We Robot 2012 – UAVs and a Pilot-Free World

Day Two at the We Robot 2012 conference at the University of Miami Law School.

Amir Rahmani‘s presentation Micro Aerial Vehicles: Opportunity or Liability? prompted a set of thoughts sparked by the idea of planes not flown by human beings, and in turn, the idea of an aviator-free world.  It has been some 109 years since Kitty Hawk, and in that time we have come to the point that we might seriously consider the idea of all aircraft being exclusively robotic (I should hasten to add that I doubt man will ever stop flying but at the least, a very significant attenuation of the role of the pilot looks likely. Peter W. Singer’s Wired for War notes, for instance, that UAV operations in Afghanistan, which account for a significant percentage of all aerial operations in that theater of operations, are carried out by desk-pilots working from home bases in the US. The culture that has sprung up around that community is interestingly different from that of pilots who fly combat aircraft from front-line bases.) While I generally welcome the idea of a ‘robotic uprising,’ i.e., a  greater role for robots in our society as a means of spurring greater introspection about ourselves and our place in this world, in this domain I find the idea of a pilot-free world curiously melancholic. And it is entirely unsurprising that such a thought is sparked by a set of deeply personal interests: After all, I did grow up on air force bases, watching jets take off, and admiring, like only young boys can, all those impossibly dashing, crew-cut, sunglasses-wearing aviators (then, they were exclusively men; now, women have joined the ranks of armed forces aviators as well).

The twentieth-century might have been the century of the pilot, and all the imaginative possibilities associated with the image of man borne aloft on wings, above this grubby world, into the skies, placed in a position, as John Gillespie Magee put it, to ‘reach out and touch the face of God.’  It was a century that saw the rich flowering of  a literature born from  the radically different viewpoint of man that aviation  afforded its practitioners (and those who admired them).  Antoine Saint-Exupery was a product of that century, as was Michael Collins (whose Carrying The Fire still remains one of most literate and passionate books about aviation and manned space flight).

So my concern here is not so much the loss of employment for pilots, a rather mundane economic worry. Rather, it is the idea that a whole domain of creative imagination might be lost. Hopefully, new creative possibilities might spring into being. Perhaps the little flying that will be done by humans in the future will generate a new form of literature, one that sees the aviator’s role not as a ‘worker’ flying airlines or as a ‘soldier’ flying combat aircraft, but returns perhaps to the original role of the aviator as an adventurer trying out and flying radically new craft. Perhaps. More on this possibility later.

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