Lyceum speaker looks at role of technology

April 15, 2014 at 4:03 p.m.
Updated April 14, 2014 at 11:15 p.m.

The fourth and final program in the Victoria College 2013-14 Lyceum Lecture Series is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at the Leo J. Welder Center for the Performing Arts. The speaker, Mary "Missy" Cummings, is a ground-breaking pioneer on several fronts. She is one of the first female naval aviators with combat experience, having participated in the first Gulf War in 1990. Currently an engineer with a Ph.D. and a professor in the Department of aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, Cummings is an expert on drone technology, which offers to revolutionize such diverse endeavors as military combat and commerce.

With an impressive resume of scholarship in her areas of expertise, Cummings has focused her research in recent years on human interaction with technology - particularly, autonomous vehicle systems, of which drones are a subset. She is especially interested in the ethical and social aspects of this interaction. Her program in Victoria will certainly touch on some of these issues but will also detail challenges she faced - discrimination and outright hostility from fellow aviators - in her career as a naval pilot. While her vita on the MIT website reveals a lengthy list of scholarly publications she has authored or co-authored, she is more widely known for writing "Hornet's Nest," a book meant for a general audience that details her often harrowing experiences in getting established as a naval aviator.

When many of us hear the word drone, we may first think of the unmanned aircraft that in recent years have successfully completed multiple missions in the Middle East. Capable of honing in on exceedingly small targets on the ground and delivering lethal ordnance, these crafts offer the distinct advantage of accomplishing important military objectives such as killing leaders of terrorist organizations without risk to American lives. Controlled by either personnel on the ground, who are usually many miles away, or by autonomous onboard computer systems, they have begun to revolutionize combat in the 21st century.

While it might seem that drones are only recently in the news, unmanned aircraft have actually been with us conceptually for many years and in practice from the mid-19th century, when Austria used bomb-laden balloons to attack Venice. From the advent of aircraft in the early 20th century through two world wars and combat operations in Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East, drones have played an increasingly active military role - first for training purposes and later for actual combat duty. The technology behind drones also promises similar revolutionary advances in a wide array of non-military applications.

Among the many uses either attempted or contemplated for these aircraft (consisting of several subtypes that collectively constitute UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles) are surveillance (in industrial, government and civil-related activities such as police work and firefighting); intelligence (drones have been used by the CIA for years); commercial (Amazon recently announced a plan to use drones to enhance timely delivery of freight); industrial (for example, oil, gas and mineral exploration); forest fire detection; search and rescue of individuals stranded in hard-to-reach areas such as on mountainsides, adrift at sea or trapped in collapsed buildings; disaster relief such as delivery of supplies to an area cut off from civilization by natural or man-made calamity; and scientific research in remote and hard-to-reach areas. The list of potential applications is limited only by man's imagination and might include anything deemed too high risk or arduous for manned aircraft.

While the advantages of UAVs are manifest, as in many areas of complicated human endeavor, there is another component to their use: the ethical, social and moral sides. While we certainly appreciate the ability to take out "bad guys" and eliminate the threat they pose to the rest of us without undue risk, are there implications to drones' use we may not have considered, such as abridgement of privacy?

Science fiction is replete with works portraying the use of "intelligent" machines having unforeseen consequences to humans in various dystopian scenarios. Cummings, in her research, examines the reality to this side of technological advancement. She is largely concerned with the role of humans in technology, in all of its many aspects. While we celebrate its abilities to complete dangerous, arduous or numbingly repetitive tasks quickly and efficiently, it is, after all, humans who operate the machines, and humans who bear the results - good and bad - of the machine's activities. What are the implications for us individually and collectively as a society, both now and in the future?

Please join us in the Welder Center on Thursday to hear a first-rate and ground-breaking scientist weigh in on one of the existential questions of our time. The lecture is free of charge.

Dave Ticen is the chairman and a longtime member of VC's Lyceum Committee. Ticen works as a librarian in charge of user education at the VC/UHV Library.



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