Saturday, December 03, 2016


Life and the Drone Gouache and watercolour n paper 56 x 76.5 cm 2016

Have you noticed that the world seems to be on a precipice? Political instability, seemingly endless war and conflict in parts of the world, climate change [with the debates about whether it is real or not distracting from actual issues], financial and economic volatility, left and right divides becoming more extreme...and so on...all add up to a deep global anxiety. Advances in technology do not seem to help alleviate the anxiety! In fact, new anxieties about privacy and surveillance pervade as we increasingly use and rely on the internet, and other digital technologies, for a variety of daily and ongoing services and functions. 

As a result of my current research into militarised technology [as part of my M. Phil at the University of Queensland] I am concerned about research and development in weaponry, and military technology and systems infrastructure . These include advances in autonomy, where the human is minimally involved in the decision making loop or potentially completely out of the loop. The human would be replaced by advanced artificial intelligence with decision making and information gathering capabilities that could also include self-learning attributes. These kinds of weapons are called 'lethal autonomous weapons' [LAWs]. This problematic area is summed up in a recent article The Problem of Defining Autonomous Weapons by Ariel Conn on the Future of Life Institute website. You can find a lot of information on this site. 

The figure of the military drone is symbolic of  our current era's dilemma. Currently operated by remote pilots, drones are used by various governments including the USA and UK for surveillance, targeting and attack purposes, in declared battlefields and counter-insurgency situations, in various regions of the world, including Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  The The Bureau of Investigative Journalism  can provide you with a starting point for more research.  The Australian Air Force provided drone surveillance support in Afghanistan, withdrawing in 2014.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs], certainly have positive civilian uses such as surveillance and targeted assistance in disaster situations such as fire and flood etc. However, I propose, that the dual-use ie: civilian/military capabilities of drone technology [whether air, land or sea based] muddies the seriousness of projected developments in military use of drone technology that is combined with increasing levels of autonomy. Additionally, as Martin Reese speculated in his fantastic and provocative book Our Final Century [2004] how do we ensure that technologies such as these do not get into the hands of aberrant individuals or groups? The answer seems to stay one step ahead. Is that, in itself, a pathway to destruction? Or as Reese might postulate a pathway to human species extinction?

LIFE and the DRONE
In this painting I wanted to show/reveal two types of branching systems: that of the tree-of-life and that of a drone's scoping capabilities designed for surveillance, targeting and attack. The tree's branches represent life's systems - life supporting systems such as vascular ones, river systems and energy forces beyond Earth and perception. The drone's branching scoping signals represent technology. Are we replacing life with a simulation of life? If so, does the simulation make it deceptively 'easier' to develop weapons operated by artificial intelligence? 

There are a myriad of questions to be asked and I wonder how the arts can be involved in the questioning? I know I am trying....


I remind the reader that I am not a technophobe - I grew up in a house full of gadgets and gizmos - my father was a very serious HAM Radio enthusiast who, as a teenager, tracked Sputnik 1, made our first television in the early 60s on the dining room table and so on. You can read more about my childhood surrounded by technology HERE

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