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Adapting to Automation

From different angles, two of our feature stories explore the role of humans in an automated world.
June 18, 2013

While we await Immanuel Kant’s perpetual peace, there will be wars; and if the president of the United States must sometimes defend the bad against the worse, perhaps it’s as well that he should make war with unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

jason pontin

To a fastidious and cautious politician, drone strikes are appealing. They cause fewer civilian casualties than other forms of air war, because the munitions are small and accurate. Compared with any deployment of troops—even with what the military euphemistically calls “direct action” (the kind of special-forces operation that killed Osama bin Laden)—drone strikes have few costs and little risk.

These facts explain why drones have become “the favored technology for targeted assassinations in the global war on terror,” according to Fred Kaplan in “The World as Free-Fire Zone.” They are a peculiarly American weapon: today, while many countries use drones for surveillance, only the United States has the combination of intelligence-gathering and targeting technologies to kill a particular person or type of person anywhere, at any time.

The fierce distaste critics feel for this “arrogant sort of warfare,” Kaplan writes, is the common, historical reaction to any new weapon that kills from a distance. People felt same way when the Royal Air Force bombed Germany’s cities during the Second World War. But, he concedes, drones are different. One way they are different is they’re so easy to use that commanders blithely order strikes in parts of the world where the United States is not at war. The effect upon us is of course regrettable; monopolies, especially those of violence, are corrupting to those who enjoy them. But drone strikes may also possess negligible strategic value. There is a wearying futility to the whole business: when a number 3 leader of al-Qaeda is taken out by a drone, Kaplan says, there’s always some number 4 leader of al-Qaeda ready to take his place.

The development of drones should remind us that technological advances are not the same as progress (a fact often forgotten, at least by technologists). In another new MIT Technology Review feature story, David Rotman explains how robots, automation, and software have increased the productivity of the United States at the same time that job growth has wilted (see “How Technology Is Destroying Jobs”). Some economists believe that technological change has been “destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, contributing to … the growth of inequality.” Rotman concludes that economists don’t know if the decoupling of productivity from employment is permanent; but he says it’s “hard to ignore … that technology is widening the income gap between the tech-savvy and everyone else.”

Drones and automation push humans to the perimeter of activities where they were once the central actors. Both writers suggest that whether the advance of machines into war and work is a progressive matter depends less on the technologies themselves than on how we choose to react and adapt to our newfound capabilities. Kaplan deplores covert use of drones by the Central Intelligence Agency and wishes the flights to be part of the ordinary, legally restricted military operations conducted by the Department of Defense. One economist Rotman quotes, who believes the economy may have really changed, says that our ability to recover will depend on recognizing the problem and taking such steps as investing more in the training and education of workers.

Both insist that we must think how we wish to use new technologies, and not be used by them. But write to me at and tell me what you think.

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