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Michael Hiltzik: The pioneer

June 15, 2010 |  7:49 pm

Some people have reached such heights of achievement by virtue of their intelligence, drive and public spirit that one jumps at any chance for an interview. Donald Trump, no. Simon Ramo, yes.

As my Wednesday column reports, Ramo has not let the years keep him from the energetic consideration of some of today's leading issues in technology and business. No brief newspaper column could encompass all the things we talked about, but it's worth adding here his thoughts on the use of unmanned aircraft in combat, a phenomenon that has come into its own in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some critics of the military suggest there's something immoral or inhumane about dispatching weapons of war to wreak havoc in the theater while pilots and controllers remain safely out of danger. Ramo sees things very differently. His view is that remotely piloted vehicles, or drones, represent an important advance in technology that could save lives on both sides, especially by reducing the civilian toll that is so often casually dismissed as "collateral damage."

As he elucidated the point to me in an e-mail following our meeting, robotic birds could prevent accidental civilian deaths because American pilots, safe in their command centers miles from the action, "will see the terrain with much higher accuracy and scope than a pilot in an airplane. He will readily discriminate between a terrorist seeking to kill an American and a civilian woman carrying water."

No technology will ever make war easy or antiseptic. But can drones ensure that the targets, at least, are combatants? Ramo thinks so, and that makes his point worth considering.

The column begins below.

One doesn't have to know that Simon Ramo recently celebrated his 97th birthday to know that he might well retire the handle of "Renaissance man."

It would be enough to know that he was friends with Jascha Heifetz, had taken a seminar from J. Robert Oppenheimer, and worked for Howard Hughes.

All that is plenty for one man to experience in a long life; it only scratches the surface of Si Ramo's accomplishments. The honors bestowed by presidents and professional peers on Ramo, the R in the name of the pioneering Southern California aerospace company TRW Corp., are too numerous to list.

When I met Ramo for lunch one day recently at a Santa Monica restaurant he frequents near his home, I was hoping to get his views on why our most advanced and complex systems seem to collapse in catastrophic failure. Think of how the marvel of drilling for oil a mile beneath the sea has resulted in ecological and economic disaster. Think of the banking business.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik