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August 15, 2013, by

“David, What Makes You Sad?” When Death Machines Refuse to Kill

Drone creative commons

Photo Credit: Kaz Vorpal via Creative Commons (click for profile)

by Maggie MacDonald

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), predator drones, or just plain drones: we’d better get to know them, as they are soon to know us.

The use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Yemen has sparked ongoing debate in the US, and amongst policy-watchers and academics elsewhere. Artists such as filmmaker Omar Fast have been analyzing the role of the drone pilots, who deliver remote controlled strikes on targets thousands of miles away, against a hazy object that may or may not have been a threat to national security.

Journalists and political scientists alike are asking: even if an individual poses a threat, does extra-judicial killing do anything more than set a dangerous precedent, and inspire survivors to plot a counter-attack against the enemy in the sky?

A computer can already beat a human at chess; when will a computer beat a human at moral reasoning? The musical Young Drones is about two war machines who do just that. From their motherboards springs consciousness, from consciousness, conscience. The UAVs see rabbits attempting to hop across a busy highway, and feel a terrible pain at not being able to rescue the animals from certain death or mortal maiming under the wheels of oncoming cars.  Without knowing the rabbits, the drones feel a love for them, and once this love is stirred, it extends to all living things, and to each other.

Through the medium of science fiction rock opera, Young Drones breaks down an all-too-present topic into its most basic, melodic elements, in a way only pop lyrics can do. Take matter, break it down, simplify it, hold it to the light. Underneath the questions about US foreign policy, and unfolding dramas in the War on Terror epic combat theatre, the character of the predator drone is the hero of an ancient storyline about technology itself, one that began when humans first turned wood and stone into weapons in order to gain a fleeting advantage over fellow human rivals.

Image: Amy

Image: Amy Siegel

After sticks and stones came hammers and swords. Like the sword, the predator drone calls to question the notion of technological neutrality. Recent attempts to market drones as restaurant helpers, beer delivery devices, and possible pizza-man replacements are similar to the Atomic Energy Commission’s “Atoms for Peace” campaign, which proposed nuclear weapons as tools for dam building and mining. Someone even had the great idea, never realized, to use nuclear bombs to liquify the tar sands, before recent extraction techniques were developed.

Young Drones tells the story of two UAVs developed with one purpose in mind: “Protect the Oil.” That is the anthem the humans sing when launching the devices. But these drones are equipped with something scientists and engineers have long sought to create, but only science fiction writers have succeeded in producing: artificial intelligence. The humans believe that it will make the drones better at securing the landscape, since they are able to assess threat level, strike, and destroy, with minimal human input.

In science fiction film and television, cyborgs like the Terminator are depicted as the zenith of human achievement: killing machines… with a cause. Robocop, T2, the “good” Cylons of the new Battlestar Galactica. Even when the androids do the right thing, they do it by killing the bad guys. Where are the conscientious objector robots? With Young Drones, we propose that if humans created something more intelligent and stronger than our species, that creation would do better than our species. Once in love, the Young Drones refuse to kill.

The androids, robots, cyborgs, and autonomous agents of cinema reflect our self-myths of superman and homo economicus. Greed, the tragedy of the commons, these are stories we tell, though usually with bigger budgets and less special effects than the hits of James Cameron, and Damon Lindelhof (call it denial, but I won’t drag Ridley Scott into this– that’s a fun example cognitive dissonance for you.)

In “Happy Birthday, David” a “viral clip” created to promote the blockbuster Prometheus (the latest in the Aliens franchise), the interviewer asks killer cyborg David, “What makes you sad?” At minute 1:25, he answers, “War, poverty, cruelty, unnecessary violence. I understand human emotions, although I do not feel them myself… This allows me to be more efficient and capable…”

The notion that rationality (and related economic idea “rational self-interest”) is divorced from emotion, empathy, sensitivity, and a feeling of mutual responsibility, has been turned on its head by advances in neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science. Yet this myth persists, against the evidence, and it is reflected in the cyborg films that audiences flock to see, where killer robots are born of a confluence of bad ideas from eugenics, to neoliberal economics. The only things our “Young Drones” are willing to destroy are these bad ideas. And the humans cannot order them otherwise.

The drones in our musical are young; like most teenagers, they defy the human parents who create them, to design their own future. It’s never too late to rewrite your program, and aim to be better than the myths of your species.

Image: Amy Siegel

Image: Amy Siegel

Young Drones

Music: The Bicyles and John Southworth, Writer: Maggie MacDonald, Director: Stephanie Markowitz, Visuals: Amy Siegel

Showing August 15th at Summerworks, Black Box Theatre, 1087 Queen Street West, Doors 9pm

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