Saturday, November 18, 2017


Droned Landscape Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

This post is a visual-essay response to discussions about lethal autonomous weapon systems at the UN, and the release of a short film called Slaughterbots

Regular readers will know why I am interested!

Related posts or articles:

Over the last week high level discussions about lethal autonomous weapon systems have occurred at the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons in Geneva. Various state representatives, individuals and organisations have participated in debates about how to define an autonomous weapon system, and the formulation of regulatory guidelines. There have been discussions about possible bans and moratoriums on research into artificial intelligence for use in lethal autonomous weapons systems. Additionally, debates about weapon operations "beyond meaningful human control" have continued. Significantly, AI and robotics researchers are involved, expressing concerns about accelerating developments in autonomous systems capable of being weaponised. These scientists have become an orchestra of concern, with open letters being sent to the Canadian and Australian Prime Ministers, open letters published on the Future of Life Institute  website and more. 

Swarm Clouds Brewing Oil on canvas 36 x 45 cm 2017

Of particular interest to me is a collaboration between scientists, including highly regarded AI and robotics researcher, Prof Stuart Russell [Berkeley University] and the Future of Life Institute. The collaboration is the production of a film portraying how a future with lethal autonomous weapons may look - particularly a future where swarms of autonomous micro-drones can be deployed by powerful entities, state, non-state or other. The film was released to coincide with the UN debates - it was also shown at the UN. 

The 7 minute film is called Slaughterbots. You can see it, and read more about its background HERE. At the end of the film Prof Russell, whilst not discounting the benefits of AI, warns that lethal autonomous weapons are a real threat. He notes that the technology exists now to take autonomy to the next level, and that action is needed to ensure risks are mitigated. The message is - we need to do something before it is too late to retreat, redeem, fix - before we cross the Rubicon. This type of concern drives research into existential risk posed by emerging technologies, where threats may cause irredeemable situations, such as human extinction, or as the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge, puts it - "civilisation collapse". 

Crossing the Rubicon Gouache on paper 76 x 56 cm 2017

The Film 
Slaughterbots is about a fictitious company that produces small autonomous airborne drones that work in swarms. The drones are lethal weapons capable of making operative, targeting and attack decisions on their own. They use the same imaging, tracking etc technology that is increasingly incorporated into our mobile phones and other devices eg: facial recognition. Device inter-connectivity is presented as a vulnerability in this future. Here, I would argue that this is already the case!

The film demonstrates a future where nuance is lost. One could argue this is already occurring! Binaries such as good and bad, wrong and right, drive a megalomaniac style of power, where being labelled 'bad' can be a death warrant. Where this power resides is worrying - it is channeled by a spokesperson for the fictitious drone making company, a non-state, mega-corporate, hegemonic and essentially lawless entity. The sense of power is driven by the spokesperson's almost evangelical presentation, which mimics the high production promotions made by many 21st century corporations and organisations. The celebrity and high entertainment aesthetic of the corporate presentation is seductive...and dangerous. The political and corporate merge, as if collapsed into each other. The 'body politic', with its nuanced layers, seems to no longer exist. 

As the film progresses it becomes clear that ubiquitous surveillance, enabled through multiple devices, social media interaction, GPS tracking etc, is conscripted for targeting, and ultimately precision attack purposes. French philosopher and author of Drone Theory Gregoire Chamayou's notions of manhunting are abjectly expressed in Slaughterbots. There is no consideration for normal legal processes of prosecution, defense, trial, and judgement, because the autonomous systems of surveillance, targeting and attack/assassination collapse them. The 'bad' must die - whoever the 'bad' might be! In Slaughterbots the 'bad' guys are student activists. 

Manhunting Gouache on paper 56 x 76 cm 2017

Slaughterbots also demonstrates that lethal autonomous weapons may not be restricted to military use. This picks up on current developments in security and policing where drones are increasingly used for surveillance and monitoring purposes. The collapse of military, policing and security endeavours into each other is another hint that nuance is being consumed by conglomerates of power.

Additionally, the increasing dual-use military/civilian nature of contemporary technology is highly problematic. In an age where terms like perpetual war and the 'everywhere war' [Gregory] are used, a perpetual market for the peddlers of militarised technology is ensured. In Slaughterbots the sales-pitch style of presenting the swarming and deadly capabilities of autonomous micro drones demonstrates how hype can hijack imagination, to ensure a perpetual market.

Current 'Future of War' rhetoric, emanating form military personnel and defense departments around the world, indicates a kind of priming for the future presented in Slaughterbots.    

Sensored oil on linen 50 x 50 cm 2017 

Slaughterbots channels many of the concerns I have tried to express in my paintings over the last two or so years. As regular readers know, these concerns flow from earlier ones about existential risk posed by emerging technologies. However, as a result of research into airborne weaponisable drones, for my recently completed M. Phil [Uni of Queensland], my paintings currently focus on drones, persistent surveillance and increasingly autonomous weapon systems. 

I try not to be illustrative [this is perhaps a necessary trap Slaughterbots falls into], but rather, evocative and provocative - thus, enabling multiple possible 'readings'. Ultimately, I also try to inject some hope. I do this by creating paintings where the viewer is unsure whether they are above or below, beside or in front of the drones, or indications of their presence. By enabling a sense of 'flight' around the drones, even at cosmic distances, I attempt to turn the surveillance and the human gaze back onto technology generally, and weaponised technology, specifically. The cosmic view provides perspectives that may trigger new questions. And, these questions may prompt answers never dreamed of. In addition to the cosmic perspective, I often position drones or indications of their presence with my version of the tree-of-life. It acts as a reminder of both life and hope. 

Stirring the Dark Chasm Gouache and watercolour onf paper 56 x 76 cm 2017

The Tree-of-Life Sends its Energy Underground Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016
Please read an article I wrote about this painting for the Australian Women's Book Review

Landscape and Environment
I couch my concerns within questions about how new 21st century weapons and ubiquitous surveillance mediate and restrict our relationship with landscape and environment. That mediation and restriction of behaviour and movement are likely outcomes in a future with lethal autonomous weapon systems is clearly illustrated in Slaughterbots. For example, people are advised to stay inside, cover their windows etc. They are forced to alter their behaviour to comply with the prevailing binary of good and bad, where divergence, even seeming divergence, is dangerous - a possible death sentence. The film, however, demonstrates that hiding is not possible...
I argue that contemporary technology is already forcing us to renegotiate how we operate within our environments. This is exacerbated by insidious changes to these environments and landscapes. These changes are wrought by invisible signals ricocheting from node to node, crisscrossing land, sky and space. The sky is perhaps the 'landscape' where most change is occurring. The vertical threat from airborne drones changes the way the sky is viewed. It is, in a sense, colonised. This colonisation, however, goes beyond the materiality of deadly drones. It also includes the invisible signals emitted and received by drones, as well as their support infrastructure, eg: ground control stations, and communication and GPS satellites. That the sky is often viewed with fear in places such as Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and others, should not be ignored. Indeed, the mediation and restriction of behaviour and movement by people on planet Earth already occurs! It is an indictment on all of humanity that in an age where Voyager 1 travels in interstellar space, some people on Earth are afraid of the sky.

 Ubiquitous Surveillance: An Invisible Landscape Oil on linen 60 x 110 cm 2017

False Stars, False Clouds - New Landscape Topologies
In my paintings I try to expose the invisible signals emitted and received by technologies designed to surveil, monitor, and perhaps target and attack. I use radiating or criss-crossing lines to disclose new topologies that exist in our landscapes. These radiating lines can also mimic stars and the suns's rays. However, their subterfuge is revealed as a kind of virtual netting, attempting to foreclose perspective.  In a similar way, I suggest that drone swarms, for example, create new types of clouds, false ones. The swarming drones depicted in Slaughterbots occupied the sky, at one instance obscuring it, the next instance, looking like a plague, a cloud of threat, as they plunged with deadly intent into more intimate spaces.

False stars, false clouds - and - false eyes.

Drones do not see - they scope. Even the idea that they have vision is troublesome. Why? Because, vision, in its expanded sense, is not just about seeing with an eye of eyeball and pupil, but also a mind's eye - imagination. The swarming drones in Slaughterbots clearly scoped, using data and information. Their intent was not visionary - in all senses of the word.

I'll stop here, as I have written more than I planned. However, please continue down the page to view a few more of my paintings depicting swarming drones.


The New Clouds Gouache on paper 56 x 76 cm 2017

 Swarm Surveillance Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

 The Sky is Falling Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016 

 Trees-of-Life Vs The Drones Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

 Drone Clouds Gouache on paper 30 x 42 cm 2016

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