For a highly militarised society, such developments have proved incredibly lucrative. The growing demands of the global homeland security industry are being met by small specialist Israeli companies, usually run by former generals, whose business is devising hardware to keep suspect groups and populations under surveillance and control. It only takes a small additional step to customise these machines to eliminate the suspects. Drones seem to fascinate and appal us in equal measure.
Most of us, however, instinctively recoil from the idea of killing by remote control. Why does it so offend our sensibilities? One suggestion is that it violates ancient codes of chivalry. Should the warrior not be forced to confront his opponent directly before dispatching him? In executing someone remotely, do we not strip them of the respect they deserve for fighting and dying in a different cause?
Such reasoning is overly romantic. Mortal combat has not been the norm in warfare since long before joysticks were invented. In fact, remote-control killing is just the latest stage in the evolution of waging war from afar that probably began with the bow and arrow, and has progressed through the gun, tank and warplane.
Remote killing does, however, justifiably arouse deep-seated fears about a future in which machines not only do the killing for us but decide who dies – or even turn against their makers. What limits should be placed on automation: should machines only carry out operators’ instructions, or should they be allowed a degree of independence? And in cases of mistakes, who is to be held accountable?
While valid, these concerns are largely hypothetical. Unmanned machines are – for the time being at least – still operated by humans. Is there really a moral difference between a drone operator firing a missile using a joystick and a pilot doing the same seated in a cockpit? It is not clear that there is.
A more significant ground for our revulsion is that automation makes killing cheaper. Shlomo Bron, a retired Israeli general and now a defence analyst, says the demand for remote-controlled machines is stoked by the large savings in defence costs. A drone operator can be trained in a day; a pilot may need years of expertise to fulfil the same mission.
It is this cheapening of life and death – financially, politically and socially – that ultimately appals us, because it makes state-sponsored killing easier and therefore far more likely.
What is to deter our rulers from waging wars if few, or no, practical costs accrue? Typically, fighting comes to an end only when the price – in treasure, blood or domestic political damage – becomes too high to bear. Remote killing could be a prescription for endless wars.
Nowhere has the danger become more apparent than in Gaza, where not only has Israel imprisoned the Palestinians behind walls but is starting to create an infrastructure of automated armed guards. Gaza’s skies are filled with drones, its coast is patrolled by remotely-controlled boats, and its walls topped by unmanned machine guns.It sounds like a scene from a dystopian horror film, but it may not end there. If governments lose authority and legitimacy, may they not one day consider turning those remotely controlled guns and missiles on their people too?
But why must these systems be operated by relatively expensive Israeli conscripts? Why not farm out the job to workers in the equivalent of a call centres in other countries, as has occurred with so many services in our globalised economies?