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New Book

The book The Ethics of Drone Design hits the shelves

Dylan Cawthorne, drone scientist at the University of Southern Denmark, has just published the book The Ethics of Drone Design: How Value Sensitive Design Can Create Better Technologies, discussing the ethical dilemmas of drone technology's extraordinary potential to change the world we live in — for better or for bad.

By Sune Holst, , 10/10/2023

“If I get run over by a bus, make sure you get the book published!”

This is how Dylan Cawthorne has said to friends and colleagues in recent months. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Dylan is alive. And the book is now out. The book at issue is The Ethics of Drone Design: How Value Sensitive Design Can Create Better Technologies. And the book is important, not only to Dylan Cawthorne himself, but also in general, for it focuses at the interface between research and ethics, which is important in an era when development is moving faster than ever before. Indeed, an important aspect of modern technology is that it allows the consequences of our actions to encompass a huge amount of people, both now and in the future.

“The goal of the book is to convince my engineering colleagues that it is important that we take the time to reflect on what technologies we will and will not be a part of, and who we will and will not collaborate with. Personally, I don't want to participate in research on military drones. Is it complicated? Yes! But we have responsibility and we make a difference, so that's why it's important that we make decisions on an enlightened basis,” said Dylan Cawthorne.

A moral compass in an ethical fog
The film Oppenheimer has taken its victory course in cinemas all over the world. Director Christopher Nolan's tale is about the atomic bomb's creator, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who gave humanity the power to wipe itself out. Oppenheimer gave us dilemmas we've never had before. In short, the film is therefore about consequences. Consequences of human actions and new technology. Can parallels be drawn to the Manhattan project and today's drone research? Yes, Dylan Cawthorne thinks.

“The atomic bomb changed the world forever. There are different technologies that today have the potential to transform our society. Maybe not in the same way, but still in a radical way, so there will be a before and an after. Artificial intelligence is one of those technologies; drone technology also has the potential for it,” says Dylan Cawthorne.

For just as Oppenheimer's Manhattan project changed the course of history, drones are fundamentally changing the fabric of our society, the SDU researcher argues in his book. Dylan Cawthorne believes drones are becoming an inseparable part of our lives that both reinforce and challenge our values.

Like Oppenheimer, whose recognition of atomic energy's colossal impact led to reflection on the ethics of his creation, Dylan Cawthorne challenges engineers and scientists to examine the derivative implications of their inventions. The researcher believes that in-depth debates about power relations, ethical responsibilities and the complex web of societal dynamics are necessary.

“Think about your research in a social context and give it some ethical considerations. We thought in the past that technology was just technology. A bomb is basically just a bomb, it's the people using it that make it what it is. But we can no longer completely separate our research from the potential use. We must recognise that there are human values encapsulated in the technology we manufacture. And then we as engineers must assert our right, because we HAVE influence.”

Dylan Cawthorne, in that context, refers to Project Maven, which was a project where artificial intelligence developed by Google engineers could be used to designate targets for military drones. Thousands of Google employees signed a letter saying they refused of being part of the project why it was stopped.

“It shows that engineers have a voice and a form of power. It can also have massive economic consequences in certain industries if engineers choose to strike, so we have a voice we can demand is heard.”

Recommendations for drone engineers, companies, lawmakers and citizens
The Ethics of Drone Design: How Value Sensitive Design Can Create Better Technologies argues that our moral progress must keep up with technological advances, just as the book explores how drones affect human values, power dynamics and the complex network of modern societies.

Various methods from engineering, ethics and the arts, such as value-based design, ethical frameworks and speculative design, are presented and offer a nuanced view of drones beyond the simple good or bad drone dichotomy.

“Recently, a book entitled The Good Drone was published, which presents, among other things, how drones can be used in social activism, freedom of expression and much more. Before that book, literature in the field often dealt with drones for military use, which were described as evil. To me, these representations are black-and-white and oversimplified. I'm trying to show the nuances. For basically, technology will benefit certain people, but is a disadvantage to others. It's not a simple equation where you can put all the good on one side and all the bad on the other,” says Dylan Cawthorne.

Simple and logical construction
Structure-wise, Dylan's book introduces four prototype drones that the author has created: The health drone, the surveillance and rescue drone, the African mapping drone and spiritual drones. Each of the four chapters is built around a template, which begins with ethical considerations followed by social context and culminates in a technological design.

The book concludes with recommendations for drone engineers, businesses, legislators and citizens to promote human and environmental well-being.

“There are fundamental challenges when you have to make decisions on an enlightened basis. I have a vain hope that engineers are reminded that their work makes a difference and has an impact on the surrounding community. That's the whole point of being an engineer, but it can be complicated and we're forced to make tough decisions.”

In short, the book is intended as a valuable resource for engineers interested in drone technology, and offers a comprehensive exploration of the ethical dimensions of drones and practical guidance for designing drones consistent with human values and well-being, from the author's point of view.

You can read more about the book and order it here.


Editing was completed: 10.10.2023