Headline 'O the Day
Drones will cause an upheaval of society like we haven’t seen in 700 years
That's quite a statement isn't it? The article to which it refers explains a lot about why some people are instinctively concerned about the rise of drones and see them as not just another weapon. They are something very different and could revolutionize the way we organize society:
The human race is on the brink of momentous and dire change. It is a change that potentially smashes our institutions and warps our society beyond recognition. It is also a change to which almost no one is paying attention. I’m talking about the coming obsolescence of the gun-wielding human infantryman as a weapon of war. Or to put it another way: the end of the Age of the Gun.
I don't know if any of this plausible from a technological viewpoint, but it does sound at least possible from a human, sociological standpoint. Let's assume that there are a number of global "stresses" on the horizon, the most important of which is climate change and the inevitable large scale migration that naturally ensues. In a time of limited resources, growing population and vast wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer, is it really so outlandish to think that something like this might come to pass? (And I would also guess that it won't be --- at first,anyway --- just the mega-wealthy --- the regular people in certain places with more resources will be likely to enable their government to "protect" them as well.)
You may not even realize you have been, indeed, living in the Age of the Gun because it’s been centuries since that age began. But imagine yourself back in 1400. In that century (and the 10 centuries before it), the battlefield was ruled not by the infantryman, but by the horse archer—a warrior-nobleman who had spent his whole life training in the ways of war. Imagine that guy’s surprise when he was shot off his horse by a poor no-count farmer armed with a long metal tube and just two weeks’ worth of training. Just a regular guy with a gun.
That day was the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modernity. For centuries after that fateful day, gun-toting infantry ruled the battlefield. Military success depended more and more on being able to motivate large groups of (gun-wielding) humans, instead of on winning the loyalty of the highly trained warrior-noblemen. But sometime in the near future, the autonomous, weaponized drone may replace the human infantryman as the dominant battlefield technology. And as always, that shift in military technology will cause huge social upheaval.
Note that what we call drones right now are actually just remote-control weapons, operated by humans. But that may change. The United States Army is considering replacing thousands of soldiers with true autonomous robots. The proposal is for the robots to be used in supply roles only, but that will obviously change in the long term. Sometime in the next couple of decades, drones will be given the tools to take on human opponents all by themselves.
Meanwhile, technological advances and cost drops in robotics continue apace. It is not hard to imagine swarms of agile, heavily armed quadrotor drones flushing human gunmen out of buildings and jungles, while hardened bunkers are busted with smart munitions from cheap high-altitude robot blimps. (See this video if your imagination needs assistance.)
The day that robot armies become more cost-effective than human infantry is the day when People Power becomes obsolete. With robot armies, the few will be able to do whatever they want to the many. And unlike the tyrannies of Stalin and Mao, robot-enforced tyranny will be robust to shifts in popular opinion. The rabble may think whatever they please, but the Robot Lords will have the guns.
Where this scenario really gets scary is when it combines with economic inequality. Although few people have been focusing on robot armies, many people have been asking what happens if robots put most of us out of a job. The final, last-ditch response to that contingency is income redistribution – if our future is to get paid to sit on a beach, so be it.
But with robot armies, that’s just not going to work. To pay the poor, you have to tax the rich, and the Robot Lords are unlikely to stand for that. Just imagine Tom Perkins with an army of cheap autonomous drones. Or Greg Gopman. We’re all worried about the day that the 1% no longer need the 99%–but what’s really scary is when they don’t fear the 99% either.
Was it the gun that empowered the individual? I don't know about that. But it certainly seems plausible to me that the autonomous drone can disempower them. There is something truly different about drone weapons. It's the distance, the lack of personal danger, the sheer coldness of it. (Even B-52 bombers could get shot down or malfunction the crew could be killed or captured.) I don't know if this dystopian scenario is realistic in any way. But there's something about it that does make the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Mostly because if it is possible, I cannot imagine any way of stopping it.