Fear Not The Drone Apocalypse

The Second Amendment is a ready-made solution to a 3D-Printed Drone Army

Johnny Dronehunter

Johnny Dronehunter

A still from "Johnny Dronehunter," an ad for shotgun silencer maker SilencerCo. In the ad, the protagonist shoots down a bunch of drones with a shotgun like so many clay pigeons.SilencerCo

When the apocalypse comes, it won't do so on four rotors. Drones, especially drones-as-we-know-them--the affordable, commercially available quadcopters--are only really engines of their own destruction. Zoltan Istvan, transhumanist candidate for President, wrote today that the American constitution is unprepared for the challenges of swarming robots. With all due I respect, I couldn't possibly disagree more.

"The Second Amendment Isn't Prepared for a 3D-Printed Drone Army", Istvan argues, and vividly sets a scene of total despair:

Imagine this: A disgruntled citizen borrows $30,000 from his credit cards. With the money he buys a sophisticated 3D printer off eBay and begins secretly printing and building a hundred drones in his garage. Then he downloads internet blueprints of 3D gun printing tech that can be adapted to arm his drones. The terrorist decides he wants some of his drones outfitted to carry droppable Molotov cocktails and glass containers of hydrochloric acid. He pre-programs some of the drones to shoot or crash into specific targets using over-the-counter navigation software. Other drones the terrorist plans to fly himself.

The founders lived at the dawn of an incredibly technological revolution, one that’s changed many times since 1789 but has never really stopped.

Istvan goes on to describe a scene where that drone army terrorizes a city, indiscriminately murdering at the will of its human engineer. This poses a fundamental challenge to the constitution, Istvan argues, because while the founders understood swords and muskets they never anticipated flying armed robot swarms.

That's fair to a point, but the founders lived at the dawn of an incredibly technological revolution, one that's changed many times since 1789 but has never really stopped. Among the founders Ben Franklin is of course most famous for inventing things, but he was hardly alone in seeing technology anew. George Washington invented a modified barn for easier grain threshing, and among Thomas Jefferson's many inventions was a wheel cipher, for encoding secret messages. These were not people who expected war to stay at the level of sword and musket forever.

When they built a system of government, they built one that was future proof. With divided powers, an active legislature, and the ability to amend the constitution, American government has survived and thrived in the 228 years since the constitution's ratification. It’s served to transition from a slaveholding agrarian economy to an industrial labor economy to a tech-driven post economy, with rough transitions but the general form of government still intact. And it’s been able to adapt to new threats, from Canadian invasions to civil war, from world wars on land, sea, and air through to a decades long nuclear stalemate, with apocalypse just hours away at all times.

The constitution endures, and it adapts. Istvan's story is really a sales pitch for the Transhumanist Bill Of Rights, a set of rules designd to protect "human beings, sentient artificial intelligences, cyborgs and other advanced sapient life forms" engaged in the pursuit of eternal life. It's a fascinating proposition, at the very least.

As realistic threats go, drone swarming terrorism isn’t.

But it's not one threatened at all by drone swarms, or by the inadequacy of the second amendment. Drones themselves are not a protected class of "arms," and when individual states have passed laws regulating unmanned aerial vehicles, they've made sure those laws prevent people from arming drones with firearms or other weapons. After a teenager in Connecticut attached a gun and then later a flamethrower to a drone, that state quickly moved to outlaw that in the future. It's not impossible that the National Rifle Association will take up drones as a cause, but for now that remains purely the realm of satire.

Besides legality, Istvan's feared drone swarmageddon faces a very different second amendment obstacle: it's one of the few problems that bullets are good at solving. Utah is considering a law to let police shoot at drones if they are threatening life or limb, and bullets are effective at knocking drones out of the sky. There's an obvious risk to bystanders with flying bullets, so it's better to use nets, lasers, jamming, or other tools to take out drones, but in a drone apocalypse, guns aren't the worst alternative.

There are many technology problems Congress doesn't understand, where it's important to educate them on the realities of the threat. As realistic threats go, drone swarming terrorism isn't.