Readings: Shane Harris, The Human-Free Future of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

By Kenneth Anderson
Saturday, January 21, 2012, 5:11 PM

Journalist Shane Harris (senior writer for Washingtonian magazine and author of the well-received 2010 book, The Watchers) has written a briefing paper for the Hoover Institution's Task Force on National Security and Law's Emerging Threats series, Out of the Loop: The Human-Free Future of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.  (Benjamin Wittes, Jack Goldsmith, and I are members of the Hoover Task Force that commissioned the paper.)

The law, ethics, and policy of drones are everywhere under discussion these days, in military matters but also increasingly in questions of domestic use.  Harris brings his journalists skill in researching the vast array of unmanned aerial vehicle technologies either in use today, under development, or under consideration to give the best short, accessible account of where the technology is going and what issues will be raised, not only in national security affairs but, crucially, across domestic civilian society.

The focus is on the most important long-term aspect of unmanned aerial vehicles - viz., the incremental shift toward systems in which the human is increasingly out of the loop.  I follow this literature closely - Matthew Waxman and I are writing on the legal regulation of autonomous weapons systems, so this is a particular interest - and he and I were both surprised by the nuggets that Harris brings to bear in a short essay.  Combined with a thoughtful unifying view of the combination of technological and strategic evolution, this short paper is highly recommended.