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The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots has called for a ban on lethal autonomous weapons systems before they have the potential to proliferate. (Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty)

Inequality, Revolution, and Drones That Kill

The too-rapid evolution of intelligent machines, with the ability to make decisions that can impact human life, is bringing us closer to a man-made epidemic that we won't be able to control.

Paul Buchheit

When average Americans were oppressed in the 18th century, they knew where the plutocrats lived, and they didn't have military-style police forces holding them back. The Stamp Act drove the New York masses to ransack the houses of Governor Cadwallader Colden and the British major who was pointing army artillery toward the local town. Another mob looted the house of pro-English aristocrat Thomas Hutchinson, carrying away his fine furnishings and emptying his wine cellar in part of what the British called a "war of plunder" to take away the "distinction of rich and poor." 

That doesn't happen today. The super-rich are safely ensconced in their gated estates with private security forces and 9-foot walls and surveillance systems and sniper posts. But now they have good reason to fear the future. We all do. The too-rapid evolution of intelligent machines, with the ability to make decisions that can impact human life, is bringing us closer to a man-made epidemic that we won't be able to control. As armed drones become tinier and cheaper and smarter and more readily accessible, they could launch the modern revolution of the undervalued human being.

How Inequality is Fomenting a Revolution 

America's richest 25 million adults -- much less than 1% of the world's population -- accumulated over half of all global wealth gains over the past five years (about $19 trillion out of $38 trillion). At the same time, America's poorest 50 million adults, with little household wealth and excessive debt, have become part of the world's poorest 10%. 

As the surging stock market enriches a small fraction of the world, the victims of U.S. wars keep getting poorer. Median wealth has PLUMMETED in Syria and Iran and Yemen. It has gone down by almost half in all of Africa. New generations of terrorists are emerging from the wreckage.

Enter the Assassination Drones 

Oppressed people won't be advancing on the well-secured houses of the rich and powerful. Instead, artificial intelligence (AI) may take the place of axes and torches. In a terror-filled scenario for the future, a tiny gnat-like micro-robotic creature, armed with a lethal explosive charge or an injectable poison, and programmed with facial recognition software that targets a single individual (even in disguise), may be released in the vicinity of that person and instructed to wait patiently, perhaps indefinitely if solar-charged, and to surreptitiously sweep in to the target's head to complete its deadly mission. Silent and unseen, unidentifiable and untraceable, it hurries away to self-destruct in the final act of a perfect crime.

Real or Fake? 

Mention of such killer drones can elicit responses of disbelief or ridicule. But it's happening. Technology, as we all know, moves faster than expected, each day creating new apps and concepts that hadn't been imagined just months before. The specifications for these drones are all available -- or soon to be available -- to any skilled tech enthusiast. And to anyone with deadly intentions. 

Experts are divided on the prospect. Security expert Peter Lee says "It would be hugely costly to develop such selective killing capability for use on a mass scale – certainly outside the capacity of terrorist organisations and, indeed, most militaries." Lethal weapons expert Steve Wright counters, "The technologies needed to build such autonomous weapons – intelligent targeting algorithms, geo-location, facial recognition – are already with us...It won't take much to develop the technology.." That's a frightening thought to most. Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk and numerous tech leaders have called for a ban on autonomous weapons, saying they are "ideal for tasks such as assassinations, destabilizing nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group...they require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials, so they will become ubiquitous and cheap." 

The U.S. military, not surprisingly, is busy developing AI for drone assassin missions to target the 'evil' enemies of government. Meanwhile, the 'good' people of the earth may be targeted by terrorists. And those at the bloated end of an unequal society may be targeted by revolutionaries.

What Should the Wealth-Takers Do? 

They should be afraid, and they should realize that the deeply ingrained feelings of disrespect and anger engendered by inequality have to be addressed, soon. Rational people don't want assassin drones to become a reality. The proposed bans on their usage are much like the biological weapons restrictions of the 1970s. But the U.S., China, and Russia are among the nations persisting in the development of these systems, ostensibly for "greater combat autonomy," but likely for more nefarious political purposes. They won't be stopped. Technology simply doesn't go backwards. 

A modern-day rogue's gallery is taking shape. For average Americans who feel oppressed in the 21st century, anonymity may turn out to be a blessing.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Paul Buchheit

Paul Buchheit

Paul Buchheit is an advocate for social and economic justice, and the author of numerous papers on economic inequality and cognitive science. He was recently named one of 300 Living Peace and Justice Leaders and Models. He is the author of "American Wars: Illusions and Realities" (2008) and "Disposable Americans: Extreme Capitalism and the Case for a Guaranteed Income" (2017). Contact email: paul (at)

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