The scene is of a fighter plane, an army submarine or tank operating as usual. The only difference is that aboard them are no human beings at all. This image isn’t from a sci-fi movie or even a far away future, instead Autonomous Weapons Systems or Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) were the focal point of countless discussions at the UN last week when member countries met in Geneva at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).
The convention’s aim is to bring together all members of the United Nations in a constructive and hopefully productive agreement to ban the use of automated weapons controlled by AI on an international scale. Now the case to ban autonomous weapons of all shapes and functionalities was first brought to the CCW back in 2013, when a coalition of nine NGOs under the name of Campaign to Stop Killer Robots began raising this growing concern and campaigning for the absolute and immediate outlawing of such military developments.
In last week’s convention and five years after the relentless campaigning against these lethal and highly controversial weapons began, 121 countries have agreed “that new regulations are needed to ensure meaningful human control of all weapons systems” as reported by Forbes. However successful this development is—which it is—concrete steps towards an international agreement to halt any developments in this field are yet to take place.
The U.S., China, Russia, Israel and Australia have previously opposed the negotiation and blocked a 2019 mandate on the matter as they then argued that it was too early on in the development of this new weapon branch, while also claiming that there are military advantages to such innovation. However in last week’s convention, all countries except for Russia agreed to continue the deliberations on the future of autonomous weapons in next year’s convention—unfortunately, as the CCW is based on a consensual structure of all members, Russia’s opposition had the voting power to block negotiations advancing further.
What such an opposition has caused is a detrimental slowing down of negotiation processes, which are already at a snail pace compared to that of hi-tech state military development and simply allows more time in a lawless grey zone for these nations to keep on developing their technology.
In response to the countries in opposition to continuing negotiation around the banning of such weapons, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, said that “The impacts of new technologies on warfare are a direct threat to our common responsibility to guarantee peace and security. The weaponization of artificial intelligence is a growing concern.”
It is yet unclear where the coming years will lead us in the development of autonomous weapons. What is transparent however is that powerful nations are striving to lead the race, with Putin stating that “Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world” already in 2017. All we can do is continue to campaign against this move while supporting the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and their cause to stop the development of automated military weapons.
Only two weeks ago, UPS launched its first fully operational and revenue-generating commercial drone-delivery service—surpassing other tries by competitors like Amazon, FedEx, and Uber. For now, it will only deliver medical supplies in North Carolina but this small step should push us to further our thinking on technology and the future. What place can drones have in the future? Maybe it’s time to go back to tech magnate and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ predictions about drones filling the skies to deliver our Domino’s pizzas and Amazon packages, and have a look at three sectors where drones are already starting to appear: healthcare, e-commerce, and humanitarian aid.
Drones first started to get noticed in 2013, when Amazon declared that they could potentially be the next big means of delivery. The media got excited but it soon calmed down again when people realised that this concept would probably take ten years to be put into place. And yet, here we are in 2019, and UPS (surprisingly not Amazon) has started flying drones out for deliveries.
The ‘shipment’ was made possible by collaborating with the California-based drone start-up Matternet. The company’s drone, the M2 quadcopter, left its starting point and flew to Raleigh’s WakeMed hospital. This successful try is the first one of many, with UPS programming to deliver healthcare products in other countries as soon as possible. Even though UPS was involved in this project and deserves some of the credit, most of it should go to Matternet.
Not only has the company worked on the test flight with UPS to deliver medical supplies, but it also works in the e-commerce and humanitarian sectors. In Switzerland, Matternet used vans as helipads as moving distribution hubs for aerial package delivery. This approach is very different to the success in North Carolina as it doesn’t require individuals having to interact with the drones, which remains one of the problems for drone deliveries to become ordinary.
In Switzerland again, cities will soon have quadcopters making deliveries to hospitals in urban areas across the country. The idea is the same as the UPS test flight—drones flying over densely populated areas, using automated landing stations to quickly deliver blood and pathology samples.
The third and last sector where drones are being tested is humanitarian aid. Working with Unicef, the company started testing drone flights in 2016 to explore cost-effective ways of reducing waiting times for HIV testing of infants. By cutting waiting times dramatically, this project could be integrated into Malawi’s health system. Unicef representative in Malawi, Mahimbo Mdoe said in an interview published on the NGO’s website that, “This innovation could be the breakthrough in overcoming transport challenges and associated delays experienced by health workers in remote areas.”
Unlike what many people believe about the drone industry, also known as the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) industry, this technology could mean new careers will be on the rise—with roles like technicians, programmers, operators, network administrators, and software engineers.
The first and most important obstacle that big companies will have to overcome in due time is regulation and approval from whichever countries they’ll be operating in. There’s a difference between being granted a test flight and getting a permit for commercial use. Many questions will need to be answered before anything can be approved—how high will the drones fly, in which areas, how much will they carry?
Drone pilot from the production house Stem Studios, Barney seems hopeful about the future in an interview with Screen Shot, “The possibilities with drones are endless, it’s just a new aerial tool that we use to lift equipment. We’ve had hot air balloons, blimps, birds, planes, helicopters—maybe vertical takeoffs and multi-rotor systems are the future as battery tech shrinks. Personal flying vehicles from films like Back to the Future will use vertical takeoff technology, I’m sure.” When asked about the problem of regulations, he said, “They’re set up for ten thousand and more planes that are in the sky at any given time, which is serious work. Drones are relatively new but these same aviation bodies are those who govern it and you can imagine the risk assessment of unidentified objects in the sky. The main limit is the technology, the reliability of lithium-ion batteries, and signal interference weaknesses. As these two parts of tech strengthen, so will the reliability of drones.”
For now, it remains to be seen whether hauling packages in this way is truly cost-effective, and if drones could save us time and money. Improvements must also be made to the drones’ battery life and performance if people are to receive larger items than a pizza. The closest that any company had come to people’s utopian expectations was Flytrex, with its shipping groceries services across a bay in Reykjavik in August 2017—an accomplishment that remains hard to meet in America due to regulatory issues. Let’s hope that Matternet continues to focus on using new technology to solve more important issues than an ASOS next day delivery.