This is a select transcript of the panel discussion which took place at VI PER gallery in Prague on March 22nd, 2018. The panelists were: Louis Armand, Vít Bohal, Dustin Breitling and Casey Carr.
DB: I want to get to the question of the employment of drones potentially transforming urban space and architecture, and secondly, of drone testing in combat and geopolitical zones of conflict. How does the technology come back into the urban setting, and how can it be used as an urban surveillance technology in western cities? […]
DB: We are looking at drones becoming more and more of an integrative object, as they are flooding and becoming ever more integrated into the civilian sector. In the civilian sector, we see drones associated with deliveries, where the most common association is Amazon. Aerial photography is also a well-known form of use. And disaster management is another one – particularly in devastated zones where drones are used to deliver certain types of materials or supplies as a result of the infrastructure being destroyed or damaged, rendering the environment incapable for regular types of deliveries. Geographic mapping is another common use, that is using drones to have an understanding of the whole territory which might normally be very difficult from ground level. We have numerous industries performing 3D mapping, and with 3D mapping come stratified visuals which map the territory and the urban environment. Drones are also able to map out construction sites and be able to work with bulldozers, excavators and other machinery, becoming integrated into a feedback loop of automation. And finally, precision agriculture. This is projected to be quite a booming industry as about 80% of commercial droning is associated with agriculture. They are used for purposes of irrigation, planting seeds, and providing imagery of crop yields.
CC: A lot of people have a preconception of the drone as based off war. A lot of the drone anarchitecture coming out of it is based on this idea of a Raptor drone, but you can have a fixed-winged drone or a rotary one as well. What changes the dynamic of the drone is how it’s shaping industries. What is also not discussed very much is the ground-based drone or the wheeled drone. Also the question of the degree of autonomy is important: are these drones controlled or not? We saw a few days ago how Uber’s autonomous vehicle accident in Texas put us a step back. But there is a huge advance in technology for drones due to the increase in military leading technology – it just evaporates the fog of war. So sight is another key aspect. A big push in some of these aerial drones and the top conical view of the land comes from a visual perspective. So what about drones that sense radioactivity, or drones that smell or hear and pick up sounds, navigating based off that, or off GPS-based tracking… We have a whole slew of drone families coming out of this fixed-wing Raptor UAV. There are a lot of directions you can go with that, but war is really shaping it.
VB: You mention war. It was brushed upon when Dustin spoke of the Foucault’s Boomerang effect. Another concept which might be useful for us here is the conception of biopolitics, that is of “making live and letting die.” This ties in very interestingly to the way drones are used, and to what Chamayou in his 2013 book Drone Theory calls ‘necroethics.’ How do you “let die,” so to speak? The ethics of that becomes an issue, and we have been encountering it through the media, especially throughout the years of the Obama administration. An interesting point to note is that the drone has been called a ‘humanitarian weapon,’ which is a bit of an oxymoron to say the least, and the death toll statistics speak against this conception. It is a question whether these remote methodologies of war are truly less detrimental to the civilian populace as opposed to field activities. It is interesting just how the media portray the drone, and how this ‘humanitarianism’ keeps appearing in the discussion. […]
LA: There is something between the Uber example you gave and the “let die” and humanitarian aspect which points to me to the elephant in the room – at a certain stage, humanitarianism becomes curation, like conservation, like establishing a national park or a zoo. And the question of letting die or having a human pedestrian obstruct the progress of developing driverless vehicles, points towards what is clearly a horizon which many people are not willing to discuss, which is a letting go of the species, as it were. As we move in this technological direction, the obvious implication is that technical evolution of any kind does without us from a certain stage. So we talk about the use to which we put the given historical moment of the drone, rather than the use to which we are put as the evolutionary catalysts of this technology which has a future beyond us. Potentially, if you want to talk about us becoming a space-faring species, we will not be doing that ourselves, because we have not evolved in space, if you want to be strict about it. But there is a possible space there for drones.
CC: Or convertibles…
CC: This brings us to another point. You mentioned space – where do you design an architecture which is accommodating to drones, and will it be applicable to humans? With war, you get to start from scratch unfortunately. You clear the space flat out, and when it’s rebuilt, especially if the government builds it, the structure is better built for surveillance, building the streets in different ways, for example. In the context of industry, the ability to move from a human space built for humans and restructure it for drones is actually quite unfeasible. You have to start from scratch, you have to build an entirely new facility for drones to be able to function there. It has to be perfectly level, at least for the time being, as humans are able to adapt to slight differences in floors, while some drones can’t balance themselves. The architecture built for technology is different. The main point is that it seems we will have to start from scratch, and space is a frontier where, apart from Earth’s orbit, there is currently still no architecture.
Hrishabh Sandilya [audience member]: The other elephant in the room which I think is important is artificial intelligence – it is a whole factor of that which we are getting to. And we are looking at China, states which have authoritarian tendencies, leading the way, because they are able to gather data. The essential prerogative for artificial intelligence is that you are as good as the data set you have. And China is way ahead of anyone else, although we will probably see Russia catch up to them at some point in the future. Someone mentioned post-colonialism, and I want to ask whether you see drones or, in some way, artificial intelligence as the great leveler? As now, this control of data is not coming from the West anymore, but other parts of the world. Even in India, where I come from, everyone now has a fingerprint in the system. Does this control of data make these developments the great levelers?
LA: The Great Leveler in terms of geo-politics. When you talk about post-colonialism and so on, there is also a popularist aspect to it, a belief that there is going to be some emancipatory effect. It is interesting that Vít was talking about regulation, and when you read about drones, people talk ad nauseam about the need for regulation, but the internet has been around for a while now, and there are whole areas which are beyond regulation. And we think about what kinds of regulations might be brought in to even the playing field, or to give people some advantage over these kinds of changes. When you say China or India, speaking in terms of nation-state is a little bit problematic, as if it represents a people, as if there are some strictly political consequences. And I am really sceptical of this.
CC: It has leveled the playing field a bit more in war, where you have the state/non-state Islamic State, which has been at the forefront of experimenting with DIY drones in drone attacks, as well as in surveillance. They have been building their own drone systems to be able to drop grenades on soldiers, and one of the requested items for donating to ISIL from the States is to buy a drone from Amazon and send it overseas to supply them. There was a great attack with thirteen drones flying in swarm formation, and they dropped bombs on Russian forces, going all the way to using suicide drones. There is a leveling of the playing field in war, and if war can shape the culture behind that, there is a degree of overlap there.
Hrishabh Sandilya: The European Union lacks far behind in the development of artificial intelligence any other region in the world, simply because of the privacy rights. Therefore, you don’t have datasets which the EU can use to build artificial intelligence. But you have these data sets in other regions of the world, therefore they will be able to, at some stage, make more effective drones or weapons based on AI, and therefore level that gap in technology which the West seems to have.
LA: This is clearly an area where the US has been looking to extend its reach, with Alfred McCoy talking about “triple canopy,” this permanent extended presence from stratosphere to exosphere where America will have a drone network in the skies 24 hours a day, which is an extension of drone architecture and an extension of a surveillance systems which already collects everything. It is clearly topical for maintaining balances of power.
audience member: I am interested in the psychological effects.
VB: It is enough to talk about those who have to endure the canopy which Louis has mentioned – the ‘drone persistence’ which Edward Snowden has called the “Holy Grail“ of the military at the moment. Just having this drone presence, living in cities which are exposed to this technology, is a terrible strain on the inhabitants. There is permanent fear of being killed or maimed, people dream of it, and there are long-term psychological effects of simply having the technology near you, of potentially becoming collateral.
audience member: It’s the sound, right?
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