The New York Times

Maureen Dowd: Game of drones

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 16, 2014 - 3:43 pm

It will be tough to go into the big battle against drones without the irrepressible Goose.

And Tom Cruise, now 51, will no longer be playing a snot-nosed jockey with a need for speed on the highway to the danger zone. Three decades later, the mature Maverick will be a seasoned pilot with the chops to prove, as John Henry did against the steam-powered hammer, that man can beat machine. He won’t be going up against Russians in the Cold War, but robots in the Drone War. Instead of Cruise as a loose cannon, it will be Cruise fighting loose drones.

It was a sequel idea proposed by Tony Scott, who directed the 1986 blockbuster “Top Gun.” He committed suicide in 2012.

Jerry Bruckheimer, who co-produced the movie, which he once described as “ ‘Star Wars’ on earth,” recently revealed to The Huffington Post that he and Cruise are getting “closer and closer” to a deal to make “Top Gun 2.”

“The concept is, basically: Are the pilots obsolete because of drones?” Bruckheimer said. “Cruise is going to show them that they’re not obsolete. That pilots are here to stay.” (With a hackneyed pitch like that, the producer can no doubt count on lavish Navy cooperation again.)

But the producer is missing a more original twist. Instead of unmanned planes controlled by terrorists, the drones could be an army of angry birds amassed by our computer overlords, Google, Facebook and Amazon. Every time one of the tech giants reveals it is venturing into the drone business, the rationale is presented purely as smart business, a benign and even benevolent expansion.

Amazon will be able to drop packages right on your lawn, or even your head. With fleets of solar-powered jet drones, Google and Facebook would be able to expand their customer bases by offering online access to poor and remote areas of the world devoid of telephone wires or cellphone towers.

On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal published a front-page article about Google outbidding Facebook to acquire a New Mexico startup named Titan that makes solar-powered drones. Facebook then bought a British-based aerospace company that’s working on solar drones.

A Google spokesman said in a statement that “atmospheric satellites,” as Titan’s dragonfly-shaped, battery-powered, bigger-than-jetliners drones were being called, could “help solve other problems, including disaster relief and environmental damage like deforestation.”

But given the privacy breaches of Google and Facebook, and their collusion with NSA spying, we can be forgiven for some skepticism about what happens when the omnivorous and omniscient tech behemoths acquire the extra-judicial killing machines.

“Zuckerberg Vows Facebook Will Shoot Down Google Drones,” Andy Borowitz proclaimed in The New Yorker.

Can we really trust Google, who stole millions of the world’s books and whose Street View vehicles secretly scooped up data around the world, with drones?

Patrick Egan, a Sacramento drone expert who runs a website on the subject, told me that we are already in the Kubrickian future. “Drones are legal in a lot of countries in Europe, and they’re legal in Japan,” he said. He asserts there are more than 14,000 certified drone operators in Japan.

So whether the FAA likes it or not, we’ll soon have Minnesota ice fishermen getting beer delivered by a drone and maybe even the mythical TacoCopter.

My friend Jim Gleick, the author of “The Information” who is working on a book about time travel, is as leery as I am about the company whose unofficial motto is “Don’t Be Evil.”

“We’ve all learned that the nicest people with the best intentions are capable of bringing evil into the world,” he said. “No matter how sincere and idealistic they are, they are concentrating an enormous amount of power in our informational universe in a very small number of hands. A single, giant company responsible only to its managers can’t claim to have the world’s interests at heart. Ultimately, what Google does is for Google.”

He says while Facebook is merely creepy, with an intrusion into privacy that’s so blatant it’s part of the game, Google is “inescapable.”

“You can’t get through life anymore without using Google,” he said.

He said that he bought a Nest thermostat, which connects your home’s temperature to the Internet, and then Google bought Nest. “So now Google not only knows what books I’m reading,” he said, “but they also know whether I’m shivering while I’m reading them.”

Even before one falls from the sky and kills somebody or crashes into a building, the tech drones will mean, as Gleick says, “we’re living in a dystopian novel, with a continuous eye in the sky on everything that happens down below.”

He muses: “Are Google’s drones going to be watching while Amazon’s drones deliver my packages? How will we distinguish the drones with cameras from the drones with cameras and guns? How long before the NRA insists on the rights of drones to bear arms? The Constitution says people have a right to bear arms. And the Supreme Court says that corporations are people. Do the math.”

Forget “Top Gun 2.” This sounds more like “Risky Business.”

Read more articles by Maureen Dowd



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