If you shrug off Terminator and Battlestar Galactica as never-gonna-happen impossibilities, PW Singer has news for you. His spine-tingling book, Wired For War, carefully explains the robotics revolution that's gripped our military since 9/11.
If you believe Singer (shown at left with an unarmed robot), the biggest revolution happening in the world today is the one taking place in military robotics, unmanned fighting systems, which were next to non-existent before 9/11, and have multiplied exponentially since the Iraq invasion of 2003.
You don't have to read Wired for War (or Gizmodo) to know why military robots are awesome: On the battlefield, they won't hesitate to take a bullet for you, and when they bite it, you don't have to go and tell their mama how sorry you are. But robots are no longer just an extra layer of protection for our flesh-and-blood warriors, they are a new fighting force—the US has 12,000 on the ground and 7,000 in the air—that are changing the way the generals see the battlefield, and the way soldiers define what it means to fight.
I got in touch with Singer after Wired for War was published, and the cool, calm way he explains how different the world will be from now on—how the extended conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned robots from novelty items to autonomous killing machines, how cute dormroom debates over Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics have morphed into heated arguments at the Pentagon—has really got me convinced.
This week we're celebrating the book with a series of posts on topics it covers, but at first, it's time for you to hear from Singer himself, and drink in some of that truth. As he himself would say, citing The Matrix, it's time to swallow the red pill:
Giz: One of the biggest purposes of your book is to make, for the first time, a compelling argument for the reality of the scary sci-fi future, right?
PWS: There are a couple of points of the book. One, to sell lots of books. Two, to get our heads out of the sand when it comes to the massive changes happening in war, to say this is not science fiction but battlefield reality. Next, this is not the revolution that Rumsfeld and his people thought would happen. You may be getting incredible new capabilities, but you're also getting incredible new human dilemmas to figure out. The fog of war is not being lifted. Moore's law may be in operation, but so is Murphy's law. Mistakes still happen. The final aspect is to give people a way to look at the ripple effects that are coming out of this, on our politics, the warrior's experience, our laws, our ethics.
We're experiencing something incredibly historic right now, and yet no one is talking about it. Think about the phrase "going to war." That has meant the same thing for five thousand years. It meant going to a place where there was such danger that they may never come home again, may never see their family again. Whether you were talking about my grandfather's experience in World War II or Achilles going off to fight the Trojans.
Compare that to what it means in a world of Predator drones, already. One of the pilots I interviewed says you're going to war—for 12 hours. You're shooting weapons at targets, killing enemy combatants. And then you get back in your car and you drive home. And 20 minutes later, you're sitting at the dinner table, talking to your kids about their homework. So we have an absolute change in the meaning of going to war, in our lifetime right now, and nobody was talking about it.
Giz: That's mind blowing. The thing you're hitting on here is the role of humans in war. Many argue that you can't take the human being out of war, but will there be a time when robots just fight robots? And what's the point? Doesn't there have to be a human target? If robots fight robots, who cares?
PWS: Basically you're asking the question that's the famous Star Trek episode ["A Taste of Armageddon," TOS 1967], where two machines fight each other, they calculate what would happen, and then a set number of humans are killed based on the computer calculations. That's how they do the wars.
If we do get to that scenario, is it war anymore? We'd have to reconfigure our definitions. This is something we do. Some people back in the day thought that the use of guns was not an act of war, it was murder. It was a crime to use guns. Only cowards used guns. Well, we changed our definitions.
Giz: But the human has always been in the target of whatever murderous weapon—I'm asking what happens when Predator drones on our side go after Predator drones on their side over the Pacific Ocean.
PWS: It's not a theoretical thing. Is that war anymore? Or does it take away the valor and heroism that we use to justify war, and just turn it into a question of productivity? Maybe that's where war is headed.
But things don't always turn out as you described. Every action has a counter-reaction. You develop these systems that give you this incredible advantage. But as one of the insurgents in Iraq says, you're showing you're not man enough to fight us [in person]. You're showing your cowardice. You've also shown us that all we have to do is kill a few of your soldiers to defeat you.
Another one says that you are forcing my hand to become a terrorist. Say you get to drones vs. drones. Someone else will say, "A ha! That's not the way to win. The way to win is to strike at their homeland."
And with drones on drones, this very sophisticated technology, you're also taking war in a whole 'nother direction. Because now the most effective way of defeating drones may not be destruction, it may be wars of persuasion. That is, how do I hack into your drones and make them do what I want? That may be better than shooting them down.
Or, if they're dependent on communication back to home, I've just pointed out a new vulnerability. The high tech strategy may be to hack them, and disrupt those communications, but of course there's a low-tech response. What's an incredibly effective device against the SWORDS system, a machine-gun-armed robot? It's a six year old with a can of spray paint [says one military journalist]. You either have to be bloody minded to kill an unarmed six year old. Which of course will have all sorts of ripple effects, such as who else will join the war and how it's covered. Or you just let that little six year old walk up and put spray paint on the camera, and suddenly your robot is basically defused.
Of course, in a meeting with officers from Joint Forces Command, one of them responded, "We'll just load the system up with non-lethal weapons, and we'll tase that little six year old." The point is, robotics are not the end of the story, they're the start of the new story.
Giz: Okay, so if everyone can get their hands on a crate of AK-47s these days, will robots be traded like that, on the black market? How can countries without technological sophistication make use of robots?
PWS: There is a rule in technology as well as war: There's no such thing as a permanent first-mover advantage. How many of your readers are reading this on a Wang computer? How many are playing video games on an Atari or Commodore 64? Same thing in war: The British are the ones who invented the tank, but the Germans are the ones who figured out how to use the tank better.
The US is definitely ahead in military robotics today, but we should not be so arrogant as to assume it will always be the case. There are 43 other countries working on military robotics, and they range from well-off countries like Great Britain, to Russia, to China, to Pakistan, to Iran. Just three days ago, we shot down an Iranian drone over Iraq.
The thing we have to ask ourselves is, where does the state of American manufacturing, and the state of our science and mathematics education in our schools take us in this revolution? Another way to phrase this is, what does it mean to use more and more "soldiers" whose hardware is made in China, and whose software is written in India?
A lot of the technology is commercial, off the shelf. A lot of it is do-it-yourself. For about $1,000, you can build your own version of a Raven drone, one of the hand-tossed drones [which you launch it by throwing in the air, shown at left] our soldiers use in Iraq and Afghanistan. What we have is the phenomena that software is not the only thing that has gone open source. So has warfare. It's not just the big boys that can access these technologies, and even change and approve upon them. Hezbollah may not be a state, may not have a military, but in its war with Israel, it flew four drones.
Just as terrorism may not be small groups but just one lone-wolf individual, you have the same thing with robotics and terrorism. Robotics makes people a lot more lethal. It also eliminates the culling power of suicide bombing. You don't have to convince a robot that it's going to be received by 70 virgins in heaven.
And about not being able to get it like an AK-47. Actually, two things. One, there's a bit in the book about cloned robots. One of the companies was at an arms fair and saw a robot being displayed by a certain nation in their booth. And they're like, "That's our robot, and we never sold it to them. What the hell?" It's because it was a cloned robot.
And two, there's a quote, "A robot gone missing today will end up in the marketplace tomorrow." We've actually had robots that have been captured. We actually had one loaded up with explosives and turned into a mobile IED.
Giz: So, in other words, only a few years after being deployed, they're already being turned against us.
PWS: This is war, so of course it's going to happen. It doesn't mean the AK-47 is disappearing from war. War in the 21st century is this dark mix of more and more machines, but fights against warlords and insurgents in the slums. Those players are going to be using everything from high-tech to low-tech.