Singularity be damned!

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It’s the robotics revolution that is already here! It is reshaping our world in some important ways and most of us aren’t even noticing.

I attended a talk yesterday by Dr Peter Singer, of the Brookings Institution, about his new book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.  He outlined what is already happening on the ground around the world with robotic warfighting (e.g. stuff like this).

He opened with scene from Iraq – an IED on roadside and an EOD team sent out to search out and destroy them.  One of the ‘soldiers’ was blown up while trying to defuse an IED.  The commander wrote home to the factory where the soldier came from, saying “at least when a robot dies you don’t have to write home to its mother”.  An indicator of how important these EODs are to the insurgents is the US$50,000 bounty they’ve placed on the head of EOD members.
Israel & Hezbollah. Both sides flew drones against each other – even though one was a nation state & other was non state actor.

Another ripple effect is that robotics make war cheaper in terms of people costs by replacing them with machines. This is a real benefit in societies that frown upon deaths of individuals in the service of warfare. The social and political cost of war for governments and politicians drops considerably. The interesting thing pointed out by Singer is that this is happening without any debates in the legislature or in the media – we are seeing a creeping change without open debate as to the efficacy and morality of this technology.

Part of this new kind of warfare is that these machines record everything they see & this is changing the public’s vision or view of war. We are seeing the rise of YouTube wars. Some people are turning war into entertainment, or “war porn”. When video clips of war actions put to music and shown as entertainment – it is very easy to forget the violence is real.

The final issue that arises from this new kind of technology is that we are potentially turning our soldiers into war gamers rather than war fighters. Even now some of them just go to the office and direct drones from US mainland but go home at night to normal family life. This also has an impact on the demographics of war fighting. In the past strength and physical fitness were key. But, as Singer recounted, one of the top US pilots on drone systems is 19-year-old high school drop out. The skills required are changing so the nature of military institutions will need to change in response. In his examples Singer mentioned that some of these drivers don’t even meet they just talk online & only know each other’s handles.

There are some huge moral, social and legal issues that remain to be resolved in relation to this new military technology. Things like un-manslaughter, rules of engagement, etc. More on this later.

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4 Replies to “Singularity be damned!”

  1. This sounds very much like the talk he gave at TED this year. I found the social implications of robotic warfighting and 9-5 soldiery of significant concern. In particular, the prevalence of stress-related issues with distance-remote pilots for these devices has potenital impacts as great or greater than the PTSD we see already in returned servicemen and women.

  2. Kate – thanks for a great post.

    Unfortunately all’s fair in love and war, simply because you have to believe your opponent (or lover) to be capable of anything. So it is sad fact that morality can never constrain the development and application of military technology, and it really is frightening to watch the emergence of a disconnected, unreal form of warfare, but I suppose that this is a trend as old as man.

    I would argue that military robotics don’t change the who of warfare at all – because the aim of any weapon is to kill humans. If a war is fought between machines, then all we have is a hugely expensive simulation of warfare and the warring nations would be better off playing this on a computer.

    It is impossible to capture a territory without occupation by infantry. You can bomb the hell out of a place from the air but you cannot actually hold it without occupation. In order to do this you have to suppress the enemy – not the enemy’s front line robots but his his last line of defence – his national guard and partisans (both human).

    All weapons kill people. To imply that any military technology will reduce deaths is dangerously misleading. The happy idea is that these machines can go out there and kill people we don’t know on our behalf. Not that acknowledging this would halt the development of automated or remote weapons systems, but I’d just prefer it if people would call a spade a spade.

    Guns don’t kill people; people kill people… but weapons manufacturers should admit that guns are specifically designed for the single purpose of killing people. That’s all I’m saying.

    So the widening of the gap between the killer and the dead continues from assault rifles to drones. It’s the same leap as from killing a man with a rapier to killing him with a tug on a trigger from a hundred metres away. The act of killing loses immediacy, dehumanising the target, which of course makes it easier to kill, because all soldiers require enemies that are less than human to them; if you sat and talked with your opponent for an hour or so, you’d probably have more qualms about destroying him.

    Humanity and ethics won’t curb the enhancement of our methods of destruction but perhaps honesty would curb our enthusiasm for the use of these kinds of toys. Hope springs eternal etc.

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