PackBots roam the streets of Iraq defusing bombs. Remote-controlled SWORDS robots shoot rifles and rocket launchers with deadly accuracy. Predator drones piloted by soldiers in Nevada drop missiles on Iraq and Afghanistan. The Wasp robot flies over neighborhoods full of insurgents, recording what's below with a camera as small as a peanut.
If this sounds like a futuristic science fiction story, it's not. As of today, over 12,000 robots are working in Iraq, up from zero five years ago.
The military is driving the cutting edge of the robotics industry, so forget about Isaac Asimov's Three Laws as laid out in his seminal science fiction book I, Robot: a robot may not injure a human being, a robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, a robot must protect its own existence. We're already living in a strange new world.
P.W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, has written Wired for War, in which he's interviewed a motley crew of people involved with the robotics industry: CEOs of robotics companies, 19-year-old drone pilots, four-star generals, refusenik roboticists who won't build for the military, people in the Middle East on the other end of the bullets and missiles, and science fiction authors who consult for the Pentagon.
Robots do see better than humans, shoot straighter and faster than us, and never get tired, but is it only a matter of time until, as any reader of Western science fiction knows, the robot "wises up and then rises up," as Singer says?
I spoke to Singer about what he found out in his journey into the heart of the robotics industry, and what's to come.
How much did you know about robots before you started on this project?
I could claim I knew a lot in that I grew up playing with Star Wars action figures and sleeping in Battlestar Galactica bedsheets, but the reality is that I'm not an engineer, I'm a social scientist, so the chapter "Robotics for Dummies" was about how I was a dummy, learning everything I could about robotics so I could explain them to a layman, where the field is and where it's headed. There's a wide ignorance -- I mean that in the true meaning of the term, not the slur meaning -- about the exciting and fascinating and sometimes scary things going on with robotics today. It's seen as mere science fiction but it's not. And it's a lot further ahead than most people have a sense of.
Could you talk about the connection between science fiction and what's actually being designed?
It was startling how open people were about talking about science fiction and their use in the real world. The Marine colonel talking about, 'Oh, yeah, I got the idea for building that system from The Empire Strikes Back with my kids.' The people at the Air Force research lab talking about how, "Oh yes, we decided to call it the Phaser because we knew it was more likely to get funding if it had a sci-fi sounding name."
[Science Fiction Museum director] Donna Shirley says, "Science fiction isn't so much about how to build the bomb but what happens if." If you build the bomb you get Dr. Strangelove, and that's the part that interests me. That's really what the book is about. All of the dilemmas that come out of having science fiction come true, having science fiction play out on our modern battlefields.
I went to Human Rights Watch and was asking them about accountability coming out of drone strikes in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan and two of the senior leaders there get in an argument in front of me as to which legal system we should turn to to get the answers, to who do we hold accountable when the drone kills the wrong person, and one says, "the Geneva Convention," and the other says, "No, no, no, it's the Star Trek Prime Directive."
And it shows to me: one, the influence of science fiction in the oddest of places, but two, it also shows the challenges when you enter into this sci-fi-turned-real-world, where suddenly we're really grasping at straws because our current laws just haven't caught up yet.
There are a series of open questions right now: Where is the code of ethics in the robotics field? What gets built and what doesn't get built? Where's the answer to the question of who gets to use these technologies? Who doesn't get them? They're the kind of questions that you used to only talk about in science fiction conventions, but these are very real, live questions right now.
We already have a "man in the loop" system that says "(1) Start System, (2) Wait, (3) Win War." The nuclear capable ICBM does exactly that and has for some time. A robotic army only changes that system in a few minor ways.
First, it is cleaner on the environment.
Second, it is more discriminating in targets eliminated.
Third, it is less threatening to surrounding countries.
We are not "fighting fair" with terrorist, nor would we ever. Fair fighting in war died with accurate artillery. Of course they will criticize us for not fighting with sticks and stones, but if we took the field with swords, do you think they would give up their guns and bombs?
The sooner man is removed from war, the better. It is difficult for people to understand cost-benefit analysis when human lives are in the balance. However, is a trillion dollars worth five human lives? Obviously. Five hundered? Five thousand? Who knows?
When the worst thing an enemy can do is make war more costly to us in terms of money, then the decision to fight or not becomes clearer and easier. How disheartening it must be for terrorist to think that they can no longer strike even American soldiers, only the endless products of Detroit!
America will never war with Russia, China, or any other international power. The inevitable cost is too great for any gain. Likewise, they will never war with us.
Only those with nothing or too little to loose would ever try. When you strip the enemy of any hope of victory, you win. Since victory for America's enemies is now reduced to inflicting any harm on Americans, taking the Americans out of the loop offers real solutions to terriorism.
When you start giving human lives a monetary value, you stop accepting them as humans. Are you saying that you would kill yourself for money? When war is fought by robots, people will stop seeing war as a bad thing. War will happen all the time. The thing that keeps people from waging wars every day is the fact that in wars, people die. Every human taken out of risk makes it that much easier to order a war.
How disheartening when the terrorists start to take out their anger and frustrations on the civilian populations and their allies , can robots protect us then?
So it can shoot. I'd kick SWORD'S butt with a sword. Wussy robot.
Seriously, it seems to me that the ethics of using these pieces of equipment, the collateral damage caused by their use, as well as the inevitable technological advancement of those exposed to their use in the field-are all things we accept when we VOTED to put any other equipment or personnel into the field. There is no difference, except that we have a better record of the true events unfolding than troops in the thick of a situation; and who, after all, could be killed with no chance to report. If an enemy kidnaps a robot, we just track it to the bad guys.
Only a tiny bit less serious. PopSci, I know that our government monitors fine publications like this one and PopMech, (I receive both) and possibly our blogs. Nevertheless, individuals like Director Peter Singer, of the prestigious Brookings Institute are necessarily difficult to contact directly. Having known of his book, and through your comprehensive yet brief description of his obvious concern with the moral and practical issues that we must find our way through as we become ever more mecha-interactive, I decided I would like to work for him. I understand it is common practice for magazines of this caliber to have contact information of it's sources. I thought since you had published one of my blogs(under quasi43, regarding my hopeful skepticism with the B.C. "Cold Fusion" article), perhaps I might have a few other opinions worth considering. Maybe a guy could get any opinions you consider valid points forwarded, especially when you consider I do receive Both magazines, and seeing as how my subscriptions are coming due, according to my wife. Trying for inventive, humorous, and creatively taking the initiative here, guys. Did I mention I receive Both magazines? As well as staying up all night thinking and blogging different issues here. Can a guy get a job, or what? Thank you for any assistance you can give. N.L.
Oh Yeah, did I mention that I'd also be honored to write things for the prestigious Hearst Communications, and would be blissfully happy for life with a salary only slightly more valuable than the dryer lint that makes it's way into my empty wallet? I would, with your reader base, very much consider this work a public service in it's finest form. The bonds I've forged with new-found friends discussing developments published in these magazines have been very special to me, and the often surprisingly simple common sense solutions to problems I've encountered in life I am truly grateful for. Seems this would be the place where I sign out, and simply remain, hopefully soon to be employed, N.L.
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