Friday, March 13, 2009

Robots, War, and Unintended Consequences

The robot seen in the photo on the left is iRobot's PackBot with RedOwl Sniper Detection Kit.

Robots are already being used far more than most people realize, especially in the military, which is perhaps the fastest growing area of their development and advancement. The variety of their uses and their abilities are growing so fast, in fact, that we are not able to foresee all the effects this will have, in military and non-military uses.

Not only are they not science fiction anymore, but their increasing use is going to have a growing impact not only on the way we wage war and what that means, and in other areas as well that we haven't even begun to think about.

The following is part of an interview with an author of a new book on this fascinating subject:

Q&A: The robot wars have arrived

[...] P.W. Singer, senior fellow and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, went behind the scenes of the robotics world to write "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century."

Singer took time from his book tour to talk with CNET about the start of a revolution tech insiders predicted, but so many others missed.

Q: Your book is purposely not the typical think tank book. It's filled with just as many humorous anecdotes about people's personal lives and pop culture as it is with statistics, technology, and history. You say you did this because robotic development has been greatly influenced by the human imagination?
Singer: Look, to write on robots in my field is a risky thing. Robots were seen as this thing of science fiction even though they're not. So I decided to double down, you know? If I was going to risk it in one way, why not in another way? It's my own insurgency on the boring, staid way people talk about this incredibly important thing, which is war. Most of the books on war and its dynamics--to be blunt--are, oddly enough, boring. And it means the public doesn't actually have an understanding of the dynamics as they should.

It seems like we're just at the beginning here. You quote Bill Gates comparing robots now to what computers were in the eighties.
Singer: Yes, the military is a primary buyer right now and it's using them (robots) for a limited set of applications. And yes, in each area we prove they can be utilized you'll see a massive expansion. That's all correct, but then I think it's even beyond what he was saying. No one sitting back with a computer in 1980 said, "Oh, yes, these things are going to have a ripple effect on our society and politics such that there's going to be a political debate about privacy in an online world, and mothers in Peoria are going to be concerned about child predators on this thing called Facebook." It'll be the same way with the impact on war and in robotics; a ripple effect in areas we're not even aware of yet.

Right now, rudimentary as they are, we have autonomous and remote-controlled robots while most of the people we're fighting don't. What's that doing to our image?
Singer: The leading newspaper editor in Lebanon described--and he's actually describing this as there is a drone above him at the time--that these things show you're afraid, you're not man enough to fight us face-to-face, it shows your cowardice, all we have to do to defeat you is just kill a few of your soldiers.

It's playing like cowardice?
Singer: Yeah, it's like every revolution. You know, when gunpowder is first used people think that's cowardly. Then they figure it out and it has all sorts of other ripple effects. [...]

Read the whole thing to find out more about how this is evolving, and some of the other areas of life it's going to spill over into, and some of the dilemmas it's going to create. It's not a long article, but it touches on a lot of things that are quickly moving forward in ways that will change our world.

You can read more about military robots in particular here:

Another tour of duty for iRobot

No comments: