Saturday, May 23, 2020

Drones And Future Orwellian Dystopia

The Drones Were Ready for This Moment

New Yorkers strolling along the East River early last month glanced up to see an unsettling sight: a mysterious droneclaiming to represent something called the “Anti-Covid-19 Volunteer Drone Task Force” barking orders to pedestrians below to maintain social distancing.

“Please maintain a social distance of at least six feet,” the drone intoned, according to a report from CBS News, continuing with gloomy warnings, like “please help stop the spread of this virus” and “reduce the death toll and help save lives.”

It wasn’t a police drone. Was it a vigilante drone or an aerial white knight? Was it friend or foe?
That’s a highly relevant question about drones in general, which are suddenly everywhere during the coronavirus crisis, taking over any number of human tasks as people hunker indoors.
Drones have been working as police officers, soaring over the banks of the Seine in Paris and the city squares of Mumbai, to patrol for social distancing violators.
They’re delivering medical supplies in Rwanda and snacks in Virginia. They’re hovering over crowds China to scan for fevers below.

Coronavirus has been devastating to humans, but may well prove a decisive step toward a long-prophesied Drone Age, when aerial robots begin to shed their Orwellian image as tools of war and surveillance and become a common feature of daily life, serving as helpers and, perhaps soon, companions.
“Robots are so often cast as the bad guys,” said Daniel H. Wilson, a former roboticist and the author of the 2011 science fiction novel “Robopocalypse.” “But what’s happening now is weirdly utopic, as opposed to dystopic. Robots are designed to solve problems that are dull, dirty and dangerous, and now we have a sudden global emergency in which the machines we’re used to fearing are uniquely well suited to swoop in and save the day.”
The origins of the “Anti-Covid-19 Volunteer Drone Task Force,” which turned out to be the work of a Queens drone enthusiast, may have confused New Yorkers initially, but in most cities, there is no question who is running the current aerial patrol. Law enforcement officials in cities and towns around the world have been using drones to scan parks, beaches and city squares for violators wandering into the safe spaces of others.
In China, drones have served as educators or enforcers, depending on your point of view, alerting citizens with unsettlingly folksy warnings about virus violations in robotic voices from above, as reported by CNN.
“Yes auntie, this is the drone speaking to you,” said one drone, speaking to an elderly woman below in an eerie bullhorn echo, according to a video published by Global Times, a state-controlled newspaper. “You shouldn’t walk about without wearing a mask.”

“Covid-19? More like Covid-1984,” read one recent Reddit post on a thread about police drones flying over encampments of homeless people in cities such as Fort Worth, and Chula Vista, Calif., blasting them with messages about coronavirus prevention. “It really feels like we are living in some dystopian science fiction novel,” read another.

But automated oversight can be a blunt instrument. A police drone deployed in Fairfield, Conn., to monitor beaches for social distancing also warned a group of “juveniles” trespassing on the roof of a local elementary school, according to one news account.

In nearby Westport, police scrapped plans for their own drone project to scan crowds for fever temperatures, heart and temperature rates, and even sneezes and coughs, after outcry from the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The big concern is that the coronavirus crisis is going to normalize drones and entrench them in American life,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy and technology specialist for the A.C.L.U. “The fear is many of these incursions on freedom will outlast the crisis.”
While a drone itself is just a tool, neither inherently good nor evil, it is a tool with nearly unlimited powers for surveillance, Mr. Stanley added. Drones can be equipped with so-called stingrays to collect information from people’s mobile phones, night-vision cameras, GPS sensors, radar, lidar(laser detection technology for creating three-dimensional maps of an area), as well as thermal and infrared cameras.

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