The overblown drone

It sure didn’t take long for “60 Minutes” to move past a big problem. Just when the venerable TV newsmagazine was still cleaning up the fallout from its Benghazi reporting, the mess was swept aside by happy-talk publicity over drones.

It was not one of the show’s heavy exposes that was generating the coveted buzz; this was a light-as-a-feather wet kiss for and its gazillionaire head honcho, Jeff Bezos. Amazingly, the puffery produced a little news. Bezos, who usually is secretive, revealed to Charlie Rose the prototypes of unmanned aircraft he’s trying to develop to quickly deliver products ordered online from his mega warehouses to the customers’ homes.

Wowee-zowee! This was huge! The Internet lit up like a holiday tree. Never mind that others, like pizza giant Domino’s, have been exploring their own ways to turn flying swords into profit shares. They, too, want to bring home from the wars the impersonal overhead killing machines and make a killing by adapting them to civilian use. UPS also is said to be studying them. So, this is nothing particularly noteworthy, except now Amazon — the behemoth that is taking over the entire world — is exploring them.

For everyone, it’s going to take awhile. The Federal Aviation Administration is trying to figure out how to make sure these squadrons of model airplanes don’t crash into each other, as well as trees and homes, or that they can be counted on to not drop their cargo, particularly food orders, on unsuspecting innocents below, causing lots of “splatteral” damage.

But let’s assume the FAA works all this out. The potential is enormous. Already, police departments are making plans. Imagine a robotic SWAT team overhead. Think about the surveillance potential. For that matter, these remote-control aircraft could become another tool for the National Security Agency and the other intelligence agencies to spy on Americans. For all we know, they’re already doing it. Could someone contact Edward Snowden?

They could make things more efficient in the world of politics. Consider how much time could be saved if the campaign contributions from lobbyists were dropped at the Capitol steps; they could even skip doing lunch. House Speaker John Boehner would no longer need to go to the drugstore to pick up artificial-tan lotion. So you would think that members of Congress would be thrilled, but some of them are actually getting serious about privacy concerns. Republican House member Ted Poe, for instance, is one of those who has introduced legislation to address the problem. “Companies,” he said, “could use drones for information-gathering, whether that is taking a photograph of your patio furniture, or recording the make and model of your car.” Now personally, I am secure enough that I don’t care who sees my patio furniture, but some people are pretty sensitive about how they furnish their verandas, so Congressman Poe has a point. Chances are, though, with all the computer tracking, everybody already knows whether you’re playing with a full deck, so it’s all a lost cause.

It’s not just an eccentric idea, and it’s not just drones. The big thinkers are pondering all kinds of robots. That other mammoth, Google, is staking its claim to a world of automobile automatons, but not just the self-driving cars we’re hearing about, maybe ground deliveries, too. Think of the day when the item that was made without any humans is brought to your home by a UPS drone that somehow rings your doorbell (they haven’t perfected that one yet) and your very own personal robot signs for it.

There is a huge fly in the ointment (a mechanized one, of course). We will be replaced, become obsolete, and worse, unemployed, unable to afford anything. The only consumers left will be super-rich people like Jeff Bezos. So his drones, after all, may just be a blue-sky idea.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.


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