Jun 292012

Helicopter & Ancient Agriculture
Last year, in an early morning walk among the rice fields of rural Japan, I heard the rapid yet subdued thwap-thwap-thwap of a very small helicopter. The civilian machine swayed slowly forth & back over the fields, spreading fertilizer or pesticide or glitter or something. It was cool, and an excellent Japananification.*

Dorky White Guy Sold Separately

So… that machine, what do you call it? It wasn’t autonomous, and it wasn’t delivering Hellfire missiles, but it was delivering something in response to remote commands, in this case from an old farmer in huge rubber boots thumbing a bulky remote.

So was it a drone?
Or was it a robot?
Or a robot drone?
A farming toy?

The Nomenclature Problem
To the military, aircraft that do not require direct, physical human control are known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). Ocasionally, they’ll use the word drone, too.

In civilian discourse, the lack of a naming protocol is somewhat problematic. Now, obviously “UAV Conducts Successful Mission” isn’t going to get the pageviews of “Killer Robot Drone Delivers Fiery Death from Above,” but going all dramatic like that, with those words, is kinda disingenuous and a little irresponsible. See, Reapers and Predators and the like aren’t robots, they’re super-tech R/C planes with some nice autopilot and guns & missiles, right? So that makes them simply drones, yeah?

Well, robot drone is sexier, even a bit menacing, and gets attention:

Wired, January 9:
“Almost 1 in 3 U.S. Warplanes is a Robot

The Guardian, June 21:
“The Obama administration has sought to block the release of documents
related to its use of robot drones to strike suspected terrorists overseas…”

Anthrobotic.com, Always
“WarBots. WarBots. WarBots.”

Here’s the thing: the words are all wrong, but nobody knows what’s right.

When is a Drone a Robot and a Robot a Drone or Both or Huh?
 drone is under control, so does a machine become a robot if it has a measure of autonomy? Does the label also depend on function, manner of movement, or distance from the controller? Are Google’s self-driving cars drones or robotsČapek’s robots were all humanoid, so does form also have some bearing? And what of artificial or non-biological intelligence – how does that fit in? At the end of the day, until we have a standardized system, isn’t the robot label just a flavor enhancer?

No one’s bothered to codify or standardize the lingo, but clearly we’re already operating on some subliminal guidelines. Garbage trucks and 10-story mechanical parking garages are partially autonomous, and the mini J-copter from my morning stroll is a UAV, but we can all agree that none of these would be called drones or robots or robot drones.

 And now, with a booming domestic market, maybe it’s time to figure this out.

Drones are Coming Home in a Big Way – Let’s Name Them
At the moment, most citizens know two basic things about drones that fly:

This One Brings Honey.

This One Brings Death. Or Just Watches You. Maybe Both.

Due in large part to the U.S. military’s growing enthusiasm for sending machines instead of pilots or soldiers to its many playgrounds, there’s a growing awareness of active and in-development combat & surveillance drones, super-secret spaceplanes, and various other force-related telepresence devices.

The month of June saw a certain topical convergence on the domestic side of drone use (as with robot sex technology in April). People are getting more hip to the issue, and the growing awareness is not just among us technodorks; mainstream media coverage in general is up. In addition to the military flavor, everyday people are learning about domestic law enforcement drones, border drones, Apple & Google mapping drones, and also those that assist firefighters and monitor agricultural stuff. (see Wired’s July cover story)

Time to Worry about Domestic Drones? 
It’s too early to parse the pros and cons of drone proliferation at home, but since the machines are already here, and lots more are coming, accurate terminology is essential. Polls do show increasing concern, and the implicit meaning of the words drone, or robot, or robot drone, or M.A.R.K.-13 Population Control Deathbot, etc., will further shape public opinion, understanding, and policy. We should prepare ourselves with an understanding of and ability to differentiate between drone and robot function, and thereby limit, or, if shit goes all SkyNet, amplify the technophobic freak out.

Futurists, those in the technology writing/commentary business, even those of us with questionable journalistic qualification or capability (as if that’s a pre-req for a media gig – HA!), we have a responsibility to communicate appropriate terminology. So let’s do that, work to inform the public, and begin providing a kind of identity to the machines. For now, how about dropping robot from descriptions of military and domestic drones? Robots will appreciate it when they wake up.

It’s the right thing to do for society.
Because you know what happens when something self-aware lacks identity?
White people with dreadlocks, that’s what.

For more of Anthrobotic’s WarBot coverage,
click on those words right above these words.


Okay, actually I’ve just gotta put this one in here:

Japanification, N. [Japanify, V.] The unstoppable, BORG-like capability of the Japanese psyche to reach out into the universe, inhale whatever interesting cultural or technological nuggets are found, and own them so hard that even the Japanese are oblivious to their unoriginality. The products of this process are often pelleted back into the global media stream, and, inexplicably, 1.9% of humanity’s population becomes a throbbing pillar of global pop culture. This is the single most powerful macro-cultural superpower in the history of the human species.
-Anthrobotic’s 2012 Dictionary of Useful Terms According to Reno

DARPA’s James Cameron Mashup: Unsurprising, but Existentially Bananas
WarBot Update: WarBots in the News, WarBots Here, There, Everywhere.
REMINDER: More than 1/50 American Soldiers in Afghanistan is a Robot, with Helicopters!
UPDATE: Video of Boston Dynamics Big Dog 2.0 (Alpha Dog, LS3, Whatev)
Everyone’s Favorite WarBot Finally Hitting 2.0 (High-Tech Two-Person Horse Costume?)


  1. Reno Tibke says:

    Sometimes this guy who wrote this really sucks at making words sometimes.