By P.W. Singer. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Already we know that unmanned, remotely controlled, military planes make deadly strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan on a regular basis. Some pilot sitting comfortably and safely in front of a Nevada-based computer screen and using a joy stick, not unlike that favored by your grandkids for their war games, is able to direct Predator drones to unleash deadly force with pinpoint accuracy against persons or property almost anywhere in the world. What you may not know is that other military robots are also taking over more and more of the dirty and dangerous jobs of killing people, safely, without being on the scene. P. W. Singer’s Wired for War documents thoroughly the current state of the art of these robotic killers as well as the inevitable progress of this automation of violence. He also probes some of the frightening unintended consequences of what seems to be an unstoppable development of our technological genius.
I found it easy to dislike this writer. Early in the book, making a “gee whiz” argument for robots he tells us that when the Americans found booby-trapped caves in Afghanistan they sent their Afghan allies to clear them. When they ran out of willing allies they called for assistance, from iRobot PackBots, versatile machines about the size of a lawnmower with powerful eyes and a mechanical hand or a weapon to do the job of remotely dismantling explosive devices, thus saving GI lives. Almost everything in Singer’s narrative is dominated by this American-centric point of view; the US military must prevail, dominating all enemies, ideally without suffering casualties themselves. But despite that irritating bias, I came to respect the thoroughness of his analysis of the future implications of the robotics revolution.
However we may feel about it, remote controlled robots now operate in the air, on land, and in the water. They act as sentries for warehouses and factories; they never sleep on the job and they never cooperate in an “inside job.” In Japan they act as assistants and companions to the homebound elderly. They never get hungry, or tired, or bored, or frightened, or insubordinate, or disgusted. They range from insect-sized spy-bots to giant Caterpillar tractors designed to tear down buildings, armed aerial drones and automated submarines. All have sophisticated sensors to provide their controllers with detailed information about their environment. Some carry clever hands to safely disarm improvised explosive devices that have so plagued Americans and their allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others sport lethal weapons, such as machine guns, rockets, or Long Range Acoustic Devices capable of causing people to defecate themselves. Since 9/11 automated security makes for booming business. In 2008, the military had 5,331 drones, almost double the number of manned aircraft.
These are only the first generation of fighting robots. Their functions are limited by the abilities of the humans who control them. But the next generation of robots will likely be equipped with more artificial intelligence and thus have much greater autonomy, seeking out and destroying “enemies” on their own, unrestricted by human limitations and soldiers’ needs for food and rest and sleep. True, this is the stuff of science fiction, but is already in existence. Singer makes a strong case that further developments are inevitable, dictated by the progress of technology and our perceived need to stay ahead of competing enemies; we will either be dominated or use what we know to dominate others. From before the invention of the stirrup, man has always used new technology to win wars. We will use our new technologies to create the smart machines that we hope will help us to prevail.
Singer acknowledges that we cannot know the future for certain, but he assumes that man will continue to have violent conflict and that nation states will compete for dominance and seriously disadvantaged people will do what they can to survive. Here also he focuses on his perceived needs of the American military. He sees other ambitious nations, global warming, overpopulation, water shortages, food scarcity, extreme inequality of income and peak oil, as potent sources of future conflicts. While he acknowledges that we would be wiser if we could limit these sources, his true interest is in the machinery the US military will need to handle them when they do arise.
The military is very conscious of the US public’s aversion to casualties, so the Pentagon spends billions per year on research, much of it to develop robotic systems that will kill without endangering American soldiers. Its Future Combat System multi-year program for updating the military hardware and software specified that fifty percent was to be automated. The plan was budgeted at $340 billion and went $170 billion over budget before being cut back by Obama. No doubt some of that whopping sum makes its way into our Canadian universities to research the variety of perception and intelligence systems that will make the robots of the future smarter, cheaper, and more lethal.
Singer is a weapons technocrat, He doesn’t take positions on geopolitical and policy issues, or peace proposals, though he acknowledges that Abu Ghraib and similar PR goofs fuel the supply of what he calls “insurgents” that the US must deal with. The state of Iraq was easily neutralized by “shock and awe” from above, but later, the insurgents, especially urban insurgents, were not so easily subdued without troops on the ground. They are likely to be the kind of foes that will complicate future occupations. Afghanistan is another example of an insurgency that demands vulnerable troops on the ground. He predicts that in future wars robots will do much of the dirty, close up fighting in cities and jungles, and he tells us how robotic “medics” are being developed to retrieve and even treat wounded soldiers in situations too dangerous for human medics.
This 499-page, well researched book, is written in the journalistic style which sets contradictory points of view side by side, and in parts ends up without a coherent point of view. But despite the “gee whiz” enthusiasm for the clever machines that man can make, Singer is a serious futurist and tries to assess the larger moral and social consequences of making war safer for the technologically superior nation.
He looks at many possible consequences, two of which stand out in my mind: the automation and consequent distancing of war will make it more acceptable to the public and therefore more likely to be used by rulers, even in democracies (wars that do not result in the deaths of American citizens will not meet with public opposition) and modern media, making automated war more of a distant spectator sport. A YouTube video of “iinsurgent” bodies flying through the air to the tune of I Just Want To Fly went viral in the US. The video, of course, was taken by the very drone which executed the strike, and was leaked to the Internet (this one not by Wikileaks, but probably dropped by officials), with many enthusiasts passing it on to all their Internet friends. “Gee, look at this!” Death is for enemies. No skin off our backs.
A second product of the struggle for technological dominance is even more scary: the development of more artificial intelligence in machines has great potential for service to mankind in peace and in war, but also great dangers. Singer cites statistics to support a terrifying hypothesis. It goes like this: the speed and calculating power of our computers are doubling every two years; the capacity of computer memory has been doubling every fifteen months. If this trend continues for twenty more years then there will be computers that will have more calculating power and more memory than the total of all human beings. If intelligence plus perception is consciousness, and some assume it is, in effect machine intelligence will have become a new form of conscious life. These intelligent machines will propagate and will evolve from there without human intervention, leaving our limited minds behind. The demands of war may hurry the stuff of science fiction into our real world.
Despite my irritation with the underlying point of view, the technocratic tunnel vision, the glib ironies, the journalistic approach to “balance,” I found this a provocative book. It is a wide-ranging and well-documented study of the current use and potentially profound future impact of robots and other kinds of automation on war and, more importantly, on our moral, social, and political lives. Our civilization is at risk, not threatened as much by the hungry hordes that are predicted to soon be at our gates as by the technology that we will develop to fight them.
Fortunately, other people focus on ways to avoid wars.
Ron Shirtliff is an editor of Peace.