March 1, 2013

Cloudy with a Chance of Robots

“Just don’t call them drones. People in the business dislike that word, which brings to mind a robot with no pilot; there is a pilot, but not on board.”

-Matthew Wald, Just Don’t Call It a Drone
The New York Times, Feb 1, 2013

There is a growing body of literature—if news reports, essays, blogposts (reflexivity duly noted), etc. constitutes such—concerning the contemporary phenomenon of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, an easy shorthand for technologically-optimized efficacy in modern warfare. (The epigram is from an article on college-level UAV training from a recent Times Education Supplement.)

But if UAV has the euphemistic ring of a state school or an STD, or a prophylactic measure obliquely related to the latter—the letters ‘U’ and ‘V’ tend to suggest as much—common parlance prefers the slangy alternative.1 Drones have increasingly made headlines not only as an indication of America’s purported Omega-level superiority in strategically targeted carnage but also as a threat to a justifiably paranoid citizenship. The semantic irony, of course, is that naturally occurring drones are precisely the hive or colony members who do not work, the small fraction of ants or bees whose sole duties are to feed and mate (as opposed to gathering sustenance).2

Yet insofar as its homonymous forms are polysemous—etymologically related despite their semantic divergence—the third meaning of “drone” has particularly relevant subtext for the hapless hoi polloi, an uncannily felicitous connotation for the masses who may be in denial about UAVs.

As a function of human agency, to drone denotes a dull, monotonous manner or tone, colloquially equivalent to ‘carrying on,’ for which alternate descriptors such as discursive, meandering, aimless, etc. vaguely suggest sense of purposeless motion; second-order associations such as ennui and banality evoke a contrary metaphor of inertia or stasis qua static. This twofold characterization ultimately represents a kind of nothingness, specifically a empty signification, vocalization without peaks or troughs, speech sans the variation or modulation that conveys passion, emotional investment, or, as it were, fallibility.

To drone implies background noise, a low-pitched hum that does not register consciously, rather more subtle than the liminal roar of an airplane engine; not stimulus but possibly its very opposite, a soporific or otherwise anesthetic blanket of white noise. A drone becomes part of the landscape, an ontological given of an environment: in a word, omnipresent—the auditory evidence of existence.

Thus, on one hand, a drone is essentially senseless or meaningless, that which goes unnoticed (albeit not necessarily by design); on the other, to drone connotes persistence, super- (or sub-) human degree of endurance that comes at the expense of intelligence or autonomy.

But if the English Language informs our concept of aerial technology as much as it betrays and elucidates our ambivalence towards a paranoid present, another now-quotidian acronym belies its equally bleak subtext. Almost exactly half a century after Turing’s eponymous test entered the lexicon of artificial intelligence, a team at CMU has turned the concept on its head with the CAPTCHA, an oblique insinuation that any upstanding netizen might just be a malicious machine.3 The inverted imperative defines us as that which we are not—bot until proven human—capturing, so to speak, the vague concession that the robots have already won.

Insofar as the current generation of UAVs in service are instruments of mortal hand and eye, these glorified (and lethal) remote-controlled vehicles are not yet autonomous. In fact, both cases underscore the shortcomings of artificial intelligence (cf. employing humans to crack CAPTCHAs), and I was curious to learn of a new service that ‘learns’ from one’s Twitter behavior in order to publish 140-character missives from beyond the grave. Contrary to the social-media-soteriological morbidity of its intended purpose, I can only assume that it would also be possible to use _LivesOn in vivo as well, such that particularly lazy or otherwise uncommitted Twitter users can train their bot-ghosts to emulate their musings for perpetuity.

But I digress: Like its digital analogue, airspace is (for all intents and purposes) infinite, and the point has less to do with whether robots are actually out there than the fact that they are a permanent possibility of our ever-new reality—hovering out of sight as opposed to merely blips on the horizon.

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Postscript: I initially stumbled upon (or Wiki-walked into) the notion of sousveillance last year, so I was curious to read Mark Hurst’s recent rant about Google Glass, a lengthy hypothesis about the new AR gadget in the real world, where it becomes an instrument of sous-surveillance, a quasi-parallel development to mostly legitimate concerns about domestic drones.

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1.) It should go without saying that capitalized appellations also suggest opaquely abridged defense-related subject matter, cf. DARPA, perhaps the most ominous acronym of all.

2.) I’ve always been interested in the congruence between the words etymology and entomology, though this is purely serendipitous. It does, however, explain the image.

3.) Issues of identity verification and/or authentication are also paramount, but beyond the scope of this otherwise free association. See also: Captchart.

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