In Greek mythology, the parable of Icarus illustrates the human desire to always go farther at the risk of colliding with the limitations of our nature. It also evokes the ambiguity of our thirst for knowledge and progress. Icarus and his father Daedalus are attempting to flee their enemy in Crete in order to reach Greece. Daedalus has the idea of fashioning wings, like those of birds, from wax and feathers. Intoxicated by flight, Icarus forgets his father’s cautionary advice and flies too close to the sun. The heat melts the wax of his artificial wings, they crumble, and Icarus plunges into the sea and perishes.
The first successful motorized flight is credited to the Wright brothers. Their aeroplane, the Flyer, travelled several hundred metres on 17 December 1903, remaining in the air for less than one minute. The invention of the aeroplane then opened up enormous possibilities: the promise of eliminating distances between continents, countries, and people, facilitating trade and discovery of the world, as well as understanding and solidarity across nations.
While it took humankind thousands of years to make Icarus’s dream a reality, it took only a decade to improve aeroplanes sufficiently for them to be used for military purposes, causing immeasurable human suffering. The first aerial bombardment reportedly took place on 1 November 1911 during the Italo-Turkish war in Tripolitania. On 5 October 1914 a French aircraft shot down its German counterpart in the first aerial duel in history. A combination of new technologies soon improved bombing techniques and, in the decades that followed, torrents of incendiary bombs destroyed whole cities, such as Guernica, Coventry, Dresden, and Tokyo. Icarus’ dream nearly led to humanity’s downfall when the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in the nuclear era. A little more than a century after the Flyer took off, drones piloted at a distance of thousands of kilometres are dropping their deadly payloads on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. It is also becoming technically feasible to give drones the capacity to decide autonomously when to use their weapons.
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