Conflict and Security Student Dinka Dumicic Discusses Views on Autonomous Weapons

“The main focus of the performance was to tackle the notions of autonomy and decision making process within the machine in relation to human beings. The starting point was to problematize the binary nature of the flying device juxtaposed to the human nature that is far more complex than just ones and zeroes. “ – Dinka Dumicic

Hi Dinka! Two weeks ago we heard from Joe Bussing about his role in Autonomous Weapons: Everyone’s a Target, now we’d like to get your input as well. What was your role in organizing and carrying out the event?

It all began right after the first session of Peter Asaro’s Digital War Dinkaclass I took last fall. As Joe pointed out, the two of us shared the initial thrill and curiosity regarding drones, which then resulted in the whole group project and the final event “Everyone is a Target”. Our enthusiastic classmates that joined us and made it all happen are Emmanuel Hernandez, Amy Kohn and Ann Petter.

Operation wise, the idea was to divide the work between all the members of the group based on our personal skills, preferences or, simply, curiosity. So, throughout the semester, I was working closely with Joe and Crystal (Hack Manhattan DIY) on making our drone look and perform like we wanted it to. Bearing in mind my interests, skills and previous experience, after the initial focus on exploring the existing media projects and media coverage of the use of drones, I was to explore how we could come up with some performative experience that would point to, at least, some of the issues we were concerned with (such as autonomy, privacy, legal and ethical issues).  Essentially, I was dealing with the conceptual approach to the issues, performance it self, as well as presenting the project at the BETA session, where Media Students discuss their works in progress and receive feedback.

Media coverage on the issue of drone strikes seems to have increased dramatically in the last month or so, culminating in Obama’s (sweaty) acknowledgement of their existence in his recent press conference. Can you talk a little about the role that media has played in bringing this issue to light, and how it will continue to draw attention to this issue in the future?

You are right, it seems that there has been more and more “drone talk” in the media lately. However, I would still say that there is very little information given and that there is hardly any debate regarding the issues that the use of drones implies. The narrative you can find in the media is still very, so to say, narrow.

Namely, it has been over the last decade, that the use and production of various autonomous robotic technologies has been significantly increasing. Associated with this trend, new challenges are emerging: What does autonomous exactly mean? When and how should such autonomous devices be used? Who should regulate their use and development? Who is responsible for their actions? Moreover, within the scope of autonomous technology, the military use of it is somewhat specific because it often comes with the purpose to kill. For that reason, questions of ethics, legal regulation and accountability for actions taken by unmanned machines are even more significant. However, nobody really gets into a deeper analysis or discussion about that. The information in the media is still pretty much limited to the fact that there are drone strikes happening somewhere overseas, and then some people oppose to it, while the others support it.

Your performance at the event was very dramatic. Can you describe the scene for those who weren’t there? Additionally, what were you hoping to convey through your performance?

HackManhattanThe main focus of the performance was to tackle the notions of autonomy and decision making process within the machine in relation to human beings. The starting point was to problematize the binary nature of the flying device juxtaposed to the human nature that is far more complex than just ones and zeroes. The main challenge was to show certain level of autonomy, but not to deceive the audience while warning about “what if” scenarios. So, the intention was to address the issues without falling into a trap of pathetic or too playful, while exposing the audience to the experience of drone flying over them, yielding their individual thoughts and reactions.
During the performance itself, the drone was flying over the audience, while projecting the live footage on wall in front of everybody, where they could see themselves from the drone’s perspective. The drone, the machine, was in a search of a target, indicating its search and “reasoning” by light signals. The blue light was indicating the default state of the drone, the blinking red was for the search mode and the still red with the white spotlight was indicating the target was locked. Once the drone locked its target, it followed it with the intention of destruction.

Playing off that last question, what research, if any, has been done regarding the psychological effects of living in an area patrolled by drones?

There are studies exploring the psychological consequences people have if exposed to drone patrols. While working on our project, we consulted a report done by The Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (Stanford Clinic) and The Global Justice Clinic (NYU Clinic) at NYU School of Law. It was published in September 2012 under the name Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan. For instance, the findings of the studies presented in that report indicate that people are heavily traumatized by the constant uncertainty and the danger they find themselves in their everyday lives. In those stressful conditions people often suffer from anxiety, insomnia and similar conditions. In general, they feel powerless and exposed…

It is evident that you, Joe, and the rest of the Autonomous Weapons team put a great deal of time and energy into this project. What did you a) want participants to take away from this experience and b) take away from being involved in this project?

I had enrolled in the Digital War class without Drone Setupknowing much about specific topics that were going to be covered. So, at the very beginning of the semester, my intention was to use this course as an opportunity and a platform, a source of inspiration and information, which would allow me to explore and understand changes in warfare, today’s role of technology in security issue, as well as legal and ethical questions implied.

Luckily, I ran into Joe, who was sharing my aspirations, and before we knew it – the vision was there. After the rest of the group has joined, we have agreed that, under the title “Everyone is a Target”, our project goal would be to create one central event that would spread the message and raise the awareness regarding the danger that comes with the use of unmanned weapon systems. In addition, accompanying the event, the idea was to produce additional outputs: a drone, a short documentary, as well as a website that accompanies it all. Also, the idea was that the whole effort has a future use, in the sense that our experience would result in a specific know how and kits that could be at disposal to future students or parties interested in organizing something similar.

All in all, I think we have come a long way since the initial: “Joe, I wanna have a drone that makes bubbles!!”, so I would like to thank Peter, Joe, Emmanuel, Ann and Amy once again.

Dinka is currently pursuing her MA in International Affairs.