Drones are being trained to listen for human screams — yes, really

The system could aid in finding people calling out for help.

Schmitten, Germany - November 25, 2020: Camera drone Mini 2 of Chinese technology company DJ Innovat...
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Researchers have prototyped a drone designed to identify screams and other signs of distress. The drone would then be able to follow the noise to its source and alert first responders.

That obviously sounds kind of terrifying that a drone would be taught to track down screaming people. Semi-autonomous drones are already being used in warfare, after all, so it’s not a stretch of the imagination to see how scream recognition could be used for ill. But researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer FKIE institute imagine the technology could be used in natural disaster scenarios where first responders couldn’t necessarily survey an area safely.

Drone applications — This type of use case has long been posited for drones. Companies like Zipline have launched with the premise that they can deliver life-saving medication to far-flung communities in Africa that are otherwise hard to reach by land transport. And drones have been used in search-and-rescue missions to spot people who might be stuck in rubble using thermal image capabilities. A drone can zip over terrain much faster than a land-based vehicle... especially rough or tough-to-traverse terrain.

The drone being tested to identify human screams relies on an artificial intelligence program trained on a database of “impulsive” human noises. That’s meant to help the drone recognize the difference between human cries and similar noises that happen in nature, like animal calls.

The team creating the drone wants to upgrade it with a higher frequency microphone so that it could pick up noises from hundreds of meters away. If it ever does get used in real-world rescue missions, a person in trouble could have their location sent to emergency crews.

Negative implications — Still, it’s hard not to foresee any problems with flying robots whose reward function is successfully identifying noises from afar. Give this technology to the wrong government, and it could be abused to find people listening to a banned radio station, or speaking the “wrong” language, or other potentially dystopian problems. It’s not even a theoretical concern, considering the types of advanced technologies nations like China use to silence minority populations.

There’s actually a term for this in politics called “dual-use technology,” or a concept that something can be used for both peaceful and military aims. In this case, perhaps it's best to focus on the good.