Cell phones, the Internet, and other modern media allow us to have virtual friends in social media without requiring users to leave their bedrooms, thus fostering the social disconnectedness that Sherry Turkle explores in her book Alone Together. Unmanned space exploration allows Mankind to walk amongst the stars, explore the final frontier, and reach our loftiest aspirations—without ever leaving the comfort of our own home planet. Unmanned aerial vehicles allow us innumerable new possibilities that come without the concurrent costs and consequences of the human factor that used to be necessary in the uses that unmanned aerial vehicles are finding.

One of the costs and consequences of the human factor that’s now being circumvented by technological substitutes is that the hardships of real-life warfare can now be like a video game. Dropping bombs on our enemies from the air is already a remarkably impersonal method of warfare: Bomber pilots sit in a chair in the sky while incinerating targets on the ground that they never see except as tiny ants below. Weaponized drones take this a step further: It’s much cheaper and safer to never put anyone in the sky in the first place.


“We live in a world where there are actual fleets of robot assassins patrolling the skies. At some point there, we left the present and entered the future.” The changes of modern technology are brought out here in this parody of the movie “Terminator”.

Flying robots have become an essential part of America’s way of war. The New York Times recently reported:

An overwhelming reliance on killing terrorism suspects, which began in the administration of George W. Bush, has defined the Obama years. Since Mr. Obama took office, the C.I.A. and military have killed about 3,000 people in counterterrorist strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, mostly using drones. Only a handful have been caught and brought to this country; an unknown number have been imprisoned by other countries with intelligence and other support from the United States.

Unmanned aerial vehicles allow modern states to exercise the use of force more discreetly and in ways that were previously impossible. US air operations in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere would be more restricted if operations were done using manned aircraft. The frequent accidental killing of civilians that results from drone strikes—close to a thousand civilians killed since 2002 in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia altogether—gets much less media attention than such killings by ground troops or manned bombings would.

The US government’s 2011 killing of three American citizens in Yemen (one of whom was suspected of being a terrorist threat; the other two were accidental) without warrant, trial or charge has largely escaped public outcry and serious discussion in part because these killings were done using unmanned drones. Killing, too, has come to lack the human element.

As long as drone strikes happen overseas, they seem less immediate than such killings within US borders. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul recently filibustered the Senate over the question of whether the executive branch considers drone killings permissible within US borders, rather than questioning why extrajudicial killing of US citizens is thought to be permissible at all. It’s unlikely that the discussion would be the same if we were asking whether it was permissible for agents to break into a citizen’s house in Texas and shoot them without any judicial process.  Drones change the story.

There are probably other factors explaining why the Constitutional issues raised by this targeted trial-free execution have gotten relatively little discussion, but drones are an essential element.

Using human substitutes for space exploration makes it easier to forget how awesome space exploration is, while using human substitutes for killing makes it easier to forget how awful it is.