A horror show of technological and moral failure

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

A B-29 dropping bombs over Japan. The drift in the bombs because of the jet stream is apparent.

“Black Snow: Curtis LeMay, the Firebombing of Tokyo and the Road to the Atomic Bomb”, by James M. Scott

On the night of March 9, 1945, almost 300 B-29 bombers took off from Tinian Island near Japan. Over the next six hours, 100,000 civilians in Tokyo were burnt to death, more possibly than in any six hour period in history. James Scott’s “Black Snow” tells the story of this horrific event which was both a technological and a moral failure. It is also the story of how moral failures can result from technological failures, a lesson that we should take to heart in an age when we understand technology less and less and morality perhaps even lesser.

The technological failure in Scott’s story is the failure of the most expensive technological project in World War 2, the B-29 bomber. The United States spent more than $3 billion on developing this wonder of modern technology, more than on the Manhattan Project. Soaring at 30,000 feet like an impregnable iron eagle, the B-29 was supposed to drop bombs with pinpoint precision on German and Japanese factories producing military hardware.

This precision bombing was considered not only a technological achievement but a moral one. Starting with Roosevelt’s plea in 1939 after the Germans invaded Poland and started the war, it was the United States’s policy not to indiscriminately bomb civilians. The preferred way, the moral way, was to do precision bombing during daytime rather than carpet bombing during nighttime. When the British, led by Arthur “Butcher” Harris, resorted to nighttime bombing using incendiaries, it was a moral watershed. Notoriously, in Hamburg in 1943 and Dresden in 1944, the British took advantage of the massive, large-scale fires caused by incendiaries to burn tens of thousands of civilians to death. Read more »

The ethics of regulating AI: When too much may be bad

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Areopagitica‘ was a famous speech delivered by the poet John Milton in the English Parliament in 1644, arguing for the unlicensed printing of books. It is one of the most famous speeches in favor of freedom of expression. Milton was arguing against a parliamentary ordinance requiring authors to get a license for their works before they could be published. Delivered during the height of the English Civil War, Milton was well aware of the power of words to inspire as well as incite. He said,

For books are not absolutely dead things, but do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men…

What Milton was saying is not that books and words can never incite, but that it would be folly to restrict or ban them before they have been published. This appeal toward withholding restraint before publication found its way into the United States Constitution and has been a pillar of freedom of expression and the press since.

Why was Milton opposed to pre-publication restrictions on books? Not just because he realized that it was a matter of personal liberty, but because he realized that restricting a book’s contents means restricting the very power of the human mind to come up with new ideas. He powerfully reminded Parliament,

Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.

Milton saw quite clearly that the problem with limiting publication is in significant part a problem with trying to figure out all the places a book can go. The same problem arises with science. Read more »