Nov 7 2018

Unintended Consequences of the Upcoming Drone Apocolypse

On Monday, I wrote a post titled Look Up and Don’t Give Up that included the 2:48-second video of a mama bear and her cub struggling across a steep cliff covered with snow. 20+ million people have also looked at it and, I expect, found inspiration from it as I did.

I didn’t think very hard about this until this morning when I read The Atlantic article titled The Problem Behind a Viral Video of a Persistent Baby Bear: What appears to be a life-affirming triumph is really a cautionary tale about drones and wildlife.

As I was reading the article, I flashed back to several books from two different authors – William Hertling and Daniel Suarez – that included autonomous drones (and drone swarms) as part of their plots. I remember being incredibly anxious during the sections on killer drones controlled (or programmed) by bad guys, and then even more anxious when the drones appeared to be completely autonomous, just carrying out whatever their mission was while coordinating with each other.

And then I felt pretty uncomfortable about my enthusiastic feelings about the cub and the mama bear. I remembered the moment near the end of the video where the mama bear swats at the cub and then the cub falls down the snow-covered mountain for a long time before stopping and starting the long climb up again. I had created a narrative in my head that the mama bear was reaching out to help the cub, but the notion of the drone antagonizing the mama bear, which responded by trying to protect the cub, rings true to me.

My brain then wandered down the path of “why was that idiot drone pilot sending the drone so close to the bears?” I thought about how the drone wasn’t aware of what it was doing, and the pilot was likely completely oblivious to the impact of the drone on the bears. I thought about how confused and terrified the bears must have been while they scrambled over the snow to try to reach safety. Their dash for cover in the woods took on a whole new meaning for me.

I then thought about what encountering a drone swarm consisting of 100 autonomous drones would feel like to the bears. I then teleported the bears to safety (in my mind) and put myself in their place. That most definitely did not feel good to me.

We are within a decade of the autonomous drone swarm future. Our government is still apparently struggling to get voting machines to work consistently (although the cynical among us expect that the non-working voting machines are part of a deliberate approach to voter suppression in certain places.) At the same time, we can order food from our phone and have it delivered in 30 minutes, no matter what the food is or where we are located. Humans are still involved in the delivery, but that’s only a temporary hack on the way to the future where the drones just drop things off for us.

When I talk to friends about 2030 (and yes, I hope to still be around), most people extract linearly from today. A few of my friends (mostly sci-fi writers like William and Eliot Peper) are able to consistently make the step function leaps in imagination that represent the coming dislocation from our current reality. I don’t think it’s going to be visitations from aliens, distant space travel due to FLT drives, or global nuclear apocalypse. Sure, those are possible and, unless we get our shit together on humans on several dimensions, we’ll continue our steady environmental and ecological destruction of the planet. But, that kind of stuff is likely background noise to the change that is coming.

It’s the change you can see through the bears’ eyes (and fear) while at the same time the joy that humans appear to get – mostly – from observing them, but not really thinking about the unintended consequences. While the killer AI that smart people scarily predict could be front and center, I think it’s more likely our inability to anticipate, and react to, unintended consequences that are really going to mess us up.


Also published on Medium.