Sunday, June 30, 2013
When about 60 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer blew up last April 17, killing fifteen people and destroying $100 million worth of property in the town of West, Texas, a great many people were surprised about a lot of things. I’m not sure how many citizens of West knew enough Texas history to recall the 1947 Texas City explosion that killed 581 people when two ships carrying ammonium nitrate exploded. In testimony before the U. S. Senate this week, it was revealed that members of the West fire department were unaware of the potential hazards of the ammonium nitrate stored at the fertilizer plant where they were called to fight a fire shortly before the explosion occurred. A chemical engineer at the same hearing stated that if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules regarding ammonium nitrate storage had been enforced at the plant, the explosion might not have happened. The very fact of the hearings, though, is something that brings up a broader question of how laws and regulations concerning ammonium nitrate are made and enforced in the U. S. today.
Handling ammonium nitrate is a little like playing the lottery in reverse: most of the time nothing happens, but once in a great while, you hit big. If the fertilizer compound was as dangerous as plutonium, for example, there would be no question about imposing strict and rigid regulations on its handling and use. But many thousands of tons of the product are used for both fertilizer and intentionally as explosives every year without incident. What do you do about a product that is safe 99.999...% of the time, but every so often hauls off and makes the headlines with a major disaster?
This is fundamentally a problem of justice and prudence, two of the four cardinal virtues recognized by the medieval age (the other two are temperance and fortitude, in case you’re wondering).
One way to deal with the problem would be for every private firm that handles ammonium nitrate to comply voluntarily with the technical recommendations of OSHA and other experts: store ammonium nitrate far away from other chemicals and combustible materials, ensure that storage facilities have sprinkler systems to prevent fires, keep the stuff in non-combustible containers, and so on. I have never run a fertilizer plant, so I can’t say how much more this would cost compared to the way things are done today. But I suspect it would be more or less of a challenge for every plant handling ammonium nitrate to change its ways as described. It would be the right thing to do, assuming the costs wouldn’t be so prohibitive as to bankrupt the outfit (and the West plant, it turns out, had gone through bankruptcy a few years earlier). And maybe some plants and distributors are taking these actions already. But probably not all of them will.
Another way to deal with the situation would be for us to hire enough government regulators, inspectors, and other bureaucrats to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again on U. S. soil. This is where things get fuzzy with regard to how laws and regulations are made at the federal level.
In principle, the United States is a government of, by, and for the people. That should put “the people” at the top, as the ultimate authority over not only Congress (which is the branch of government most responsive to the people’s will, at least nominally), or over the President, but even the judiciary as well. It is nothing new to say that this authority has had difficulty getting itself asserted in recent decades. I would like to concentrate on one particular aspect of this problem: the ever-growing presence of federal regulatory agencies and agents, and how they can be made more responsible to the public they are supposed to serve.
In a recent issue of the conservative journal National Review, columnist Rob Long points out that we now have a situation in which unchecked and largely unmonitored growth of federal bureaucracies is virtually guaranteed. As federal-employee unions campaign for administrations and representatives who favor the indefinite increase of government bureaucracies, the number and power of unelected bureaucrats increases in an apparently never-ending spiral.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, IF every dollar spent on a bureaucrat yields a true dollar’s worth of improvement in the health, safety, and general well-being of the commonwealth. But who thinks that is the case? And what mechanisms do we have in place for ensuring that bad and unproductive bureaucrats and bureaucracies are reigned in or eliminated? From what I can tell, one of the main checks on bureaucratic power is hearings such as the one in the U. S. Senate last week. If it goes as most such hearings go, members of Congress browbeat bureaucrats before the cameras for a day or two and then everyone goes back to business as usual, which for Congress means raising funds to be re-elected, and for bureaucrats means. . . well, it depends on the bureaucrat.
This is not to tar all government employees with the same brush. Millions of them are hard-working, dedicated, and deliver the taxpayers’ money’s worth in the form of useful service. But my quibble is with the absence of an efficient, effective, and swift way to feed back problems with governmental regulatory actions (or inactions) so that the bureaucracy responds and gets continually better.
In private enterprises under capitalism, the market is the main way that efficiency is rewarded and incompetence is punished. But I am not calling for the privatization of government, necessarily. I’m not really sure what the answer is.
Possibly (and this is coming from an educator, so take it with a grain of salt) some type of civic and even moral education would help. In a better world than the one we have, the managers of the West fertilizer plant would have known enough, and spent enough, to store ammonium nitrate in a safer location. The members of the fire department would have known enough to call for an emergency evacuation at the first sign of fire in the fertilizer plant’s ammonium nitrate storage area. And any government regulators involved would have been local people, people who lived in the town they protected and knew the people whose lives they were concerned about. They might have played roles in helping the firefighters and plant owners learn and change their ways. But as for the way things are now and as far as the citizens of West were concerned last April 17, the billions of dollars spent in Washington over the years on OSHA, the EPA, and all the other alphabet-soup outfits with a remote connection to this tragedy were wasted.
Sources: I used material from a “mystatesman.com” subscriber-only site maintained by the Austin American Statesman, namely an article by Brenda Bell posted on June 27, 2013 at http://www.epa.gov/osweroe1/docs/chem/ammonitr.pdf. I also consulted Wikipedia’s articles on the Texas City disaster and the cardinal virtues. Rob Long’s article “Bureaucratic Rot,” which may contain more information about fish guts than you care to read, appeared on pp. 21-22 of the July 1, 2013 issue of National Review.
Monday, June 24, 2013
A few weeks ago I mentioned that an eminently qualified historian of technology has written a biography of Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), the inventor of the eponymous Tesla coil, the induction motor, and numerous other ingenious contraptions. While Tesla has been the subject of numerous popular biographies and even a film or two, earlier treatments tended to play up the sensational and mysterious aspects of his career, while neglecting the deeper context of his times and the significance of his actual technical contributions. By contrast, University of Virginia historian W. Bernard Carlson has shown how Tesla flashed upon the scene of early electrical technology rather like a spark from one of his own coils, only to fade out almost as fast into relative obscurity after about 1910. What is more, Carlson traces the reason for Tesla’s failure to live up to his potential on a conflict between ideal and illusion. When illusion took over, Tesla lost credibility, first with the technical community, then with the public, and most seriously for his career, with his financial backers.
Possessed of a rare type of imagination which allowed him to controllably visualize complex structures and scenes so real to him that he sometimes lost sight of reality while contemplating them, Tesla always worked primarily in the realm of the ideal—the perfect mental construct that performed his every bidding. This is how he envisioned what was arguably his most significant invention: the alternating-current induction motor. While Tesla would later claim that the idea came complete and finished to him in an instantaneous flash of insight in Budapest in 1882, the reality was that it took him years of development and experimentation to present the idea to the world in patentable form. Another historian of technology named John Staudenmaier likes to assess the importance of a technology by asking what the world would be like if the technology in question disappeared overnight. Some idea of the importance of Tesla’s invention can be grasped by realizing that if all induction motors suffered some kind of mechanical rapture one day and vanished off the face of the earth, we would virtually all be without running water, most factories and plants of all kinds would stop working, we’d have no air conditioning, no elevators, and, well, we would be in quite a pickle all told.
Once the Westinghouse interests bought Tesla’s induction-motor patents and made him fairly wealthy, the inventor moved on to other things: high-frequency currents, the nascent field of radio, and his grandest vision: the worldwide distribution of electric power without wires. It was to test this last idea that he built what was probably the world’s largest Tesla coil in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1899, using the bulk of the town’s power plant output late at night to run it. In doing this, he was following a vision of how his technology would supersede the high-tension transmission lines and distribution networks that at the time were just beginning to spread the blessings of electricity to the public.
Tesla’s work in Colorado Springs was documented not with detailed published papers or plans for developing profitable technology. He had always enjoyed playing the showman by dazzling nineteenth-century audiences with high-voltage displays that even today attract the attention of jaded twenty-first century audiences, and giving interviews to newspapers that made him sound more like a magician than a sober scientist or engineer. Most of what Tesla brought back from Colorado was pretty photographs, including the famous one that shows him calmly sitting in a chair reading while many megavolts of lightning flashes above his head. In distributing the photograph, Tesla was forthright about the fact that it was a double exposure: first the sparks were photographed with no one nearby, and then the machine was turned off while Tesla seated himself near it and the photographer set off a flash charge. But the illusory message the picture conveyed probably overpowered any disclaimers, and in the years afterwards, Tesla’s career would increasingly be characterized by visionary claims and promises of fantastic results followed by broken promises and missed deadlines.
Tesla’s letters of this period to the financier J. P. Morgan pleading for funds make for painful reading. When Morgan finally turned him down once and for all, Tesla lapsed into an obscurity from which he occasionally emerged to give interviews laced with hints of militarily useful marvels such as death rays and supremely powerful explosives. These hints were taken seriously enough that following Tesla’s death in 1943, the FBI prompted the wartime Office of the Alien Property Custodian to confiscate Tesla’s papers and obtained the services of a radar expert to see if there was anything worth keeping secret for government use. There wasn’t. But the record of Tesla’s interviews over the years inspired a small cult following that continues to this day to put out the idea that when he died, he took secrets with him that we have not yet discovered on our own.
Promising a little more than you can deliver at the time is a time-honored tradition in technical enterprises, and has given rise to words such as “vaporware,” meaning software that somehow is always going to be released in the next few months but never actually arrives at the customer’s doorstep. But too much of this sort of thing can land individuals such as Tesla, firms, or entire industries in so much trouble that they can never recover. Vision—the ability to conceive and express novel ideas that attract the participation of others—is a necessary part of the engineering enterprise. New ventures always contain a measure of the unknown, and visionaries lead the rest of us—financiers, organizers, managers, and customers—to assist in turning their visions into reality. As historian Carlson points out, if Tesla deceived people, it was with their cooperation, much as an actor deceives a willing audience. But ultimately, Tesla found himself in a world where illusion was expected to be followed by useful, profitable hardware. And when he could no longer deliver things that the real world of 1910 needed, he turned instead to mystical utterances that attracted attention, but no money. Tesla’s life is a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to understand what the right mix of technical prowess, vision, and hard work can do—and what happens when illusion overwhelms ideals.
Sources: I used W. Bernard Carlson’s new biography Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2013) as my main source of material for this post. The famous photo of Tesla and his million-volt coil can be viewed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tesla_colorado_adjusted.jpg. One of these days I will write up the story of how a psychology grad student from New York and a ten-year-old Texas boy built a Tesla coil (the boy was me).
Sunday, June 16, 2013
There are probably as many reasons that people choose a career in engineering as there are engineers. But one reason that may be pretty common was voiced by a graduate student of mine many years ago. When he entered college, he thought at first about becoming a philosophy major. But when he discovered that, like lawyers, philosophers prided themselves in being able to defend either side of any argument, he felt that he needed to find a field where objectivity was paramount and subjective opinions had to defer to facts. So he chose engineering.
My student was on to something. Modern science-based engineering does start from universally-recognized facts about the physical world. But if you go into engineering with the hope that technical matters are all that matter and personal subjective beliefs and feelings are irrelevant, you will be in for a surprise. A good example of this came about last spring in news reports of an incident at the Arkansas Nuclear One plant in Russellville, Ark., about seventy miles northwest of Little Rock, on Easter Sunday, March 31 of this year. What was meant to be a taxing but routine industrial maintenance operation turned into a fatal accident. But the same facts were construed at least three different ways by different news outlets.
The first report I’ll consider is from the U. S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s official website, http://public-blog.nrc-gateway.gov. This blog is clearly intended to be the NRC’s public face. Their headline on the incident reads, “Easter Sunday and Arkansas Nuclear One.” From the headline alone, you might expect it to be a caption of a nice photo of, say, the sun rising over a cooling tower as a group of worshippers nearby celebrate an Easter Sunday sunrise service. Only when you read the text do you find that early that morning, a group of workers at the Entergy Operations Inc. plant were using a temporary crane to move a 500-ton piece of equipment called a generator stator. This assembly of copper and steel is the stationary part of the electrical generator, and is just like any other stator in a coal-fired or gas-fired plant. As they were moving the huge stator, the temporary crane failed. Five hundred tons falling even a few feet will acquire a tremendous amount of kinetic energy. When it hit the floor, pieces flew around the generator hall. One worker—a 25-year-old Arkansas Tech grad named Wade Walters—was killed, and eight others injured. As a result of the damage, the outside power to part of the plant was interrupted, and the plant’s emergency generators started automatically to keep things under control. Once outside power was restored, things returned to normal and cleanup from the accident began. By law, the plant operators were required to notify the NRC of this incident, and this information was posted both on the NRC’s technical incident-notification site and on the public blog. The parts of the plant containing nuclear material were never in any danger of leaking anything as a result of this industrial accident.
The next report I consider is a Russian news website called RT.com. Their headline reads, “Arkansas nuclear plant incident kills one, injures eight.” The phrase “nuclear plant incident” will arouse in the susceptible reader images of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, both accidents in which extensive damage resulted to the nuclear parts of the plant. Three Mile Island, a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania that partially melted down in 1979, released a small amount of nuclear-laced gas, but caused no deaths or injuries. The Chernobyl disaster, which happened in 1986 in Ukraine (then a part of the old USSR) was much more serious, killing dozens promptly and releasing large amounts of nuclear material that led to the condemnation of many square miles around the plant and a rise in radiation-related illnesses for years afterwards. So Russians have good reason to be touchy about anything that goes wrong at a nuclear facility.
The RT article plays up the human-interest side, with extensive quotations from those mourning the loss of Mr. Walters. The general tone of the report can be assessed from the first quotation in it: “ ‘We are deeply saddened by what has happened today,’ executive vice president and chief nuclear officer Jeff Forbes said in a public statement, without providing details about the cause of the young man’s death or the severity of the other victims’ injuries.” Now, there may not have been any intent to cover up or deceive in the fact that Mr. Forbes did not provide the aforementioned details. He simply may not have known enough accurate information to say, and in any event, the details of injuries to private individuals are normally considered privileged medical information. But the way the statement is framed leads the suspicious reader to think Mr. Forbes may be hiding something.
Finally, a website that may be fairly characterized as anti-nuclear leads their version of the story with this headline: “Fatal accident at Arkansas Nuclear One leaves unit without offsite power.” This is from something called Enformable Nuclear News. I have been unable to determine the etymology of the word “enformable” which sounds vaguely French and might mean “able to inform.” At any rate, Enformable.com has a large web presence and a substantial team of well-qualified reporters who apparently spend most of their time looking for nuclear-related bad news. In this, they are no different than any other reporters—bad news travels faster, is more interesting to read, and makes up the bulk of all news.
Notice that the Enformable report begins with the worst outcome of the incident: “fatal.” And while it is true that part of the plant was without external power for a very short time, the emergency generators started normally and allowed operators and automatic controls to take the appropriate actions that prevented anything out of the ordinary from happening to the plant’s nuclear operation. But if you read the headline alone, you may get the impression that someone at the plant might have died from radiation or other specifically nuclear-related cause, and that the plant is still sitting there disabled through lack of outside power.
Public-relations people call such slanting “spin,” and for some time we have lived in an age of spin. But once information reaches the public domain, it is no longer “objective” in some abstract, depersonalized sense. Those who convey it to their various publics—and in the age of the WorldWideWeb, there are more different kinds and divisions of publics than ever before—will inevitably emphasize certain aspects of a story over others, and lead their readers to do the same.
The engineer who thinks all this sort of thing is beneath contempt, and that a simple objective statement of the facts ought to clear up all dispute, is fooling himself (or herself). While public opinion may be misinformed, distorted, or even flat wrong, everyone in the nuclear industry, including engineers, has to operate in the real world, not in some idealized technical utopia where everyone sees everything the same way. And the sooner engineering students recognize and understand that aspect of engineering, the better.
Sources: I thank Andy Taylor of Entergy Operations Inc. for drawing my attention to this incident. The URLs for the three reports are: http://public-blog.nrc-gateway.gov/2013/04/01/easter-sunday-and-arkansas-nuclear-one/ (NRC); http://rt.com/usa/arkansas-nuclear-plant-accident-170/ (rt.com); and http://enformable.com/2013/04/accident-at-arkansas-nuclear-one-leaves-unit-without-offsite-power/ (enformable.com). I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on the Three Mile Island accident and the Chernobyl disaster.
Monday, June 10, 2013
In 1900 Philadelphia, then the third-largest city in the U. S. with a population of over one million, was a bustling metropolis whose downtown streets were lined with three-and four-story department stores and other structures, such as the four-story brick edifice built by some enterprising Philadelphians at 2136-2138 Market, near the corner of 22nd and Market Streets. Over the years, the building saw a variety of uses. Its facade was modernized, but its basic construction of brick augmented with steel beams remained unchanged. Finally, in May of 2013, the current owners of the structure decided to take it down. And here is where the building entered the annals of engineering-ethics tragedies.
The safest way to take down a brick building is by reversing the way it was constructed: that is, brick by brick. Such an approach is prohibitively expensive, so demolition firms use more efficient methods, such as wrecking balls and hydraulic excavators (a type of heavy machinery with a long hydraulically operated arm and a scoop at the end). The problem with brick walls and demolition operations is that the walls have almost no tensile strength on their own, if they are unsupported by an all-steel framework or facade. While properly built brick buildings can reach heights of fifty feet or more and last for thousands of years, any substantial sideways force on the structure cracks the mortared joints between the bricks and turns the thing into a big pile of loose bricks, which do unpredictable things. This is why Sean Benschop, the man operating the hydraulic excavator at the Market Street demolition site, was taking a huge risk as he worked to take down the remaining parts of the 113-year-old structure he was hired to demolish.
While demolition operations fall under the purview of the City of Philadelphia’s building inspectors, and a permit was required to begin the demolition, no inspections were carried out during the demolition itself. If a city inspector had happened by on Sunday, June 2, he might have seen what a passerby videoed that afternoon and subsequently posted on YouTube.
The four-story building in question faced the street, and to its immediate right as you faced its front was a one-story Salvation Army thrift store on the corner of 22nd and Market. Both buildings were long and narrow and extended parallel to each other about half a block to the rear. On that Sunday afternoon, someone (presumably Mr. Benschop) had moved his hydraulic excavator onto the sidewalk in front of the thrift store, and was going after the remnants of the front wall, which was about two stories high at that point. An assistant played a spray of water on the wall, presumably to keep down dust. But the video clearly shows bricks falling from the front wall onto the sidewalk, which is apparently open to anyone who would be foolish enough to approach the scene and risk getting hit by falling bricks. No one had erected the open plywood-box type of shelter for sidewalks that is customary at constructions sites that border the street. Even more ominous in this scene is the right-hand side wall of the old building, which has been partly removed near the front but looms near its full original height toward the back, rising above the one-story Salvation Army store.
It was that wall which collapsed outward on Wednesday afternoon, June 5. A still photo taken moments after the collapse shows panicked passersby running away from the huge cloud of tan dust that arose. Six people died in the store, which was open for business as usual that day, and one woman was pulled alive but seriously injured from the wreckage after being buried for 13 hours. Thirteen people in all were injured.
Who was responsible for this accident? From a legal point of view, that question will be examined exhaustively, because on it hinges the question of financial damages and possibly criminal penalties. But from the viewpoint of engineering ethics, we ask the question with the main goal of preventing such tragedies in the future. In order to fix a chain of responsibility, one must first understand how it broke down.
The news media have focused on Mr. Benschop, in whose system traces of marijuana was found, and whose criminal record includes ten arrests for matters such as drug charges, theft, and assault. Mr. Benschop does not appear to be a moral exemplar. He may have been doing his job as well as he knew how, and was capable of doing at the time, but from the results, that was not near good enough. He turned himself in to authorities Saturday and proceeded to have the book thrown at him.
The next step in the chain of responsibility is the person who hired Mr. Benschop, who according to news reports was contractor Griffin Campbell. Mr. Campbell, who has been cited by city inspectors for violations at other demolition sites his firm was operating, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, according to a New York Times report.
Further up the chain, Mr. Campbell’s firm was hired by STB Investments, the legal owner of the building. The principal owner of STB Investments is Richard Basciano, who is described by the Times as “a dominant figure in the sex industry.” He decided to tear down the building in question as well as several other properties in the area to make it more attractive for developers.
Demolition contractors must obtain permits from the City of Philadelphia, and the city’s inspectors are in some sense responsible for the work permitted under such measures. We will probably find out a lot more about how the permitting and inspection process works during the upcoming investigation. No inspection regime can guarantee 100% safe outcomes without being prohibitively costly and oppressive, but it is a good question whether this accident has revealed lapses or shortcomings in the inspection and permitting process.
In principle, the operators of the thrift store could have decided things were looking too risky as the building next door was demolished, but this would have required a level of judgment and expertise that is not to be expected from the manager of a thrift store. So the occupants and customers in the thrift store are the innocent victims of this miscarriage of engineering, and bear essentially no responsibility for what happened.
When something like this goes wrong, there are often calls for more rules and regulations. One reporter pointed out that existing OSHA regulations require that any wall higher than one story must be supported by bracing unless it was designed not to need any, even during a demolition operation. The wall that collapsed clearly was not braced, so the regulations were there. They simply weren’t observed.
If changes in the way demolition is regulated are needed, let’s hope that the investigation into this collapse leads to intelligent and reasonable improvements that avoid such tragedies in the future.
Sources: I referred to the following news items published online: ABC News at http://abcnews.go.com/US/excavator-operator-surrenders-philadelphia-building-collapse/story?id=19356293#.UbRZmJV4WsM, USA Today at http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/06/05/pa-building-collapse-philadelphia/2391943/, Engineering News-Record at http://enr.construction.com/yb/enr/article.aspx?story_id=186497987, the New York Times at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/07/us/philadelphia-building-collapse.html,
and the Wikipedia article on the collapse “22nd and Market building collapse”. The age of the building was obtained from the website http://www.propertyshark.com/mason/Property/22963127/2136-2138-Market-St-Philadelphia-PA-19103/, and the YouTube video of the demolition taking place on June 2 is posted at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnl1UcwJGfs.
Monday, June 03, 2013
“. . . a fighting-machine without men as a means of attack and defense. The continuous development in this direction must ultimately make war a mere contest of machines without men and without loss of life . . .” You might think this quotation is from the discussion that followed the speech on May 30 by Christof Heyns, the United Nations “special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions,” who came before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to call for a moratorium on the development of lethal autonomous robots (LARs, for short).
But in fact, they are the words of famed inventor Nikola Tesla, writing in the June 1900 issue of Century magazine. Besides his better-known inventions of three-phase power, induction motors, and high-voltage Tesla coils, Tesla founded a field he called “telautomatics” which we would refer to today as radio-controlled vehicles. Visitors to his New York City laboratory in the late 1890s could watch Tesla as he pointed out a model boat on a stand, complete with battery-powered motor and rudder. With no intervening wires, Tesla could remotely command the boat’s motor to run and turn the rudder, all by means of what later became known as radio waves. In 1899, he even demonstrated the model to an organization called the Chicago Commercial Club. As the boat made its way around an artificial lake set up in the auditorium, Tesla steered it at will and even set off exploding cartridges. Clearly, military operations were in Tesla’s mind, and he tried to interest government agencies in his invention, but to no avail.
Although Tesla’s remote-controlled battleships never got beyond the toy-model stage, his imagination went straight on to the ultimate extreme: machines that fought entirely without human intervention. Tesla’s dream (or nightmare, depending on your point of view) became reality with the secret deployment in the 1960s of drones: unmanned aircraft equipped with sensors, communications links, and missiles that destroy selected ground targets on receipt of a human command. But the human is typically thousands of miles away and undergoes no personal risk worse than eyestrain from too many hours at a computer terminal. This is not to ignore the psychological problems that remote-control killing can cause, but simply to point out the highly asymmetrical nature of an engagement between persons on the ground in Afghanistan, say, who have been determined by espionage to be worthy of elimination, and those in the U. S. who carry out the decisions of the President to eliminate them.
UN staff member Heyns is talking not about conventional drones, in which a human being is still involved in the decision to kill, however remotely, but about machines that would “decide” who and when to kill on their own, without the direct involvement of a human in the contemporaneous decision train. In a way, we have had systems like that for years. They are called land mines. They are exceedingly dumb, and what they do should not be dignified by the term “decision,” but when a person deploys a land mine, that person has no idea when it will explode or who it will kill. That depends instead on a mechanical condition, namely, getting close enough to set off the land mine. Although the conditions that a lethal autonomous robot would require before killing are no doubt more complicated, the difference between an LAR and a land mine is one of degree more than one of kind.
Not surprisingly, Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to end all use of land mines, has joined Heyns in his call for a ban or moratorium on the development of LARs. As Josh Dzieza of The Daily Beast points out, the U. S. Department of Defense has itself issued an internal directive that defers the deployment of such weapons for at least until 2022, unless they change their minds. But as with other types of new deadly weapons that become technically feasible, every nation with the capability to develop them is eyeing everyone else, and stands ready to jump in after the first one does.
Heyns objects to LARs for several reasons, but chief among them is the fact that there is what he terms a “responsibility vacuum” involved if a wholly autonomous device violates the international laws of war. If a soldier-controlled drone goes awry and kills seventeen children at a birthday party instead of a gang of terrorists, the soldier can in principle be called to account. But if a number of LARs are set loose on a battlefield, the situation is not essentially different from one in which land mines are deployed, except that the LARs may be more discriminating and more effective because they can move around and chase people. There is no one in the chain of causation for an LAR kill who is as clearly identifiable as the person who presses the button releasing a drone’s missile on a specific target.
There is also the hoary old sci-fi scenario of robots that turn on their masters, which can be traced all the way back to the legendary Golem: an anthropomorphic being made by a rabbi dabbling in magic. At first the rabbi commands the Golem to do good deeds, but eventually the monster turns on him and kills him, at least in some versions of the legend that date back to the 1300s A. D. If good engineering practices are used, I would expect all LARs to have some sort of nearly fail-safe “pull-the-plug” command. But the whole point of LARs is to have them work so fast and well that human intervention isn’t needed. If something goes wrong, it will probably go wrong so fast that a human monitor couldn’t pull the plug until it was too late, even if the robot was about to attack its creators.
Neither the U. S. nor any European country has wholly endorsed Heyns’ call for a complete moratorium on LAR development. The U. S., which appears to be the leader in this field, does not appear to be rushing into deploying lethal autonomous weapons any time soon, at least in public. There are enough war-related things to worry about already without adding the threat of robotic assassinations gone awry.
Tesla’s speculative hope in 1900 was that remote-controlled warfare would prove so horrible that universal peace would automatically ensue. Events have falsified this particular prophecy of his, as the world has proved to be entirely too tolerant of horrors that even Tesla could not imagine. But if we can at least delay adding another item to our worry list by not developing lethal autonomous robots, I think we should hold off as long as we can.
Sources: The quotation from Tesla’s Century article appears on p. 308 of W. Bernard Carlson’s excellent new biography, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age (Princeton Univ. Press, 2013). I referred to the following news articles from Radio Free Europe
a UPI report from the website military.com at
and John Dzieza’s article in The Daily Beast for May 30 at
as well as the Wikipedia articles on the Golem and unmanned aerial vehicles.