made use of drone technology in its search for him. Predictably, the news media fixated on this fact, as if these drones were equipped with Hellfire missiles, ready to assassinate Dorner from the sky. How the use of these drones was in any way different from the police using a helicopter, besides being much cheaper and effective, was left unanswered.
All of the above is unsurprising, considering that supposedly well-informed technological magazines like Wired consistently warn their readers about the rise of the drone age. On the cover of a June magazine, Chris Anderson warned Wired’s readers of a future where people will spy on their neighbors with drones, and spouses will spy on one another to sniff out infidelity. Lost in these scare tactics was a simple point. Namely, you need someone to operate a drone for it to be of any use. Do we really expect a future where people are spending all day sitting on their couch, avoiding work, so that they can spy on their neighbour with a drone? Moreover, how is this any different from hiring a private investigator?
Indeed, it is this fear of machines that likely underlies the basis of Paul’s questioning, and people’s fears of drones in general. Roboticist Masahiro Mori coined a concept in 1970 called the uncanny valley, a term he used to describe the drop in comfort level that we experience when seeing machines replicate humans. While not a perfect analogy—drones are not acting like humans, but are merely replacing human functions—Mori’s term still seems to apply. Humans are largely comfortable with people piloting flying instruments of death, but an autonomous agent replicating the same actions still causes distress. This does not mean that we should let our fears get the better of us. Drones will probably be increasingly used in domestic contents, and they will likely have very positive utility. What would have really been something to cheer about was if Paul’s 13-hour filibuster targeted something that may truly be a breach of the President’s powers—the President’s endorsement of the increased use of drones to wage war abroad.