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Quoted: “Kill Decision” author Daniel Suarez talks lethal autonomy

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Author Daniel Suarez says his book about drones is a “cautionary tale.” He’ll explain what that means at TEDGlobal 2013.

Daniel Suarez is a former systems consultant turned novelist who will speak in session two at TEDGlobal 2013. Officially subtitled “Those Flying Things,” this is unofficially known as the drone session, and it will feature various speakers tackling the topic of unmanned aerial vehicles. For his part, Suarez will expound on some of the themes he examines in his most recent book, Kill Decision, a fictional romp through a world in which swarms of autonomous drones sink ships and systematically hunt and kill people. Here’s the most horrifying thing of all: it all sounds entirely plausible. 

Wanting to find out just how scared we need to be, we gave him Suarez a call. An edited version of our conversation follows.

So first things first. What’s up with Kill Decision? It’s terrifying!

It’s a cautionary tale! I want to get people to pay attention. I don’t want to scare them. Honestly. I look at what I do as looking over the horizon to spot icebergs. It’s not that I don’t like technology — after all, I spent 20 years as a systems analyst. But it’s all in the way we implement it. This was to suggest something of a course correction.

It all sounds terribly realistic, including detailed descriptions of drones and systems which do really exist in the world already. What’s your research process for a book like this?

Typically I’ll start with a subject that interests me, so with Kill Decision that was lethal autonomy. I’ll read about the state of the science in the field, so I read two dozen books on various things including swarming intelligence, robotics, military policy, quadrennial reviews of the Pentagon, and so on. I want to know: what’s the collective thinking, what’s the reality, and then what’s just over the horizon. I wanted to focus on robotic weapons that were possible, and after reading a lot about swarming intelligence I became fascinated with robotics and different forms of intelligence in the biological world. We might have the largest brain, but there are other creatures and strategies that are more effective in certain circumstances. If you put the brain of a weaver ant into a robot with weapons, and you make many of them, simulating their society algorithmically seems very possible. And because it’s possible, I want people to be aware of it. To be clear, I emphatically don’t want us to do it! But that’s a great rule for fiction. I get to spin scenarios and ask “what if,” and hopefully people learn new things and get to share my excitement in the research.

Many of the characters in your book are academics, deeply immersed in the world of research. Yet their work is co-opted by people who want to harness that insight for deeply selfish and entirely nefarious means. Should we worry more about the connection between academia and business or policy?

It really is up to society to decide how that goes. A scientist pursues science. Society has to ingest it and figure out what to do with it. In my view an open exchange of views is better than “you should never look into this.” I’m not into that. If you keep things hidden, that doesn’t stop things from happening. Open science helps to protect us more than secrecy ever would.

But you can’t put the autonomous killing machine genie back in the bottle, can you? How can you ensure that the bad guys don’t win?

There is a long list of technologies that should have rightly annihilated us, but we’ve created a society that’s more advanced than ever. That’s what gives me optimism. We’ve created international treaties for things like biological and nuclear weapons. It’s not perfect, but those are world-destroying weapons and the reason the world has not been destroyed is that humans in the main don’t want to destroy the world. That’s why you distribute power. Democracy is such a great thing, as ugly as it can be at times. So we have to come to a consensus about what to do with this new technology and drag it to the to public square for a big public debate. Yes, drones are not going away. Biological weapons and nukes are still here too — and so are we. I’m hopeful that as long as we take the time to understand the issues and have honest debate we will be able to incorporate unarmed autonomous vehicles into our daily lives without having robotic weapons flying around the place.

Are you going to scare everyone silly at TEDGlobal?

I don’t want to be all doom and gloom, I promise! I’m excited to be there in general and I’m eager to hear everything everyone else has to say on this topic.

Photo: SGVN/Staff. Photo by Walt Mancini/ROSE