Do we need robotic technology rules of engagement?

In a recent post I discussed a talk by Dr Peter Singer about robotics and 21st century warfare.  This use of technology raises some very big moral dilemmas, especially in the area of law, rules of engagement, and the personal effects of this kind of warfare on both combatants and civilians.

For instance there is no current agreement on which body of law would govern the use of robotic devices in war.  Who is to blame for any errors?  Is it the operator, who is potentially sitting a continent away?  What if there is a software glitch?  What happens when the device cannot determine the difference between a child or an old person and an enemy human target?  What is the machine equivalent to manslaughter?

These are not trivial questions and, rather than developing complex legislation akin to the Income Tax Act, do we need a Star Trek like ‘prime directive’?  This is not science fiction, it is not the future of war – it is already here and operative today.

As Singer said “the fog of war is not lifting, we are still seeing mistakes”.  We need to figure out accountability for “un-manslaughter” – he used the example of a drone problem that killed 9 soldiers in training exercise. Armed autonomous systems are becoming commonplace and some big questions remain unanswered. What about war crimes? What about errors? How can the machines distinguish between innocents & combatants?  None of these questions mattered when we were just using robots to build cars, but now they do matter.

As Matthew rightly points out in a comment on my previous post, the creation of increasing distance between the killer and the victim makes killing much easier.  Killing with a knife or bayonet is so much more personal that pressing a button to dispatch a device to destroy a school (which may or may not have schoolchildren in it at the time) that is being used to house munitions for insurgents.

This continued depersonalisation of killing makes it easier and easier to undertake offensive action.  If your own soldiers can sit safely in an office at home and simply use the equivalent of a computer game to attack, then the social and political cost is very low.  But what is the personal cost to the soldiers involved?  Is  killing any less the delivery of death if you do it at a distance?  Is going home to eat dinner with the family after dealing death all day at the office even more stressful than being on the ground in a combat zone?

We’re entering some uncharted territory with this technology in terms of its impact on society and upon our warriors, not to mention upon our enemies and upon civilians. As nation states continue to act against non-state actors (such as various insurgent groups or “terrorists”) the dilemma of what happens to innocent civilians will become even more problematic as the element of human judgement and compassion on the ground is removed from the equation.

Further, we do not know if the use of this technology will simply shift enemy action away from their own territory and to our own territory. This last is entirely possible because, if they can no longer kill our soldiers, how else will they seek to make their point and cause us damage?

Some other interesting articles about robots:
Robots Take To The Stairs – This Is Just The Beginning
Robot sub aims for deepest ocean
How to Make (Robot) Friends and Influence People

Singularity be damned!

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.
Predator_Drone_021.jpgIsrael & 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.

On our way to a networked society.

In an earlier generation all computer networks were for business or the military. That is, they were point-to-point connections between large organisations and were vastly expensive to setup and run. But the invention of TCP/IP and the modern internet changed all that. Now networks are between ordinary people using simple and easy to operate equipment (like their mobile phones or netbooks).

And now as we move from the society of the book into a networked society there are some important influences working to shape the future.

Amplification is important in that it enables ordinary people’s opinions to have reach via social networks (like Twitter or Facebook). In the past I could stand in Sydney amongst my friends at the pub and complain about a bookstore moving certain kinds of books to a dark corner in the back of the store. And nobody but the people at the pub, or perhaps a few of their friends, heard about it. But when Amazon recently did the same thing with gay and lesbian books, social networks around the world went crazy with the news. Suddenly an ordinary person can have the same kind of reach which was previously possible only through mass media.

Amplification is working together with each of the other items under discussion here. Each item amplifies and is amplified by the others. This is systems theory in action, with feedback loops driving change. Thus, with the recent Amazon problem, mainstream broadcast media picked up the issue from the social networks, amplified it, and fed it back into the social networks.

Many people misunderstand the nature of communities that are developing now. Simply because the communities that are growing are mediated by technology does mean that are not genuine communities. I am fascinated by the number of groups of people who’ve met online via Twitter and have subsequently formed real life relationships, such as attending trivia nights together, attending music festivals, or various kinds of tweetups. For example: STUB, MTUB, PTUB, BTUB, CTUB demonstrate this kind of crossover of online relationships into daily life (here’s some pictures of a recent tweetup in Sydney).

There are also some ‘laws’ that are useful in thinking about the development of a networked society. That is not to take these as legislative imperatives but rather as heuristics to inform our thinking.

Metcalfe’s Law is helpful, not because it is necessarily directly applicable as originally proposed back in 1980. It is helpful because it gets us thinking about how networks create new relationships, and how those relationships can amplify the power of the network. Metcalfe was considering small hardware networks and posited that “the value of a network increases proportionately with the square of the number of its devices”. The principle that a network (even a social one) can grow exponentially depends upon a number of variables. These variables would include things like actions taken or affinities developed or destroyed by members of the network, since unlike devices, people can act of their own volition. These social networks create feedback loops and amplify both positive and negative effects across the primary network, and even reach out into other loosely connected networks.

Gilmore’s Law is also very useful in thinking about the growth of a networked society. The funny thing is that people often mistake modern networks as being only about the technology. But this is not the sum total of our modern networks. Instead a network’s value is in the real human beings with substantive relationships. The technology merely mediates the relationship. Since it is about relationships between people, blockages in the network that impact upon those relationships are perceived as an organic threat. People don’t like to have their relationships interrupted. And when there is some kind of blockage in the technology that mediates those relationships then the people will find ways to route around it. Thus even political interference in the network will merely be interpreted as damage to relationship management channels.

The degree of connectedness available to us in a networked society is far higher than at any time since most of us lived in small villages. And, more than anything else, the networked society seems to be like a village. But more on that another time.

From society of the book to a networked society

Neerav Bhatt did an interesting post about Encyclopedia Britannica, saying:

Organisations in the information industry such as Book Publishers and Libraries would do well to learn from Encyclopedia Britannica’s precipitous fall from grace. Formerly a powerful company that could demand and receive large payments for access to it’s storehouse of human knowledge, it’s now been reduced to near irrelevancy and suffers the ignoble fate of being sold by discount clearance stores. — Neerav Bhatt

It is very easy to sit here in 2009 and critique Encyclopedia Britannica’s decisions with 20/20 hindsight. But it is a difficult situation for a business when:

  1. the world you inhabit has been stable & profitable for a very long time, and your product has worked very well in that environment;
  2. then quite quickly the very thing that has made your product valuable (i.e. fact checked and professionally researched articles delivered in hard copy volumes) is no longer valued in the same way as previously.

Few organisations seem able to develop metrics that help them to detect seismic shifts in the competitive landscape. An interesting parallel is the iPhone & all the other mobile phone manufacturers. The entire playing field has shifted from the simple mobile phone to a converged mobile computing/music/video device and the other manufacturers are scrabbling to catch up.

The problem for Encyclopedia Britannica was that they were in the middle of a genuine paradigm shift (in the Kuhnian sense) and that they did not realise it (nor did many of us back in those days). This is the shift from a society of the book to a networked society. We are still only at the beginning of this shift and Encyclopedia Britannica was an early casualty.

The shift from a society of the book to the networked society has been made possible by the emergence of the internet and its continued evolution.

What do I mean by this? In the past we had the book as a unit of collected information. It was revolutionary! A book was easy to share with others and to transport anywhere. Knowledge that was once transmitted by one person to another orally could be translated into a book and shared with many. Nor did the author need to be physically present to transmit their ideas. It was only necessary that the audience become literate for books to revolutionise the world. The power of the book is evident in the Protestant Reformation and the various European revolutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

But the problem with books is that to merge ideas from two texts it is necessary to create a new book. However, with the internet and HTML we moved from the unitary texts to hypertexts. With web 1.0 many us whiled away hours surfing the hyperlinks to find new information and find things we’d never know existed before. With the current phase of the web (sometimes called web 2.0), we have moved beyond textual linking to linking people, information, groups and applications. And the next generation of the web, sometimes called the semantic web, will enable networking to be taken even further. This is sometimes referred to as the internet of things, and it will enable us to connect people, places and things.

It is this growth of networks that will create a networked society.  And it is one of the reasons why Twitter is such an interesting example of how these network based technologies can be a force for social change.  Unlike Facebook, which is all about people we already know, Twitter is about people we don’t know yet.  An important part of this change is the ability to recreate a village like set of relationships that are not constrained by physical co-location.  These social networks give us the ability to experience non-localised proximity with other people.  They extend our reach from those physically nearby to anywhere in the world.

When we put this all together with the democratisation of technology that has accompanied web 2.0 then it is the beginning of a shift in societal relations akin to the printing press. I wonder where it will take us?

Business in the Cloud

It is true that there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9) and for those of us old enough to remember computer bureaux the move the cloud computing is an amusing ‘back to the future’ moment. As Ambrose Bierce said: “There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of old things we don’t know”.

Or rather lots of things that we’ve forgotten now, but which we used to know back in the days of mainframes and computer bureaux. And with cloud computing I’m not sure that the cloud is where we need it to be yet in terms of robustness, reliability and resilience.

However, all that aside, I think that cost constraints are going to force business into using cloud computing whether they like it or not; or even whether or not the cloud is ready for them.

Robin Bloor has written a good post on the The Death of the Data Center that discusses the economics of data centres and why they will move to the cloud quite quickly.

This means that businesses really need to understand what particular services and expertise they are buying when they buy into the cloud. Thus due diligence comes to the fore, as does understanding contractual terms. My big fear with this is that – just like the terrible early contracts for outsourcing – we are going to see some notable disasters with cloud computing agreements.

Another concern is the vendors of cloud computing.  Some of these companies will not clearly understand the scale that some of their larger corporate clients operate upon.  Back in the dot-com days one company I knew of accidentally sent a web hosting provider into bankruptcy.  This happened for various reasons, but chief among them was that the vendor did not understand just how big their new client really was AND because they did not know when to say ‘no’ to new business.  My concerns regarding the vendors are around robustness of their processes and their ability to service enterprise clients effectively.

The other key issues are governance and risk management. Our governance models will need to adapt to address boundary management issues, like who is responsible at what stage of a transaction processing. What will happen where some parts of the application or infrastructure are internally managed and some are in the cloud. What monitoring is in place and who is accountable for managing problems – is ITIL the answer? How we manage the risk around infrastructure that we share with other customers is another question.

These are very similar business-technology problems to those encountered with outsourcing, and it will be interesting to see if businesses are able to take the lessons learned from that and apply them successfully to cloud computing.

The real challenge is the complexity we will be adding to our IT infrastructure and applications.  We are moving into a period where an IT department might need to manage applications that are spread across internal, outsourced, cloud and many variants of these.  Have we got the skills in place to manage this increased operational complexity during a period of cost constraint?

Power of the personal

We are rapidly moving away from the old impersonal world of broadcast media. This has important implications for getting our messages out to people. It means that we need to discover the power of the personal.

One person who really got this – or at least whose advisers got it – was Barack Obama.  He used the power of the personal to drive his election campaign through email, social media and MyBarackObama. Even now the election is a distant memory emails are still coming out to his supporters.  And each of these emails is personally addressed, includes some information update and a call to action.  Each email is signed by a person – Barack or Michelle Obama, David Plouffe, etc.  The calls to action are personal and local.

It’s all about the power of the personal – that means engagement, connection & participation on a person to person level. These are the keys for digital.

Let’s just consider what the power of the personal does when combined with the reach of social media and social networking. Suddenly we have interlinked networks capable of mobilisation by people who know the peculiarities of each group, who already have established links, and who are already known and trusted by the members of the network.

Now we can be approached, not by a faceless company, nor by its celebrity talking head, but by someone we already know. We can be approached by someone to whom we might already turn for an opinion on product selection or advice in daily life. And, even more imporantly, that person probably  already knows our stance on life, politics and the universe.

We are already seeing the power of this kind of personal connection in such things as the Facebook group for The 12for12k Challenge where:

The concept is simple:

* 12 months of the year
* 12 charities, 1 chosen every month
* $12,000 per charity
* $144,000 raised overall by December 31 2009

Using the power and outreach of social media tools from Twitter to Facebook to blogging and more, we can show that social media can make a difference.

The 12for12k Challenge – changing the world through social media.


Or another great example of this is JobCamp Australia where a bunch of people have got together and decided to do something, saying:

“We want to “get Australia Working”, and we want you to help us! JobCAMP ONE09 is the first in a series of 2 day events to help arm you with the right tools, information and connections to get working! Whether you be looking for work, looking to make more connections or simply want to help out to get Australia WORKING, then we would love to see you at JobCAMP.”

How did I find out about these things? A friend told me. How are these campaigns being activated? Friends are telling friends. In the past individuals could only activate campaigns like this on a small scale unless they had the support of commercial broadcast media like radio or television. Now, with the power of social media and social networking, individuals have the ability to gather and activate participation and engagement on a much grander scale than ever before.

BarCamp, Community & New Ways

Having recently seen the film, I’m now reading the comic novel Watchmen. It is the kind of fiction that really gets you thinking about many things. A great quote from the book is:

The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking … The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If I had only known, I should have become a watchmaker. – Albert Einstein

It picks up on some themes that have arisen in a number of ways since the GFC. Primary among these is a desire for community and new ways of doing business that are rooted in humanity and authenticity.

We are seeing the moral, intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of the old ways of doing business. We no longer want a business world where crazy virtual assets can be created and drive the entire world to the brink of economic ruin. We are amazed that private companies (like AIG) can accept government hand-outs to stave off complete collapse and still pay millions of dollars in bonuses to the very people who’ve brought us to this crisis point & victimise other workers who did their jobs.

In essence we are seeing a complete failure of leadership, where business managers consider only short term gains and apply short term incentives.  And because of this short term focus the triple bottom line is often just a joke or a box to tick as a matter of form. Thus important issues like the future of humankind and our planet are not seen as the proper province of business. Business is seen as only responsible for delivering short term gains to shareholders.

And, just as Einstein said, the solution to this problem lies “at the heart of mankind” and it is because our world has changed but our “way of thinking” has not changed with it. One of the problems with the Wall Street bail-out is that we are still desperately trying to hold on to the old world that is passing. Organisations and institutions that are no longer viable need to be allowed to fail.

But I see signs of hope in many places in spite of the gloom. A great example of this was Bar Camp Canberra #2. It was a collaborative gathering of diverse people who are interested in technology.

It was a bunch of really smart people ranging from mid-teens to over-40s and beyond. It was a gathering where people questioned the way we’ve done business and technology up until now.

Above all it was a gathering of hopeful and optimistic people who are working to build new things in new ways. If there’s a BarCamp near you I recommend dropping in – you can find out about them at Some other interesting artifacts from BarCamp Canberra are:

Online social network revolution

I’m not sure that most people have realised yet, but social networks are creating a revolutionary change in the way we interact with other people. And they are revolutionary in that they also change how we do things and our expectations of how things work.

Non-localised proximity Once we needed to be physically proximate to people to create and maintain social relationships, but now online social networks enable us to do this in spite of physical or geographical distance.

Loose Ties over Time In the past we met people in various circumstances in real life and then we moved on, losing contact with those acquaintances. Now we are seeing the first generation of young people who have maintained loose contact with many of their former daily contacts. Now our acquaintances and friends are linked to us by means of various social networks – e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Xing, Twitter, etc – and we may never lose them.

Fewer degrees of separation Previously studies indicated that there were approximately six degrees of separation between any two people on the planet.  But with online social networks we are seeing an amplification of that and a reduction of degrees of separation to as few as one degree between people.  Twitter is a great example of this phenomenon, here’s a recent example.

Consumption on demand Until very recently we consumed media as and when the media outlet or creator decided we should.  Now – with the rise of broadband access and easy to use tools like iPods, YouTube, or BitTorrent – people are starting to consume media on their own terms.  No more waiting until Thursday at 7.30 pm to watch a favourite show, just download it while you’re at work and watch it over dinner, or even watch it on your mobile phone while in transit.

Co-creation & co-design In the past design and creation of online artifacts was the province of experts.  Now anyone with a computer or mobile phone and a broadband connection can design and create digital artifacts.  YouTube, Facebook and MySpace have created spaces where millions of ordinary people create, share or repurpose other people’s digital artifacts.

Technology as a utility We are now seeing the emergence of technology as a utility. And, if it is a utility then, just like the way we use a light switch, we expect technology to work and we don’t expect to need any specialised technical knowledge to make it work.  This means that creation of the base technology still requires specialist skills and knowledge, but that user interfaces and operation must be easy for non-technical people. This ease of use is not merely a desire any longer, it is a demand – and technology that does not meet that demand will be dumped unceremoniously.

Why does any of this matter? All of these things are creating new expectations of how things work in the minds of ordinary people.  They also create feedback loops and mutually reinforce each other.  But for me some of the most interesting features of social networks and social computing are:

  • creation of many loose links between people – and they don’t ever have to meet in real life to create bonds
  • enabling connections between people who might not have ever met in real life (e.g. think about how hard it was for a Goth stamp collector in a small town to meet like-minded individuals pre-internet)
  • ability to create applications and content and to share these easily
  • crashing of the degrees of separation between individuals – also making it easy to find relevant people via search and newer semantic approaches
  • ability to seek out answers to questions and to form coalitions easily without big overheads of effort or cost

Hypertext to hyperconnectivity

The invention of hypertext and its implementation in the form of the World Wide Web was a revolution akin to the creation of the modern printing press. We are still seeing the reverberations of this revolution in many spheres of life.

With the implementation of the Gutenberg printing press back in the mid-1400s it was possible to *democratize information. Society was able too move away from oral traditions and formalize knowledge into books. It also enabled knowledge to be easily transported from place to place without losing the sense of the argument.

Books and reading fuelled both the Reformation and growth of democracy in the western world. The ability to read gave ordinary people access to ideas and information that did not exist in their everyday lives.

However, a constraint with books is that it is hard to combine ideas from many books unless you write another book. It can be difficult to reference from a particular idea in one book to another idea within another book. In fact, doing this on a large scale requires big investments in time, effort, space and money.

But with the revolution of hypertext it became easy to link different texts and thus to link particular ideas together in ways that had previously been challenging. It also became possible to link other media together using the same techniques.

Then with web 2.0 the notion of hypertext was transformed and used to create links between people by means of online social networks. People are now being connected with each other (hyperconnected as argued by some) and this is revolutionising social relations in ways similar to the changes wrought by hypertext.

Also with web 2.0 the ability to create and transform online media was democratized. Previously (in the web 1.0 world) specialist technical knowledge was required to manipulate text and other online media. With the development of user generated content capabilities in web 2.0 the need for technical skills greatly reduced and thus creation and co-creation were democratized.

* By “democratization” in this context I mean that the ability to create texts or hypertexts moves from the specialist technical community (book publishers or software programmers) to ordinary people who do not have any particular specialist skills

Future of the web

This chart from 2007 shows the trajectory of the web future moving in a straight line from where we are now (or were in 2007) to the future of web 4.0 and beyond. But I don’t think that the future of the web will such a simple story.

Innovation always comes unexpectedly and from the periphery. What we know will be changed by the next wave of innovation just as our world was changed by web 2.0 and its associated new business models.

What is termed web 3.0 is pretty much here already and is merely being tweaked. But it is the next generation of web that is up for grabs. I’m watching out for the next disruptor. It might not even be a cutting edge technology. Instead it might be an existing technology used in a new way or in a new context. Remember that mobile phone text messaging was old technology that resonated in a new way with younger mobile phone users and generated an entirely new business model.

None of us know what the next generation of the web holds. But we do know that work being done now in artificial intelligence, new interfaces (like Microsoft Surface), wearable computing and semantic computing are all possibilities.

One thing is certain, the next big thing will surprise us in one way or another. Once it is here it will seem obvious, but as usual it isn’t obvious until it gets here. That is the way of the future.