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12/23/2017 This Israeli Presentation on How to Make Drone Strikes More “Efficient” Disturbed Its Audience


Sam Biddle
December 5 2017, 7:51 p.m.

Photo: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Research backed by the U.S. and Israeli military scandalized a

conference near Tel Aviv earlier this year after a presentation showed
how the findings would help drone operators more easily locate
people — including targets — fleeing their strikes and better
navigate areas rendered unrecognizable by prior destruction.

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12/23/2017 This Israeli Presentation on How to Make Drone Strikes More “Efficient” Disturbed Its Audience

The doctoral student who presented the research demonstrated how

pioneering data visualization techniques could show a drone
operator, using lines and arrows of varying thickness, which
direction fast-moving people and vehicles were most likely to travel,
for example, at an intersection or while fleeing a building. The
presentation clearly angered at least some of the crowd, including
the moderator, prompting hostile questions.

“The guy’s talk (and its video documentation) revealed much of

what’s very wrong about UAV warfare,” said Mushon Zer-Aviv, a web
designer and activist and an organizer of the conference, the data
visualization confab known as ISVIS.

The incident at ISVIS underscores the extent to which drone

warfare’s deeply technological basis and inhumanity has become a
major part of global public debate around its use. Once viewed (and
still promoted) as an efficient, safer way to target terrorists, the
growing ubiquity of lethal drone strikes in global hotspots is
increasingly seen as helping to create wastelands and fomenting the
sort of terroristic support it’s designed to eradicate.

Part of the controversy over the research presentation traces back to

the desensitized environment in which drone pilots operate, which is
not frequently seen by outsiders. In this world, the pilots ask
questions that might sound absurd outside the context of aerial
robot-aided killing: What happens when you want to kill someone,
but they’ve run into a building, and you’re not sure where they’ll
exit? What happens when a town has been so thoroughly destroyed,
you can’t recognize it anymore and get lost?

The presenter of the drone material, Yuval Zak, told the Intercept he
was surprised by the audience reaction and hostile questioning after
his presentation. “The conversation changed from dealing with
visualization and improving information presentation on a … map to
a discussion about the ethical issues of using drones,” he wrote in an
email. “But the focus of the conference and my paper is entirely
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different.” The technology he presented could just as easily be used

for policing and search and rescue as for drone strikes, he said — any
time-critical scenario involving a map.

Still, Zer-Aviv said he was stunned as the presentation unfolded. He

was the co-chair of ISVIS, which has billed itself as Israel’s first data
visualization event, bringing together “design, engineering, and
psychological perspectives on visualization.” Like many conferences
in any field, ISVIS put out an open call for presentations, hoping to
bring a sampling of the burgeoning world of data visualization under
one roof at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art in Ramat

“What is gained and what is lost in the transition from data, through
images, to insights?” read the ISVIS manifesto. The programming
looked thoughtful and sharp, covering topics from storytelling and
journalism to political activism and aesthetics. One session promised
to explain how “for museum curators it is imperative to learn,
analyze, and understand the behavior patterns of the visitors,” in
part through “recent developments in the field of indoor positioning

This sort of work is central to a lot of applied data science: how to

make things we’re already doing more efficient, more effective, less
laborious. But what if we’re talking about shooting missiles at people
from flying robots? Should drone warfare, already so remote and
clinical, receive further layers of software abstraction? Should killing
be engineered to be more efficient?

These were the sorts of urgent, necessary questions that Zak ignored.
His presentation focused on nuts and bolts, presuming that drone
warfare ought to be made more efficient in the first place. His slides
indicated his work was part of a “research collaboration between
Ben-Gurion University,” the Israeli military, and the U.S. Research,
Development, and Engineering Command’s Army Research,

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Development and Engineering Command, or, in poetic Pentagon-


The ISVIS organizers were “obviously very curious” when Zak

submitted his talk, said Zer-Aviv, and decided to place it in a segment
titled “Power and Change,” alongside a presentation on feminist data
visualization. “This panel was expected to take on visualizations use
both by those in power and by citizens who may want to grapple
with or oppose this power,” explained Zer-Aviv.

Yuval Zak speaks at an Israeli data visualization conference.

Zak opened his presentation with a startling statement that must

have, somehow, felt matter-of-fact:

It has been said that in the upcoming round of combat, for

example, the Israel Air Force will knock down some 1,000
buildings or more, so anyone who goes into Gaza won’t even
be able to identify what he thought he should be able to see

Herein lies the problem confronting Israeli’s high-tech air power, as

Zak’s team sees it: What happens when you’ve so devastated an
urban area that it’s no longer recognizable? How will you navigate,

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for the purposes of killing and destruction, a place that you’ve been
transforming by said killing and destruction? Therein lies a main
problem of drone warfare, relying heavily on sensor-laden robots that
are still operated by humans with finite memories and with visual
processing easily confused by rubble and ruin. This is where Zak’s
research comes in. He explained in his remarks that the goal of his
research was “at the end of the day, to improve the efficiency of
unmanned drone operators in the army in their missions.”

Zak then described the work environment of the drone operator,

who has video from the aircraft and a map, typically with some sort
of overlay, which might show existing forces. “What he does not
have,” Zak said, “is some sort of aggregate information about past

In other words, he takes off, he knows where the enemy is

expected to be, where our forces are expected to be. He won’t
know how the enemy acted in yesterday’s mission unless he
remembers, he won’t know how he acted in last week’s
mission or two weeks ago and even so, he has an information
load and coping with it is very difficult for him.

The issue at hand, then, boils down to one with which an MBA
candidate or Deloitte consultant might grapple: How can our
organization make sense of an over-abundance of data and increase
employee productivity by leveraging 21st century software
techniques? The only difference here is that the organization in
question is interested in the business of killing, and an increase in
employee productivity means killing more easily. Israel’s record of
civilian deaths in the course of its unmanned drone campaigns is
already well-documented.

Zak covered four different visualization techniques explored during

his research, noting that the first in the series was “a visualization
that most of the [drone] operators we consulted liked very much.”
Suppose you’re tailing a person or a car filled with people. Now,
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you’re piloting a drone equipped with a litany of hard-to-pronounce

imaging sensors capable of incredible visual detail, day or night. But
one thing the cameras and lasers can’t discern is what a person on
the ground, at a street intersection, for instance, will do next:

You’re following a vehicle, a suspect, you come to a junction,

and you have the possibility of going straight, turning right, or
turning left. In other words, not you, the target you’re
following. So what is the probability that that target turns to
each of the directions at the junction? When we can display
this probability with either a number that we add to the
visualization or using the thickness of the line, and some
filtering can be done about this, perhaps the time, the type of
target, the date, if it’s a moving target, a vehicle or a

The drone operators Zak has been working with, he said, were
particularly tickled by this visualization because there are missions
during which “they follow a vehicle and … sometimes lose it,
because you go into some kind of a cloud, and then they get out of
the cloud, and they want to know ‘OK, we’ve lost the target, and
there was a junction, so where do we look for it?’”

It’s unclear where the data necessary for such a narrow prediction is
coming from, and it’s not the only example of its kind Zak trotted
out. Other visualizations under consideration by the Israeli-American
research team include one for following individuals as they might
flee on foot, in which drone operators would receive a colorful visual
display of “the probability of entering and exiting each door in each
building,” designated by arrows of varying thickness, and a system
for tracking a “permanent target” like Ismail Haniyeh, senior Hamas
leader and former Palestinian Authority head. For people like
Haniyeh, Zak said “we can build a movement grid for him, where the
places where he was and the probabilities are shown via the
thickness of the lines or of those dots.” The “surveillance grid for an

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individual target received a very high efficiency ranking” from drone

operators, Zak noted with pride. It’s a bit like Netflix suggestions,
only for people to fire missiles at.

Zak quickly lost the crowd.“I think no one in the room really
expected this,” Zer-Aviv told The Intercept. Sure enough, according to
a transcript of the Q&A session following Zak’s talk, the first question
was actually a denunciation: “I’m just saying that when you hurt so
many people, not all of whom are Ismail Haniyeh, for these purposes,
we can look a bit less self-satisfied,” an audience member said. “Not
everything is inherently honorable.”

The segment’s moderator tried to press Zak on this point:

We hear a lot of talk these days about predictive policing.

About using algorithms, too, to make certain policy decisions.
Be it policing policy, in our case, it is targeted assassination
policy. Making life-and-death decisions based on data. What is
the role both of your data processing and of the visualizations
in these complex ethical questions?

In his reply, Zak sidestepped the ethical issues, stating that, “In the
big picture, our job is to make the work of a drone operator more
efficient.” He added that his visualization work would not take two
targets and determine “that one has to be destroyed and that one
not.” This role, he said, is made “by people who … view video screens
and evaluate the situation based on that.”

In his email to The Intercept, Zak stated that the benefits of

increased accuracy for drone operators go beyond efficient killing:

If an operator has better information, there will be less chance

of errors or accidents.

Most UAV accidents and mishaps are related to human errors

so the technology calls for developing UAVs holistically, which
includes human factors in addition to technology.
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Unfortunately, most UAVs are developed to achieve certain

technical goals, without considering the human cognitive
limitations in operating the system, or the decision-making
process. This is where our research can contribute to
improving operators’ performance.

For example, take a reported U.S. case in which UAV operators

failed to observe and report on the presence of children in a
suspected crowd in Afghanistan, causing a helicopter to kill 23
civilians. These are precisely the incidents we aim to avoid by
improving operators’ abilities to focus.

If you can make those video screens as rich and information-packed

as possible, well, why wouldn’t you? Isn’t it smarter? Better? But
these completely ethics-agnostic replies — so reminiscent of Silicon
Valley accountability dodging — are basically the “guns don’t kill
people” of drone warfare. Accountability lies with the button-
pushers, the reasoning goes, rather than the people who designed
and built the buttons in the first place. The view of drone operators
as merely passive consumers of content who need the best content
available in order to make the best decisions possible allows us to
avoid uncomfortable questions and debates over whether this system
ought to be used to frequently in the first place and allows critics to
be waved off with promises of better data just around the corner.
Maybe the problem with the so-called kill chain used to authorize
robotic killing isn’t that it’s an abstracted, desensitizing, information-
centric form of remote assassination, but that we’re just not
throwing enough good data in the war sluice?

Top photo: A picture shows an Israeli army unmanned aerial vehicle landing in an airfield,
in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, on Jan. 20, 2015, two days after an Israeli airstrike
killed six Hezbollah members in the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan Heights.

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