For Drone Researchers: “People are the problem”

chimp attacks drone

Missy Cummings is the director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab (aptly shortened to HAL; formerly known as the Humans and Automation Lab) at Duke University. A recent article by Todd C. Finkel in The Washington Post described her as “one of the nation’s top drone researchers”. The article was specifically concerned with current obstacles to using drones for delivering consumer goods as is being pursued companies like Amazon and Google. According to Finkel, Cummings “doesn’t doubt the technology” and “believes these autonomous machines already possess the ability to accurately and reliably do their jobs.” Finkel says that the technical issues regarding drone delivery have largely been solved.

But Cummings is concerned with the so-called “socio-technical issues”. These include kids throwing rocks, curious dogs, people with guns, etc. Indeed, searching “animals attacking drones” yields nearly half a million hits on Google and is becoming something of an online video genre. It is these sorts of obstacles that are purportedly delaying the Brave New World of drone delivery.

Or as The Washington Post succinctly puts it: “People are the problem.”

And isn’t this so often the case with technological progress? People are the problem. Or as one version of the Post headline put it “the enemy”.

The New York Times recently ran an op-ed in which investor Peter Thiel called for a vast expansion of nuclear power. He dismissed the accident at Chernobyl as “a direct result of both a faulty design and the operators’ incompetence”. Presumably the new designs Thiel is advocating for (and hoping to invest in) will be without fault and only put into the hands of inerrant operators.

Similar logic is employed to defend Google’s self-driving cars. The machine can do a better job than a human driver. It would therefore be best to eliminate the human element and turn operation of the vehicle over to the machine. Of course, the alternative that is not considered is that it may very well be the car that may need to be eliminated rather than the human.

The goal is to eliminate human error but to do that would require nothing short of eliminating humanity. Eliminating our animality. Assimilating us into a machine world or discarding us as refuse. While this is almost the explicit goal of transhumanists—those who hope to “transcend biology”—it is implicitly pursued by people such as Missy Cummings of Duke University. Cummings may not identify as a transhumanist, may not entertain the idea of living forever like Ray Kurzweil and Zoltan Istvan, may not pine to upload her brain to the internet, but she is doing the necessary work of overcoming the problem of people. Designing a world where our actions are without significance or impact.

In considering these “socio-technical” obstacles—the problem of human beings—Missy Cummings says she likes to consider how her eight year-old son would react to seeing a drone. She says “He’d like to throw rocks at it—because it’s there. It’s just human nature.”

While Cummings may see our rock-throwing nature as an obstacle to overcome, I see the impulses of her son as a source of hope. It’s an impulse that many of us share.

Pick up a rock.

Additional note:

drone researcherYou can learn more about Mary “Missy” Cummings at the website for the Humans and Autonomy Lab: 

The site lists her email address as:

The Humans and Anatomy Lab is located in Hudson Hall on the Duke University campus. (directions)