3 scientists school flat Earthers on the evidence
Can this end flat-Earth theory once and for all?
BILL NYE: Is the earth flat or round? It's round, okay. Now, let's see. How do we go about proving that?
MICHELLE THALLER: That's a hard thing for me to even start talking about because there are so many proofs that the earth is round it's difficult to know where to start.
NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: B.o.B., the rapper, I have a video letter to him the transcript of which is in "Letters From An Astrophysicist." That rose to that level of attention because he started saying 'I'm using laws of math and physics to show Earth is flat.' Those are fighting words. You're going to say using math and physics? That is an alarm to the Geekoverse that we must rise up and counteract these forces from the dark side that are out there.
THALLER: There are proofs all around you. It is not difficult to know that the earth is round. So let's start from the simple to the slightly more complicated. One of the things you can see yourself with a pair of binoculars is if you actually go out to a lake and there are boats on that lake the farther away a boat is, the more the bottom of the boat will disappear and you'll basically just see the mast of the boat. And as a boat goes farther and farther away, the last thing you will see is the very top of the mast of that boat, and that's because the boat is actually going over the horizon that's curved. And that means that as it goes farther and farther away you see less and less of the bottom of it and more of the top of that. You can see that with binoculars by an ocean, by a lake. It's really easy. That wouldn't happen if the earth were flat. You would simply see the boat getting smaller and smaller and smaller as it went farther away, but you'd be able to see the whole thing with the same proportions.
NYE: Go to the seashore. Go to a seashore and figure out if you live on the East Coast figure out why you can't see Spain from the East Coast of North America. Just go to the middle of the Mississippi River and look south. Why can't you see Louisiana. Why can't you see New Orleans. What's the problem there? Or the climb a tower or go to the top of a hill or a mountain and you'll see a little farther, but you will not see to the other side of the earth, places we know to exist. For example, I've been to London. I can tell you other people have. I've been to Vancouver, British Columbia and you cannot see Vancouver, British Columbia from Boise, Idaho let alone from New York City or Toronto or what have you.
THALLER: Then there's some other proofs that are a little more obscure but they're actually really lovely and one is to observe What happens during a lunar eclipse. Now a lunar eclipse happens when the earth casts a shadow on the moon. The moon actually goes dark. In fact if you've seen one you could actually see the earth's shadow go across the moon. And when the moon is entirely in the earth's shadow the moon looks like of dark and even kind of red colored. It's really, really beautiful. What's happening in that case is that the sun is on one side of the earth. The earth is in the middle and it's casting a shadow. The earth is casting a shadow on the moon. And as the shadow moves across the moon you'll notice that the shadow is curved, it's round. So something like the Sun that's bigger than the earth and is able to cast a shadow of the earth on the moon can actually show you the shape of the earth. Aha, you might say, but could the earth be a disk? Could it be flat but it's actually still shaped like a disc, not like a sphere. There was a Greek scientist called Aristarchus and what he noticed was that you can get a lunar eclipse at many different angles where the sun is. Sometimes the shadow goes straight across the moon. Sometimes it just kind of glances the moon just a little bit is in shadow just on the top or on the bottom. From every different vantage point, every different angle that the sun is casting a shadow you always get a perfectly curved shadow. The only shape that can cast a shadow that's curved from any direction you put the light is a sphere. So people have known that the earth is spherical for thousands of years.
NYE: Look at pictures from space where you see the earth as a sphere. Those pictures are not faked and I'll tell you just if nothing else here's why you can tell they're not faked. Just to create the paperwork that NASA had created, NASA in this one case. Just the paperwork to send anything out in space. To send people into orbit or to send them to the moon, that amount of paperwork would make faking it prohibitively expensive. No one could afford to generate that much documentation. Then the other thing if you want to get into this, if your friends are really serious, have them get on a boat or a ship and go out at sea and you'll notice you can't see infinitely far. Furthermore if you get into it enough pick up a book about navigation or go online and learn about navigation. A very, very important thing you have to take into account when you try to navigate the ocean from a ship or a boat is how high you are off the sea surface. The higher you are off the sea surface, the farther you can see, the farther away the horizon is.
THALLER: I actually said this to somebody and I couldn't believe they'd never thought of it, but with binoculars you can see planets. You can see Saturn and Jupiter. You can see Mars with a telescope. The sun, the moon, everything else you see in the solar system is a sphere. So we're the one thing that is different? And that actually made somebody who was more interested in actually hearing information, that got them to think like you're right. Everything else we take a picture of is a sphere.
NYE: And you guys, come on. Everybody watches newscasts. You all use mobile phones. You all see airplanes fly around. You all go to see Ed Sheeran in concert one day in London, another day in Melbourne, Australia. This all depends on our fundamental understanding of the size of the earth and its shape with extraordinary precision. And if you want to get into it the earth isn't quite a sphere. It's a little wuhh. Its spin is a little wuhh, stretched it, made it slightly oblate as the saying goes.
THALLER: And it's not okay to think that the earth is flat. This is not a viable argument. I have friends who have been on the international space station. They have orbited the earth once every 90 minutes. I have had personal experience with people that have been up in space and can see with their own eyes that the earth is round. And, of course, we've taken all these amazing pictures from space. They're so beautiful all those pictures of the earth. So I don't really know what's going on right now with this earth is flat thing.
TYSON: In a debate what is the construct? It's typically two people and there's an audience and you debate some opposite sides of some issue and then there's a winner of the debate. And everyone walks away reflecting on the winner. So who wins a debate? It's often the person who's charismatic, who may be charming that's related to charisma of course. Who had a good way with words, good vocabulary. And you can have someone who doesn't have any of that who is speaking objective truths who could lose a debate. So then what is the point of the debate if one of these points of view is objectively true? I will not enter a debate where I have the objectively true side of an argument and the other person does not. That is something that should not be debated, does not belong in front of an audience getting debated. You want to debate something? Debate political policy of what to do in the face of climate change. Do you have carbon tax? Do you have solar panels? Do you subsidize them? Debate that. Don't debate something that is or is not objectively true in this world.
NYE: This is all susceptible to analysis, but spend some time learning about navigation, tell your friends to spend some time learning about navigation. Ahh. Navigation has changed the world by the way. What are you wearing? You're wearing stuff that came from another part of the world on a ship. It didn't get here by magic. It got here through science.
TYSON: I think it's important to combat people who are claiming that they are using math, science, evidence and physics behind their cause when, in fact, they either aren't or they're using it badly. That needs to be called out. Otherwise, if you just have a belief system I don't really care. We live in a country that protects free speech which usually also means free thought. You want to think Earth is flat, go right ahead. But if you start influencing other people who have power over other people and you have no foundation in objective reality it can be dangerous. If you influence people or you yourself become someone who has influence over legislation, laws, rules by which we all abide in society, that's an unhealthy situation for civilization to be in. If your personal belief system which does not have correspondence in objective reality starts becoming predominant in the thoughts and hearts and minds of civilization.
THALLER: It's not okay to say that the earth is flat. This is some sort of strange denial. I don't know where it comes from and it's something where I keep getting this question. We really need to put this question to bed because we've known the earth is a sphere for a long time.
- Despite centuries of evidence proving otherwise, there are an alarming number of people around the world who genuinely believe that the earth is flat. Bill Nye The Science Guy, NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller, and Neil deGrasse Tyson strongly disagree.
- From simple experiments like standing at a seashore or looking through a telescope at other planets, to reading about navigation or viewing photos of Earth taken from space, the scientists share several ways that flat Earthers can see the truth for themselves.
- Tyson explains why this trend doesn't qualify as a scientific debate and why it is actually dangerous for people to believe and, even worse, pass on these objectively false ideas.
- Reality show about Flat Earthers - Big Think ›
- Chris Hadfield: The astronaut's guide to flat Earth theory - Big Think ›
- Understanding the (Really Ridiculous) Core Tenets of the Flat Earth ... ›
- Why flat-Earth theory and anti-vax conspiracies exist - Big Think ›
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The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century, but where's the science behind it?
At the age of 16, when Tony Kofi was an apprentice builder living in Nottingham, he fell from the third story of a building. Time seemed to slow down massively, and he saw a complex series of images flash before his eyes.
As he described it, “In my mind's eye I saw many, many things: children that I hadn't even had yet, friends that I had never seen but are now my friends. The thing that really stuck in my mind was playing an instrument". Then Tony landed on his head and lost consciousness.
When he came to at the hospital, he felt like a different person and didn't want to return to his previous life. Over the following weeks, the images kept flashing back into his mind. He felt that he was “being shown something" and that the images represented his future.
Later, Tony saw a picture of a saxophone and recognized it as the instrument he'd seen himself playing. He used his compensation money from the accident to buy one. Now, Tony Kofi is one of the UK's most successful jazz musicians, having won the BBC Jazz awards twice, in 2005 and 2008.
Though Tony's belief that he saw into his future is uncommon, it's by no means uncommon for people to report witnessing multiple scenes from their past during split-second emergency situations. After all, this is where the phrase “my life flashed before my eyes" comes from.
But what explains this phenomenon? Psychologists have proposed a number of explanations, but I'd argue the key to understanding Tony's experience lies in a different interpretation of time itself.
When life flashes before our eyes
The experience of life flashing before one's eyes has been reported for well over a century. In 1892, a Swiss geologist named Albert Heim fell from a precipice while mountain climbing. In his account of the fall, he wrote is was “as if on a distant stage, my whole past life [was] playing itself out in numerous scenes".
More recently, in July 2005, a young woman called Gill Hicks was sitting near one of the bombs that exploded on the London Underground. In the minutes after the accident, she hovered on the brink of death where, as she describes it: “my life was flashing before my eyes, flickering through every scene, every happy and sad moment, everything I have ever done, said, experienced".
In some cases, people don't see a review of their whole lives, but a series of past experiences and events that have special significance to them.
Explaining life reviews
Perhaps surprisingly, given how common it is, the “life review experience" has been studied very little. A handful of theories have been put forward, but they're understandably tentative and rather vague.
For example, a group of Israeli researchers suggested in 2017 that our life events may exist as a continuum in our minds, and may come to the forefront in extreme conditions of psychological and physiological stress.
Another theory is that, when we're close to death, our memories suddenly “unload" themselves, like the contents of a skip being dumped. This could be related to “cortical disinhibition" – a breaking down of the normal regulatory processes of the brain – in highly stressful or dangerous situations, causing a “cascade" of mental impressions.
But the life review is usually reported as a serene and ordered experience, completely unlike the kind of chaotic cascade of experiences associated with cortical disinhibition. And none of these theories explain how it's possible for such a vast amount of information – in many cases, all the events of a person's life – to manifest themselves in a period of a few seconds, and often far less.
Thinking in 'spatial' time
An alternative explanation is to think of time in a “spatial" sense. Our commonsense view of time is as an arrow that moves from the past through the present towards the future, in which we only have direct access to the present. But modern physics has cast doubt on this simple linear view of time.
Indeed, since Einstein's theory of relativity, some physicists have adopted a “spatial" view of time. They argue we live in a static “block universe" in which time is spread out in a kind of panorama where the past, the present and the future co-exist simultaneously.
The modern physicist Carlo Rovelli – author of the best-selling The Order of Time – also holds the view that linear time doesn't exist as a universal fact. This idea reflects the view of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that time is not an objectively real phenomenon, but a construct of the human mind.
This could explain why some people are able to review the events of their whole lives in an instant. A good deal of previous research – including my own – has suggested that our normal perception of time is simply a product of our normal state of consciousness.
In many altered states of consciousness, time slows down so dramatically that seconds seem to stretch out into minutes. This is a common feature of emergency situations, as well as states of deep meditation, experiences on psychedelic drugs and when athletes are “in the zone".
The limits of understanding
But what about Tony Kofi's apparent visions of his future? Did he really glimpse scenes from his future life? Did he see himself playing the saxophone because somehow his future as a musician was already established?
There are obviously some mundane interpretations of Tony's experience. Perhaps, for instance, he became a saxophone player simply because he saw himself playing it in his vision. But I don't think it's impossible that Tony did glimpse future events.
If time really does exist in a spatial sense – and if it's true that time is a construct of the human mind – then perhaps in some way future events may already be present, just as past events are still present.
Admittedly, this is very difficult to make sense of. But why should everything make sense to us? As I have suggested in a recent book, there must be some aspects of reality that are beyond our comprehension. After all, we're just animals, with a limited awareness of reality. And perhaps more than any other phenomenon, this is especially true of time.
Might as well face it, you're addicted to love.
- Many writers have commented on the addictive qualities of love. Science agrees.
- The reward system of the brain reacts similarly to both love and drugs
- Someday, it might be possible to treat "love addiction."
Since people started writing, they've written about love. The oldest love poem known dates back to the 21st century BCE. For most of that time, writers also apparently have been of two (or more) minds about it, announcing that love can be painful, impossible to quit, or even addictive — while also mentioning how nice it is.
The idea of love as an addiction is one that is both familiar and unsettling. Surely it can't be the case that our mutual love with our partner — a thing that can produce euphoria, consumes a great deal of our time, and which we fear losing — can be compared to a drug habit? But indeed, many scientists have turned their attention to the idea of "love addiction" and how your brain on drugs might resemble your brain in love.
Love and other drugs
In a 2017 article published in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, a team of neuroethicists considered the idea that love is addicting and held the idea up to science for scrutiny.
They point out that the leading model of addiction rests on the notion of a drug causing the brain to release an unnatural level of reward chemicals, such as dopamine, effectively hijacking the brain's reward system. This phenomenon isn't strictly limited to drugs, though they are more effective at this process than other things. Rats can get a similar rush from sugar as from cocaine, and they can have terrible withdrawal symptoms when the sugar crash kicks in.
On the structural level, there is a fair amount of overlap between the parts of the brain that handle love and pair-bonding and the parts that deal with addiction and reward processing. When inside an MRI machine and asked to think about the person they love romantically, the reward centers of people's brains light up like Broadway.
Love as an addiction
These facts lead the authors to consider two ideas, dubbed the "narrow" and "broad" views of love as an addiction.
The narrow view holds that addiction is the result of abnormal brain processes that simply don't exist in non-addicts. Under this paradigm, "food-seeking or love-seeking behaviors are not truly the result of addiction, no matter how addiction-like they may outwardly appear." It could be that abnormal processes cause the brain's reward system to misfire when exposed to love and to react to it excessively.
If this model is accurate, love addiction would be a rare thing — one study puts it around five to ten percent of the population — but could be considered a disorder similar to others and caused by faulty wiring in the brain. As with other addictions, this malfunction of the reward system could lead to an inability to fully live a typical life, difficulty having healthy relationships, and a number of other negative consequences.
The broad view looks at addiction differently, perhaps even radically.
It begins with the idea that addiction exists on a spectrum of motivations. All of our appetites, including those for food and water, exist on this spectrum and activate similar parts of the brain when satisfied. We can have appetites for anything that taps into our reward system, including food, gambling, sex, drugs, and love. For most people most of the time, our appetites are fairly temperate, if recurring. I might be slightly "addicted" to food — I do need some a few times per day — but that "addiction" doesn't have any negative effects on my health.
An appetite for cocaine, however, is rarely temperate and usually dangerous. Likewise, a person's appetite for love could reach addiction levels, and a person could be considered "hooked" on relationships (or on a particular person). This would put love addiction at the extreme end of the spectrum.
None of this is to say that the authors think that love is bad for you just because it can resemble an addiction. Love addiction is not the same as cocaine addiction at the neurological level: important differences, like how long it takes for the desire for another "hit" to occur, do exist. Rather, the authors see this as an opportunity to reconsider our approach to addiction in general and to think about how we can help the heartsick when they just can't seem to get over their last relationship.
Is "love addiction" a treatable disorder?
Hypothetically, a neurological basis for an addiction to love could point toward interventions that "correct" for it. If the narrow view of addiction is accurate, perhaps some people will be able to seek treatment for love addiction in the same way that others seek help to quit smoking. If the broad view of addiction is correct, the treatment of love addiction would be unlikely as it may be difficult to properly identify where the cutoff of acceptability on a spectrum should be.
Either way, since love is generally held in high regard by all cultures and doesn't quite seem to be in the same category as a bad cocaine habit in terms of social undesirability, the authors doubt we'll be treating anyone for "love addiction" anytime soon.
A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.
- A new method estimates the ancient megalodon shark was as long as 65 feet.
- The megalodon was one of the largest fish that ever lived.
- The new model uses the width of shark teeth to estimate its overall size.
A Florida student figured out a way to more accurately measure the size of one of the largest fish that ever lived – the extinct megalodon shark – and found that it was even larger than previously estimated.
The megalodon (officially named Otodus megalodon, which means "Big Tooth") lived between 3.6 and 23 million years ago and was thought to be about 34 feet long on average, reaching the maximum length of 60 feet. Now a new study puts that number at up to 65 feet (20 meters).
Homework assignment leads to a discovery
The study, published in Palaeontologia Electronica, used new equations extrapolated from the width of megalodon's teeth to make the improved estimates. The paper's lead author, Victor Perez, developed the revised methodology while he was a doctoral student at the Florida Museum of Natural History. He got the idea while teaching students, noticing a range of discrepancies in the results they were getting.
Students were supposed to calculate the size of megalodon based on the ancient fish's similarities to the modern great white shark. They utilized the commonly accepted method of linking the height of a shark's tooth to its total body length. As the press release from the Florida Museum of Natural History expounds, this method involves locating the anatomical position of a tooth in the shark's jaw, measuring the tooth "from the tip of the crown to the line where root and crown meet," and using that number in an appropriate equation.
But while carrying out calculations in this way, some of Perez's students thought the shark would have been just 40 feet long, while others were calculating 148 feet. Teeth located toward the back of the mouth were yielding the largest estimates.
"I was going around, checking, like, did you use the wrong equation? Did you forget to convert your units?" said Perez, currently the assistant curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in Maryland. "But it very quickly became clear that it was not the students that had made the error. It was simply that the equations were not as accurate as we had predicted."
Found in North Carolina, these 46 fossils are the most complete set of megalodon teeth ever excavated.Credit: Jeff Gage/Florida Museum
The new approach
Perez's math exercise demonstrated that the equations in use since 2002 were generating different size estimates for the same shark based on which tooth was being measured. Because megalodon teeth are most often found as standalone fossils, Perez focused on a nearly complete set of teeth donated by a fossil collector to design a new approach.
Perez also had help from Teddy Badaut, an avocational paleontologist in France, who suggested using tooth width instead of height, which would be proportional to the length of its body. Another collaborator on the revised method was Ronny Maik Leder, then a postdoctoral researcher at the Florida Museum, who aided in the development of the new set of equations.
The research team analyzed the widths of fossil teeth that came from 11 individual sharks of five species, which included megalodon and modern great white sharks, and created a model that connects how wide a tooth was to the size of the jaw for each species.
"I was quite surprised that indeed no one had thought of this before," shared Leder, who is now director of the Natural History Museum in Leipzig, Germany. "The simple beauty of this method must have been too obvious to be seen. Our model was much more stable than previous approaches. This collaboration was a wonderful example of why working with amateur and hobby paleontologists is so important."
Why use teeth?
In general, almost nothing of the super-shark survived to this day, other than a few vertebrae and a large number of big teeth. The megalodon's skeleton was made of lightweight cartilage that decomposed after death. But teeth, with enamel that preserves very well, are "probably the most structurally stable thing in living organisms," Perez said. Considering that megalodons lost thousands of teeth during a lifetime, these are the best resources we have in trying to figure out information about these long-gone giants.
Researchers suggest megalodon's large jaws were very thick, made for grabbing prey and breaking its bones, exerting a bite force of up to 108,500 to 182,200 newtons.
Megalodon tooth compared to two great white shark teeth. Credit: Brocken Inaglory / Wikimedia.
Limitations of the new model
While the new model is better than previous methods, it's still far from perfect in precisely figuring out the sizes of animals which lived so long ago and left behind few if any full remains. Because individual sharks come in a variety of sizes, Perez warned that even their new estimates have an error range of about 10 feet when it comes to the largest animals.
Other ambiguities may affect the results, such as the width of the megalodon's jaw and the size of the gaps between its teeth, neither of which are accurately known. "There's still more that could be done, but that would probably require finding a complete skeleton at this point," Perez pointed out.
How did the megalodon go extinct?
Environmental changes that led to fluctuations in sea levels and disturbed ecosystems in the oceans likely led to the demise of these enormous ancient sharks. They were just too big to be sustained by diminishing food resources, says the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research.
A 2018 study suggested that a supernova 2.6 million years ago hit Earth's atmosphere with so much cosmic energy that it resulted in climate change. The cosmic rays that included particles called muons might have caused a mass extinction of giant ocean animals ("the megafauna") that included the megalodon by causing mutations and cancer.
Scientists, led by Adrian Melott, professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at the University of Kansas, estimated that "the cancer rate would go up about 50 percent for something the size of a human — and the bigger you are, the worse it is. For an elephant or a whale, the radiation dose goes way up," as he explained in a press release.
A brief passage from a recent UN report describes what could be the first-known case of an autonomous weapon, powered by artificial intelligence, killing in the battlefield.
- Autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades, but artificial intelligence is ushering in a new category of autonomous weapons.
- These weapons are not only capable of moving autonomously but also identifying and attacking targets on their own without oversight from a human.
- There's currently no clear international restrictions on the use of new autonomous weapons, but some nations are calling for preemptive bans.
Nothing transforms warfare more violently than new weapons technology. In prehistoric times, it was the club, the spear, the bow and arrow, the sword. The 16th century brought rifles. The World Wars of the 20th century introduced machine guns, planes, and atomic bombs.
Now we might be seeing the first stages of the next battlefield revolution: autonomous weapons powered by artificial intelligence.
In March, the United Nations Security Council published an extensive report on the Second Libyan War that describes what could be the first-known case of an AI-powered autonomous weapon killing people in the battlefield.
The incident took place in March 2020, when soldiers with the Government of National Accord (GNA) were battling troops supporting the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar (called Haftar Affiliated Forces, or HAF, in the report). One passage describes how GNA troops may have used an autonomous drone to kill retreating HAF soldiers:
"Logistics convoys and retreating HAF were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2... and other loitering munitions. The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
Still, because the GNA forces were also firing surface-to-air missiles at the HAF troops, it's currently difficult to know how many, if any, troops were killed by autonomous drones. It's also unclear whether this incident represents anything new. After all, autonomous weapons have been used in war for decades.
Lethal autonomous weapons
Lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) are weapon systems that can search for and fire upon targets on their own. It's a broad category whose definition is debatable. For example, you could argue that land mines and naval mines, used in battle for centuries, are LAWS, albeit relatively passive and "dumb." Since the 1970s, navies have used active protection systems that identify, track, and shoot down enemy projectiles fired toward ships, if the human controller chooses to pull the trigger.
Then there are drones, an umbrella term that commonly refers to unmanned weapons systems. Introduced in 1991 with unmanned (yet human-controlled) aerial vehicles, drones now represent a broad suite of weapons systems, including unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), loitering munitions (commonly called "kamikaze drones"), and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), to name a few.
Some unmanned weapons are largely autonomous. The key question to understanding the potential significance of the March 2020 incident is: what exactly was the weapon's level of autonomy? In other words, who made the ultimate decision to kill: human or robot?
The Kargu-2 system
One of the weapons described in the UN report was the Kargu-2 system, which is a type of loitering munitions weapon. This type of unmanned aerial vehicle loiters above potential targets (usually anti-air weapons) and, when it detects radar signals from enemy systems, swoops down and explodes in a kamikaze-style attack.
Kargu-2 is produced by the Turkish defense contractor STM, which says the system can be operated both manually and autonomously using "real-time image processing capabilities and machine learning algorithms" to identify and attack targets on the battlefield.
STM | KARGU - Rotary Wing Attack Drone Loitering Munition System youtu.be
In other words, STM says its robot can detect targets and autonomously attack them without a human "pulling the trigger." If that's what happened in Libya in March 2020, it'd be the first-known attack of its kind. But the UN report isn't conclusive.
It states that HAF troops suffered "continual harassment from the unmanned combat aerial vehicles and lethal autonomous weapons systems," which were "programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true 'fire, forget and find' capability."
What does that last bit mean? Basically, that a human operator might have programmed the drone to conduct the attack and then sent it a few miles away, where it didn't have connectivity to the operator. Without connectivity to the human operator, the robot would have had the final call on whether to attack.
Key line 2: The loitering munitions/LAWS (depending upon how you frame it) were enabled to attack without data conn… https://t.co/5u89cDDA60— Jack McDonald (@Jack McDonald)1622114029.0
To be sure, it's unclear if anyone died from such an autonomous attack in Libya. In any case, LAWS technology has evolved to the point where such attacks are possible. What's more, STM is developing swarms of drones that could work together to execute autonomous attacks.
Noah Smith, an economics writer, described what these attacks might look like on his Substack:
"Combined with A.I., tiny cheap little battery-powered drones could be a huge game-changer. Imagine releasing a networked swarm of autonomous quadcopters into an urban area held by enemy infantry, each armed with little rocket-propelled fragmentation grenades and equipped with computer vision technology that allowed it to recognize friend from foe."
But could drones accurately discern friend from foe? After all, computer-vision systems like facial recognition don't identify objects and people with perfect accuracy; one study found that very slightly tweaking an image can lead an AI to miscategorize it. Can LAWS be trusted to differentiate between a soldier with a rifle slung over his back and, say, a kid wearing a backpack?
Opposition to LAWS
Unsurprisingly, many humanitarian groups are concerned about introducing a new generation of autonomous weapons to the battlefield. One such group is the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, whose 2018 survey of roughly 19,000 people across 26 countries found that 61 percent of respondents said they oppose the use of LAWS.
In 2018, the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons issued a rather vague set of guidelines aiming to restrict the use of LAWS. One guideline states that "human responsibility must be retained when it comes to decisions on the use of weapons systems." Meanwhile, at least a couple dozen nations have called for preemptive bans on LAWS.
The U.S. and Russia oppose such bans, while China's position is a bit ambiguous. It's impossible to predict how the international community will regulate AI-powered autonomous weapons in the future, but among the world's superpowers, one assumption seems safe: If these weapons provide a clear tactical advantage, they will be used on the battlefield.