Drones | From The Super Bowl to Syria

I don’t much like American Football. Or Lady Gaga. I’m not sure why I was watching the rerun of Super Bowl 51 this morning then, but one thing did catch my attention: the 300 synchronised robots flying overhead as Gaga sang ‘God Bless America’ during the half time show.  

Those robots were drones. Because that’s essentially what a drone is, a robot that can fly. And who flies them? Machines. Strangely then, my biggest take from Super Bowl 51 was that Artificial Intelligence is really real and it’s both incredibly impressive and incredibly intimidating. 

The drones we saw are called the ‘Shooting Stars’ and were created and programmed by Intel. They have onboard LED’s which, in unison, can create 4 BILLION different colour combinations. If one falls out of place, it’s programmed to quickly send another up to take its place. There’s a good piece on ‘TechCrunch’ about their design and specs. In short though, Intel reckon the 300 on show at the Super Bowl is nothing, they say more than 10,000 drones can be used in sync with one another. That's incredibly impressive. 

Intel's 'Shooting Star's' at Disney World.

Intel's 'Shooting Star's' at Disney World.

The American flag stunt was Intel using drones for show. But when they’re not delivering more patriotism to what's apparently the most patriotic country in the world, drones are also being used to change and improve our lives in various ways. Drones are being sent into the atmosphere to collect data for Climate Scientists, helping in the fight against climate change. They are monitoring wildlife numbers of potentially endangered species as well as providing surveillance to help prevent poaching. Agricultural drones are transforming farming, allowing farmers to survey their crop in a cheaper, more time effective way. They’re even being used to deliver supplies on Search and Rescue missions. These flying robots are actually saving lives. 

What's intimidating about them then? 

Their ability to take lives. 

Military Drones

U.S forces and their allies (inc. GB and France) have been using drones in Syria for the past few years. The benefits are obvious: increased surveillance, no risk of human life, affordability. But this of course works two ways. 

I recently read an article from the ‘IBTimes’ which detailed how Iraqi forces are spotting increasing amounts of IS (Islamic State) operated drones. The most advanced of which are fitted with cameras and explosive devices. They are being wired to function as unmanned suicide bombers. The drones in the hands of these terrorist groups may not yet be self-automated, but they are already highly dangerous and they will only develop in functionality. 

Military drones are the beginning of remote controlled warfare and the ethics surrounding it are shady to say the least. 

In his book ‘The Master Algorithm’, Pedro Domingos briefly touches on robot warfare. He mentions how self-driving trucks are already providing supplies to troops and that robots are defusing bombs. Most interestingly though Domingos describes how soon enough it could be the robots themselves with their finger on the trigger. In the world of Artificial Intelligence (AI) robots learn ethics by observing human behaviour. Relate this to military AI and the way they might learn. When military drones observe the behaviour of troops it's easy to envisage their wires becoming crossed somewhat, just think of the various occasions that our military actions have violated our very own ethical principles. What chance does a robot have in making the ‘right’ decision in life-or-death situations when we are still learning ourselves? The stakes are much higher when peoples lives are on the line. 

The ‘Shooting Star’ drones Intel showcased at Super Bowl 51 were some of the most highly advanced in the business. That short display was the result of months of planning and software design. But it’s a sign of things to come; technology advances quickly remember. The synchronisation of 300 military drones is a thought equally as intimidating as it is impressive.  

I'll leave you with a line from Domingos' fascinating book on AI:

“If in future wars millions of kamikaze drones will destroy conventional armies in minutes, they’d better be our drones”

There’s a new man in control of ‘our drones’ now and we have to ask ourselves how much we trust his ethical judgement. That's what I was thinking about when I watched Lady Gaga sing 'God Bless America' under a sky full of drones at this year's Super Bowl.