Drone Strikes in the Uncanny Vallyey – Part 3

Part 2 asserts that from  the Uncanny Valley’s forest floor, the drone seems both an uncanny robot and a living nonhuman species.  Of course neither is true.

The drone is a remote appendage of a cyborg. The parts of this entity includes a human at a control panel and all the technological infrastructure the drone needs to complete its mission. Distributed across the world, it is a functional human/machine hybrid, just as a human immersed in an electronic device, or in union with a pacemaker is.

Looking down at the Valley’s forest floor for a moment, perhaps distracted by a sound, or just overwhelmed by the vigilance of looking at the sky, I see this:

atomic angel

Destroying Angels (a group of closely related Amanita species around the world) are among the most deadly mushrooms there are.  Humans eating the various species of Destroying Angel (or the closely related the Death Cap) result in up to 95% of mushroom deaths.

These visible mushrooms though are only a projectile of the underground organism, the mycelium.  This part of a fungus can be huge.  Depending on the criteria one uses, a fungus in Oregon is the largest living organism on earth.

Additionally, the fungus lives in symbiosis with the surrounding trees, fungus penetrating into tree roots cells, becoming a functional entity, becoming one thing, becoming a non-human/non-machine cyborg.

Standing on the forest floor of the Uncanny Valley, the potential of death hovers above me and stands as witness at my feet.

Drone Strikes in the Uncanny Valley – Part 2

In Part 1,  I wrote:

The visceral revulsion of many seems to indicate a sense that these drones have, or will assume a life of their own, that despite their clearly mechanical appearance, they inhabit the uncanny valley.

But how can this be?  A robot’s too/not enough human likeness is the core of the effect.  There are in fact quite a number of drones, with various appearances.  But  I can’t recall one with any visual appreciable human likeness at all.

Mori’s graph show the industrial robot as the least uncanny.  But the industrial robot’s environment is highly constrained and controlled.  Even the huge mining or tunneling machines exist in specific environments when doing their work.

The drone roams the greater world, our world, seemingly unconstrained or controlled.  Imagine  observing from the ground a drone hovering for days.  Then suddenly it launches a missile that strikes close by.  Even if one is uninjured it must be a breathtakingly frightening experience.

From that vantage point, the drone appears to have intelligence, agency and to be capable of highly consequential action.  I think,, for many of us, this empathetic understanding is at least as strong as a more rational and factual one.

Combined with drones not looking human, this leads us to metaphorically regard them as a different species.

Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute says one of the “families of unreliable metaphors for imagining the capability of smarter-than-human Artificial Intelligence” is

 Species metaphors: Inspired by differences of brain architecture between species. AIs  have magic.

Drones then become a magic species, capable of rainng death down on us.

Their  different brain architectures leave them though emotionless.  Human Rights Watch released its report Losing Humanity a few months ago arguing against the development of “fully autonomous weapons”.

Even if the development of fully autonomous weapons with human-like cognition became feasible, they would lack certain human qualities, such as emotion, compassion, and the ability to understand humans. As a result, the widespread adoption of such weapons would still raise troubling legal concerns and pose other threats to civilians. (p. 6)

The report received limited coverage.  Among the most substantive was the Spencer Ackerman’s article Pentagon: A Human Will Always Decide When a Robot Kills You The wry, ironic tone of the title was typical of the few articles that did appear.

The Pentagon wants to make perfectly clear that every time one of its flying robots releases its lethal payload, it’s the result of a decision made by an accountable human being in a lawful chain of command. Human rights groups and nervous citizens fear that technological advances in autonomy will slowly lead to the day when robots make that critical decision for themselves. But according to a new policy directive issued by a top Pentagon official, there shall be no SkyNet, thank you very much.

.Looking up from the forest floor of the Uncanny Valley, through the canopy, I’m not so sure.

Drone Strikes in the Uncanny Valley – Part 1

The debate about drone warfare is complex and beyond my capabilities or intentions here.  For a far-ranging discussion I recommend the The Quarterly DAG-3QD Peace and Justice Symposium: Drones.

The symposium participants discuss one of the core issues of the debate,  “the threshold problem.”  In the final essay of the Symposium, Reply to Critics: No Easy Answers,  Bradley Jay Strawser writes

Of course, the very notion that a threat can be justifiably blocked by killing, while sound in principle and sometimes in practice, is ripe for abuse and misuse. So the pressing moral issue for the drone campaign is how the notion of “imminent threat” is being evaluated, measured, and properly understood.

…I find it insightful of Levine to point out how the distinction between intelligence and military action in the US has all but collapsed. I agree with him that this is a serious problem. The CIA should be in the business of intelligence, not direct lethal action.[15] One wonders then, whether drones are merely a symptom of this state of affairs or a partial cause of it?

Additionally, CK MacLeod, in Further on  Pathos v the Drones Conventionalizing the Unconventionalizable  expands the focus and summarizes a discomfort with drone warfare I share.

We can explain this ancient-present predicament as follows: Those great confrontations, with their all but unimaginably great death and destruction, produced the “conventions” of war within and against which 4th Generation warriors define themselves. By design and necessity, “un-conventional” warfare cannot be handled entirely by “conventional” warmaking, “conventional” thinking about warfare, or the legal and political “conventions” that have not caught up with it and that it means to defy. We feel as though we are in a void between the former, obsolete conventions and that which has not been conventionalized and perhaps cannot be conventionalized,

Our relation to any void is not knowing.  Here, even the horrors humanity has managed to invent in the past pause, not knowing.  Is this in fact an incremental technological innovation in war, or, as it seems to feel to many, a change in direction, in type.

The visceral revulsion of many seems to indicate a sense that these drones have, or will assume a life of their own, that despite their clearly mechanical appearance, they inhabit the uncanny valley.

Certainly science fiction has from its beginning responded to, formed and fed fantasies of our creations living for themselves and threatening us. Many of the monsters of myth, from Gilgamesh on, seem on the surface as some sort of unnatural union when they really are human creations becoming alive.

Copies Without Originals

But these excursions into communications sciences and biology have been at a rarefied level; there is a mundane, largely economic reality to support my claim that these sciences and technologies indicate fundamental transformations in the structure of the world for us. Communications technologies depend on electronics. Modern states, multinational corporations, military power, welfare state apparatuses, satellite systems, political processes, fabrication of our imaginations, labour-control systems, medical constructions of our bodies, commercial pornography, the international division of labour, and religious evangelism depend intimately upon electronics. Micro-electronics is the technical basis of simulacra; that is, of copies without originals.

Donna Haraway “A Cyborg Manifesto

That phrase “copies without originals” has wound in and out of  my thoughts for months, counterpoint to an increasing awareness of “authenticity” as a pervasive anxiety of our culture,  digital culture, that is not just on-line, but the whole apparatus of constructed social architecture that now presents itself as given.

The digital is now part not only of human culture, transforming it into cyborg culture, but also a part of the ecology of the earth, just as the movement of air in wind, or water in currents is.  The movement of digital information is as well, transforming the earth’s ecology into a cyborg ecology, the earth era of the Cyborgocene.

So “copies without originals”, the digitized wind, the digitized ocean currents, the digitized geologic flow of rock, the digitized cyborg experience, the same as the undigitized, but not the same, because the cyborg’s measurement of the thatness of say a tree produces a simulacra of interiority residing not only in firing neurons, but also in microelectronics, the two together in an awareness, dependent on each other, but unaware of each, like the conscious and sub-conscious, except for those moments, surreal and uncanny, that leave us gasping for something we can label as reality.

The Ghost in the Machine

The Ghost/Machine duality is the duality of Mind/Body.  It is part of a series of nesting/interlocking dualities such as Culture/Nature, Phenonomen/Noumenon, Normal/Disabled, Sacred/Profane, Inner/Outer, Object/Process, Rational/Irrational. Free Will/Determinism, Emergent/Embodied, Harmony/Catastrophe.  Following Haraway, it is worth noting that there are not any essential properties that unify the first elements together, or the second elements together.

How one codes these dualities is itself an attempt to impose the ground for all further categorizations.

These dualities represent an attempt to reconcile the problem of Whole and Parts.  How can things be Wholes and Parts at the same time?  Indeed, the surest route to undermining any philosophical project is to point out  the particular ways it does not resolve this issue.

The Ghost was never there, but the experience of awareness, so vivid, so raw, makes awareness seem like an out-of-body experience.  But this is a useful illusion at best, possibly just an epi-phenonomen of a certain stage of neural development.

This does not mean however, that the ghost in the machine is dead.  In the Cyborg we have another apparent duality Animal/Machine or Human/Machine.  We interact with Machines within the duality of Agent/Tool.  The machines are merely, in this line of thought, extensions of our own vivid agency.

But not only are we merged with machines in our daily lives, in our effects on the planet, we could just as well see ourselves as living within machine-ness, our actions, the reproductive organs of the machines, our logic, the (for now) operating systems, our ideologies, the software.

High-tech culture challenges these dualisms in intriguing ways. It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine. It is not clear what is mind and what body in machines that resolve into coding practices. In so far as we know ourselves in both formal discourse (for example, biology) and in daily practice (for example, the homework economy in the integrated circuit), we find ourselves to be cyborgs, hybrids, mosaics, chimeras. Biological organisms have become biotic systems, communications devices like others. There is no fundamental, ontological separation in our formal knowledge of machine and organism, of technical and organic.

The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries; we are they.  Donna Haraway – Cyborg Manifesto

It is time to recognize there are no boundaries between the human and the machine.  Ecology focussing on Humanity’s effect on the planet will ignore our merging with Machines, will be another act of domination.

At first, calling this time the Anthropocene, can almost give us an experience of the uncanny looking in the mirror.  But left alone, it too posits a Ghost in the Machine.  It is time to recognize this is the Cyborgocene, at least until that too becomes a source of comfort.


Cyborgs are always broken. This is a Cyborg’s third mark of existence.

All beings do not have an independently existing self.  All phenomena, living or not, exist because causes and conditions support their existence.  When these causes and conditions cease, the being or phenomena ceases as well.

A Cyborg’s non self is the same as any other being’s.  But the Cyborg experiences this as Brokenness.

The animal part of a Cyborg think it’s in control, that the machine parts are only tools, devices, information waiting for an upgrade that will fix the machines’ current limitations.  At the same time, the machine part wonders why the animal part never seems to get an upgrade, in fact, only seems to deteriorate.

Yet the parts experience phenomena only through their overlap, each experiencing itself as a whole and their other part as a temprorary collection.

Disabled Cyborgs

Any animal/machine interdependency is a cyborg.  Donna Haraway writes

By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. Ths cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation. In the traditions of ‘Western’ science and politics–the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other – the relation between organism and machine has been a border war. The stakes in the border war have been the territories of production, reproduction, and imagination

“The cyborg is our ontology..”  Which is to say, usually we don’t see our cyborgness because the machine aspect is integregrated with the animal aspect into a single awareness.

The disabled cyborg experiences the animal/techno as a duality.  Other cyborgs may experence the disabled cyboorg as in the Uncanny Valley, not because she resembles a robot, but becasue he doesn’t.