A Public Intervention
At approximately 9:45 am on October 7th a crowd gathered outside the United Nations on 1st Avenue when from across the street approached a nearly to-scale replica of a US Air Force Predator Drone. A single voice could be heard yelling the words, “Double Tap!” After which the gathering replied, “Drone Strike!” and all fell to the ground. This is Blank Slate, a public art intervention coinciding with the start of the First Committee meetings as well as the anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan, where drones are a mainstay in combat and could soon be joined by autonomous weapons of war.
Though decommissioned in 2018 the Predator was the genesis of the US drone program, with replicas produced by China, and US models sold to Italy, Turkey, UAE and Morocco it is a symbol for the future of warfare. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that drones have killed upwards of 12,000 people in four countries, approximately 1700 of which were civilians and a Stanford University study found that during the Obama administration as little as 2% of those killed in Pakistan were high-value targets. All before the Trump administration revoked reporting requirements on civilian casualties in unofficial wars earlier this year, while simultaneously increasing the number of drone strikes by up to four times. Blank Slate represents the civilian casualties caused by U.S. drone strikes. With accountability standards weakening and proliferation on the rise, the performance serves as a warning of a future with robotic weapons if we don’t take action immediately.
DARPA backed defense contractors are developing unmanned weapon and AI systems at a staggering pace, and though AI has not quite reached the level of “general human intelligence” it is highly capable of following complex instruction. If we continue to arm drones and other robotic systems we will quickly find ourselves in a world where robots are given the authority to take human life without human oversight. There is a technical distinction to be made between armed drones as they currently stand, which are classified as semi-autonomous weapons, and fully autonomous weapon systems (AWS) that will inevitably take their place. Drones that are currently semi-autonomous with human pilots often half the globe away will be aided by software developments like those at Duke University HAL laboratory to make the transition to full autonomy in the very near future.
This transition is poised to be one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century and if we don’t take a stand in defense of human life and liberty now we may quickly find ourselves in an almost unrecognizable reality. One where machines are dispatched from all corners of the globe to seek and destroy human targets, where land, sky, and sea can be used to mobilize swarms of autonomous weapons with this single purpose. The size and cost of robotics are continually decreasing and energy efficiency improving giving ideological groups with minimal resources the power to utilize these weapons against whomever they want. There will be no boundaries, geographic, financial or racial that will protect humanity from autonomous weapons in this unregulated future.
At the end of the performance, a lone standing individual held signs that read, “by March 2019 1725 civilians have been killed by robots of war. Then we stopped counting. Ban Autonomous Weapons.” It is time to act and Blank Slate is here to remind us all how serious the problem is. We must clean the slate and begin anew our relationship with robotics, using their proliferation for good and putting an end to the death, destruction, and intimidation they so often cause.
Created in collaboration with:
Veterans for Peace
Reaching Critical Will
Interfaith Network on Drone Warfare
United National Antiwar Coalition
Peace Action NY