April 2009
Killer Robots - What Could Go Wrong?

Robots have the perverse side effect of making war seem easy
By Matthew Yglesias
The American Conservative

Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, P.W. Singer, Penguin Press, 512 pages

Ask me about the military application of robots, and one word comes to mind: trouble. I was 10 years old when my dad took me to see “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” in the theater, and I’ll always remember the brief shot of a playground incinerated in a nuclear holocaust brought about by man’s hubristic insistence that national defense could be turned over to artificial intelligence. I can even quote from memory:

The system goes online on August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware 2:14 AM, Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.

In response, Skynet fights back, launching a nuclear attack on Russia and prompting a Russian counterattack. Human life is nearly wiped out, and then the computer-controlled U.S. defense systems begin their assault on the survivors.

Across the realm of science fiction, the details vary, but the story is the same. In “The Matrix,” humans are enslaved by their former robot slaves and turned into living batteries to power the machines. Part of the backdrop to the “Dune” series is the Butlerian jihad against “thinking machines” that once threatened humanity. “Battlestar Galactica” needed only gesture at the theme— “The Cylons were created by man. They rebelled.”—in its introductory titles to make clear to a sci-fi savvy audience what had happened.

Isaac Asimov found such tales of robot rebellion tiresome—he dubbed them the “Frankenstein complex”—and resolved to write stories in a different way. Thus his fictional robots are pre-programmed with inescapable “laws of robotics,” the first of which mandates that a robot may never harm a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm. The second says that, consistent with the dictates of the first law, a robot must follow the orders of any human.

Though harmless in his original short stories, Asimov’s robots also soon turn insidious. In his Caves of Steel, the robots are responsible for mass unemployment on earth. They also corrupt the souls of aristocratic societies in outer planets founded on slave labor. In later books, one robot develops the belief that he is responsible for the well-being of all humanity and must therefore manipulate events behind the scenes, going so far as to render planet earth uninhabitably radioactive in order to boost humanity’s interest in space exploration. And those are the good kind of robots.

Peter W. Singer is a Brookings Institution military analyst who specializes in the margins of warfare. His two previous books have been about child soldiers and private military contractors. In his third, Wired for War, he turns his attention to military robots. He makes clear, through numerous subtle and not-so-subtle pop-culture references, that he’s well aware of the fictional threat.

He’s also attuned to the large-scale investments that the American military has made in robotics—both fully automated systems and their cousins, the remotely controlled drones—in recent years. Singer explains that when “U.S. forces went into Iraq, the original invasion had zero robotic systems on the ground.” By the end of 2006, however, that figure “had reached the 5,000 mark and growing” and “was projected to reach as high as 12,000 by the end of 2008.”

These are staggering and underreported numbers, which raise substantial issues more immediate than the fear of robot rebellion. What, for example, does it now mean to promise to withdraw American combat forces from Iraq by 2011? Can that promise be consistent with the presence of tens of thousands of robotic warfighting systems on Iraqi territory, commanded and to some extent controlled by operators in Kuwait or Las Vegas and supported by a small number of technicians on the ground?

Indeed, the ferocious expansion of military robotics throws up a host of questions—ethical, strategic, legal, political—that have scarcely been raised. Singer explores these topics with a studiously neutral tone. His work should be informative and useful to interested parties of all ideological inclinations, despite Singer’s personal background as a Barack Obama supporter and his infuriating contrary tendency to quote bloodthirsty neocon warmonger Ralph Peters as an authority on a broad array of subjects.

Singer’s calm exposition, however, does not conceal the alarming substance of his book. Perhaps the most disturbing truth is that a book about military applications of robotics is largely coextensive with a book about robotics in the United States. Singer alludes to the fact that the world leader in robotics is Japan, where technological prowess is used to do productive work on behalf of a skilled but aging population. There robots are “used for everything from farming and construction to nursing and elder care” in a country that contains “about a third of all the world’s industrial robots.” In the U.S., by contrast, civilian applications of robots remain relatively primitive. The field is dominated by defense-oriented research funding and competition for large defense-related government contracts. Perhaps the most notable American civilian robot is the Roomba, a sort of semi-intelligent vacuum cleaner. But even this is made by a firm, iRobot, that has extensive defense contracts for its PackBot and other military robots.

This growing automation of the American military is not without its benefits. Singer observes that a Predator drone “costs just under $4.5 million, which sounds like a lot until you compare it to the cost of other military planes.” And this is no coincidence. The destruction of a drone whose pilot is sitting safely at a desk far from the combat zone is nothing compared to the human or tactical disaster of the death of a highly trained aviator. Consequently, in the future it may be feasible to forego hugely expensive systems like the F-22 fighter plane in favor of cheap, relatively disposable unmanned combat aircraft, production of which can simply be ramped up if greater quantities become necessary.

Here again, however, there is a dark side. A human soldier, and the potential harm that can befall him in a combat zone, becomes a reason not to engage needlessly in or prolong a military conflict. His family, his friends, and the population at large become a constituency for restraint and wisdom in the application of military force. The manufacturers of military equipment, by contrast, have long been a constituency in favor of an aggressive foreign policy and liberal application of force. The substitution of machines for manpower tilts the balance of political power at home further in the direction of those who profit from war and conflict. And indeed, though one can make the case that the presence of the PackBot and other robotic systems has saved American lives in Iraq, this does nothing to change the fact that the biggest lifesaver of all would have been to avoid an eminently avoidable war in the first place.

Unfortunately, too many of Wired for War’s human characters seem to have fallen into the trap of seeking to substitute technical solutions for problems of war that are fundamentally political or strategic in nature. Singer quotes Noah Shachtman fretting that excessive use of unmanned systems “makes us look like the Evil Empire [from Star Wars] and the other guys like the Rebel Alliance, defending themselves versus robot invaders.”

True, perhaps. Yet surely human invaders are just as unwelcome as robotic ones. American Predator airstrikes are unpopular in Pakistan not because the planes doing the bombing are unmanned, but because no country likes to see another country dropping bombs within its territory.

A great nation requires capable armed forces. And that, in turn, requires a military equipped with up-to-date technology. But no amount of technology is a substitute for sound strategy. Warring automatons, no matter how ingenious, cannot save a nation that squanders its wealth on foreign misadventures and risks undermining the economic foundations that support its military establishment by throwing ever more money at defense contractors rather than productive investments in domestic infrastructure and private business.

Wired for War is a portrait of highly competent military embedded within a prosperous society adapting to a difficult situation through technological innovation. But it’s also a depiction of a country that has lost its way and an alarming military-industrial complex that isn’t helping us find our way back.

Matthew Yglesias is author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats and a fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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