Dr. Akash Goel is an activist, writer and humanitarian who attracted global attention earlier this year as a collaborator on the #NotABugSplat art installation in Pakistan. You’ve likely seen it: a giant monochrome poster, large enough to be visible to satellites, of an anonymous Pakistani girl who lost her parents in a drone attack, spread out on a lush green field somewhere in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. An aerial photo of the installation quickly went viral.
Earlier this year I heard Akash interviewed on a CBC radio show, and what he had to say about drones surprised me. It might surprise you, too.
First you should know a little about Akash. He’s not really an “anti” type of guy. He’s a medical doctor who, while working for the Clinton Foundation, led the launch of India’s national Second Line ARV drug program, which currently provides lifesaving medication to thousands of people living with HIV/AIDS. He’s been honored several times over for helping people, for being a constructive force in the world. It’s not so surprising, then, that although the #NABS installation appears to be an obviously anti-drone, or even anti-American political statement, Akash doesn’t share that view. He was kind enough to take time for a brief interview about that.
Did the #NotABugSplat project achieve what you expected?
The project well exceeded our expectations in terms of reach. In rough numbers we’ve reached nearly 200 million media impressions globally. This is a far cry from when we simply leaked the photograph of the art installation to the Express Tribune in Pakistan.
But in terms of effect, I would say that the project has met expectations. Our goal all along was to speak to the hearts and minds of people all over the world and to bring a sensitivity and an awareness to the civilian casualties at stake.
You’ve said that in your opinion, the installation isn’t necessarily “anti-drone” or “anti-US policy.”
Yes. From the outset we were very self-conscious about focusing on promoting peace rather than being anti-something. As a very proud American, I’m also acutely aware of [our military] urgency and needs. Through art, we’re simply trying to bring an awareness to the civilian causalities and encourage a broader discussion about the most optimal use of drones.
Speaking of those optimal uses, you’ve described drone technology as “frictionless,” a delivery and data-gathering technology that can operate without the logistical restrictions or costs of infrastructure. Can you elaborate on that?
There are still over 6 million children globally who don’t reach their 5th birthday because of largely preventable reasons. In “last-mile communities” in low-income countries there are distribution bottlenecks for essential goods such as vitamins, oral rehydration salts, antibiotics, zinc, and vaccines. Typically overcoming these distribution bottlenecks requires very high fixed-cost investments in infrastructure. For instance, according to the World Bank, 1 billion people in low-income countries lack access to an all-weather road. The beauty of drones is that the atmosphere is their infrastructure. Drones offer a new realm of possibilities for those previously without access to essential goods.
Concrete test cases for how this could play out abound. Earlier this summer, for instance, tens of thousands of Yazidi Christians were isolated by ISIS on Sinjar mountain in Northern Iraq. It was estimated that as many as 40,000 people were completely stranded without food and water. In this situation, UAV technology would have been ideally suited to air drops of humanitarian supplies to the Yazidis.
How would you redirect the conversation about drones?
Drones are perhaps one of the most remarkable technologies of this generation. We should redirect the conversation towards promoting the use of drones that serve humanity. We should encourage venture and equity investments in companies that are pioneering the humanitarian use of drone technology. Humanitarian use, i.e., drones that are used to serve social needs of communities, should take priority for approval once the U.S. airspace becomes further regulated. The best way to depoliticize this technology would be to fully realize its true potential in agriculture, art, disaster response and humanitarian delivery. Currently these uses happen to be pioneered in the private sector, but I think it can and will spread to other institutions as well.
Dr. Akash Goel is a graduate of Harvard College and University of Michigan Medical School. His research interests are in population health, private sector engagement, medical technology and social enterprise. Akash writes for the Huffington Post and for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading bipartisan foreign policy think tank.
He was named a New Leader by the Carnegie Council and a World Economic Forum Global Shaper. He is a fellow of the Nantucket Project and an Asia 21 Fellow of the Asia Society. In 2014, Akash was awarded a Cannes Lion for his work in human rights advocacy with the #NotABugSplat project. He is currently a resident physician in Internal Medicine at Columbia University — New York Presbyterian Hospital.