Ruben Pater: Current advancements in drone technology are worrying


Special To The Japan Times

Dutch artist Ruben Pater discusses drones and survival in the modern age:

The Drone Survival Guide first came out at the end of 2013. What do you see as the big changes in drone technology over the last year (2014)?

Now that every industrialized country in the world is buying drones, there is money to invest in future applications and possibilities. Boeing is developing a solar-powered drone called “Solar Eagle” that can stay in the air for five years, like a permanent drone. China and the U.S. are developing hypersonic drones that can go 25 times the speed of sound. At that kind of speed humans are too slow to respond, so you need even faster autonomous systems to defend yourself. It becomes a big problem when humans are left out of the loop. How does the system know an enemy drone from a commercial airliner? For me that is one of the worries with current advancements.

Do you still have the same sense of unease in regards to drones that initially led you to creating the Drone Survival Guide?

Like any technology there are applications for better or worse. It is important that more people understand drone technology today and can come up with ways for them to improve our life.

However I still feel uneasy, because the legal framework has not been solved yet. U.S. military drones still assassinate citizens in countries they are not at war with — such as Pakistan, Somalia, or Yemen — without any criminal evidence. Police forces in many countries, including the Netherlands, use drones domestically for all types of surveillance with very little public discussion. Your neighbors can easily fly their drone to your house and film you without permission, which is equally scary. Before we start celebrating the age of drones we should have better regulation.

Japan has historically embraced future technologies (e.g. robotics) that the Western cultural imagination has portrayed as dangerous. How have Japanese audiences received the Drone Survival Guide?

The majority of the attention has been from Western countries, but that is probably a language matter, since the guide and the website are in English. There were a few people from Japan who ordered the Drone Survival Guide, and someone did translate the guide into Japanese.

I didn’t find much difference with Japan relating to a different view on robotics as such. I hope the special Japanese version of the Drone Survival Guide I made for the festival will generate some discussion, and I would love to talk to people there about the Japanese view on drone technology.

The Japan Media Arts Festival jury essay praised your piece for its “creative humor.” Similarly, much has been made of the illustrations that Japanese users have released under the hashtag “ISIS Crappy Photoshop Grand Prix” in recent days. Where do you stand on the use of humor to interact with otherwise sensitive political issues?

Historically humor has been very successful in addressing political issues — from the role of the fool at a kings court, to Internet memes like the one you are mentioning. I am a big fan of political satire if done well, and artists who use humor in an effective way, like the “Yes men,” are extremely powerful. I do not use humor on purpose, I would rather describe it as counter-propaganda — a way of deliberately confusing people about what is real and what is not, in order to urge them to think for themselves. I still get approached by journalists who really believe the guide is a serious effort to save us from drones.

On a general note, how do you personally view Japan’s relationship with technology, and what are you excited to check out while you are here?

Japanese cinema, and especially anime movies, is very influential in science-fiction and has shaped my visual thinking about technology and cybernetics. I have traveled to Japan before and everything was amazing to me. I really like purikura (personalized photographic stickers that are popular with teenagers), so I will definitely check those out while I am here. Visiting the festival is a great way to see more Japanese arts and design, and I will definitely check out the manga section of the festival.

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