Mystery Drone Swarms are Not OK

By TradeSmith Research Team

There is something genuinely weird going on in Colorado and Nebraska. The phenomenon is a calling card of the new information age, and the intense challenges soon to come.

To step back for a moment and provide context, our assigned name for the 2020s is “The Deadly Decade.” The basic premise is that the 2020s are likely to be a 21st century version of the 1930s and 1920s combined. Huge danger, destabilizing financial upheaval, and explosive technological change — for both good and ill — are all dead ahead.

The weirdness out of Colorado is a harbinger of all that and more.

Swarms of “mystery drones” are flying around large areas of two U.S. states, for reasons that nobody knows. If it’s a government program, the government is keeping its mouth shut.

“The drones appear after dark,” the Washington Post reported last week, “flying in formation over swaths of land in rural Colorado and Nebraska. For weeks, they have dominated headlines in local newspapers, fueled intense speculation on social media, and unsettled residents, who have flooded law enforcement with calls.

“So far, the aircraft remains a mystery,” the Washington Post further reported. “Officials in multiple counties say they have not been able to determine who is flying them or why. The Federal Aviation Administration is now investigating…”

This is genuinely frightening.

When they figure out what is happening, the answer to the “mystery drones” puzzle will almost certainly be no big deal: A private company or a group of ranchers and farmers doing a land survey, perhaps. Or a club of drone enthusiasts feeling their oats, or some other innocuous thing.

And yet, the phenomenon is frightening because drones are so easily weaponized. Think of flying surveillance equipment, flying guns, or even a flying dirty bomb.

The information age is the fourth age of human civilization. It follows on the heels of the hunter-gatherer age, the agrarian age, and the industrial age. The seeds of the information age were planted in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the commercialization of e-commerce and the mass laying of fiber-optic cables.

Now the information age is coming into its own, after 20-plus years of maturation and development.

And one of the first big changes we are going to have to deal with — and come to grips with quickly — is the way digital technology is creating footprints in the physical world.

For a long time, artificial intelligence and machine learning and internet e-commerce were all abstract concepts. Technology was the domain of bits and bytes and electrons, stuff that flowed through computer cables or beamed through Wi-Fi signals and showed up on screens.

Now, though, the information age is starting to have a direct and powerful impact on the physical world.

An artificial intelligence-powered drone is not a software program. It is a physical thing, flying around in three-dimensional space. It can hover next to your window, recording your conversation by measuring the window pane vibrations. Or it could attack you and kill you.

The realities of the information age are going to explode a lot of myths. Like the libertarian myth that a “hands off” approach to regulation is best, for example — that all activities should be private and unencumbered by social rules.

The libertarian thing is a nice idea, of course. But the drone swarms in Colorado and Nebraska show why it can no longer work.

In a world where technology can put awesome power in the hands of any individual, letting your neighbor do whatever he or she wants is akin to entering a technology arms race. If your neighbor doesn’t like you and is a little crazy, maybe they could use drones to surveil your house, or even bomb it.

Then, too, we are entering an era of potential corporate power on the lines of “Robocop” and other dystopian technology films from the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Again, there is a certain ideology that says all free market business should be left completely unfettered. But do we really want, say, a real-world Teledyne or Omni Consumer Products Corp. to have the ability to build the tech equivalent of a paramilitary force?

There are going to be hard questions to answer, not just around regulation — who should control the drones, and how much of that control should be in the hands of government, for example — but around the shape of society itself and the role of democracy, expressed through government, as a means of limiting private power.

We are entering an age where the potential scope of private power, via technological tools, is becoming awesome to the point of being terrifying.

And yet, we really don’t know how to think about this, because the way to put in checks and balances against private power is through responsible use of government, and the government is hardly trusted anymore (for good reason).

The Federal Administration Aviation will surely figure out what is going on with the Colorado and Nebraska mystery drones. And the government will tackle the drone question in general: What type of regulations to enforce, what level of private activity to allow, and so on.

Figuring out the drone question will be non-optional on the grounds of security and opportunity alike. The security aspect covers the possibility of illegal surveillance and terrorist-type activities; the opportunity aspect covers all the ways in which drones can be a transformative force that takes e-commerce convenience to a whole new level.

It’s another reminder that the 2020s will be the most interesting decade of all our lifetimes thus far.

The new year is barely a week old as of this writing, and yet, as the mystery drones story shows — not to mention the highest profile assassination of a political leader since the 1940s, conducted via drone strike in Iraq — the wildness has already begun.  

TradeSmith Research Team