The very meaning of the term "going to war" has changed in our lifetime. Whether we were talking about the ancient Greeks going to war against Troy in the Iliad, to my grandfather's experience in World War II going to war against the Japanese in the Pacific, that phrase has meant the same thing over the last 5,000 years. It's meant going to a place where there was such danger that you might never return.
You have now the experience of, for example, that Predator drone pilot who appears in the book, who says, "you're 'going to war' for twelve hours, you're putting missiles on enemy targets, you're killing enemy combatants, and then you get back in your car and drive home and 20 minutes after being 'at war' you're sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework."
We're starting to see ripple effects on our own politics. As that former Secretary of Defense puts it in the book, "I like these systems because they save American lives but I also worry about more marketization of war, more 'shock and awe' talk, to defray discussion of the cost. People are more likely to support the use of force if they view it as costless." We may be taking those bars to war that we were already lowering and dropping them to the ground.
And what is it like for the Iraqis or the Afghanis on the receiving end of this technology?The leading news editor of Lebanon [Rami Khouri], who was actually saying this [to me] while a drone was flying above him at the time, and he says, "It's just another sign of the cold-hearted, cruel Israelis and Americans who are also cowards because they send out machines to fight us. They don't want to fight us like real men. But they're afraid to fight, so we just have to kill a few of their soldiers to defeat them." That is just a graphic illustration of an absolute disconnect in the war of ideas between the message we think we're sending versus the message being received. In Pakistan, one of the most popular songs last year ["Chacha Wardi Lahnda Kyo Nahen" or "Uncle, Lose the Uniform, Why Don't You?"] talked about how Americans don't fight with honor and they just look at Pakistanis the way they look at insects. That ain't the kind of messaging you want to be sending out.
How much autonomy do you think robots should have? What direction are we going in versus what direction should we be going in?
Every time you ask about this issue of armed and autonomous robots, people always use the phraseology, "No, no, no. We'll always have man in the loop." The "loop" phraseology is like a mantra everyone has to chant. And yet, it's utter B.S.. We have systems right now that we're already granting massive amounts of autonomy to.
There's the example of the CRAM, the Counter Rocket Artillery Mortar, the little R2-D2-like system in Baghdad that automatically shoots down incoming rockets because they're coming in too quickly for humans to respond to. You've got an incoming rocket and the human can barely get to, "Oh, sh---" and it's too late. Yeah, man's in the loop, we turn it on and off, but we don't have the reaction time to decide what it shoots at and what it doesn't.
There's an incredible array of excuses we come up for giving the system more autonomy. It's everything from, 'Things are happening quickly in a war. We'll not allow it to shoot first but we'll give it shoot-back ability.' Or 'We'll design systems that don't shoot at people, they just can shoot at other weapon systems. They can't shoot at the people in the tank, they can shoot at tanks.'
Each one takes us further and further down the slippery slope that we say we'll never, ever cross. Guess what? We are directly researching armed, autonomous systems. The funniest illustration of that is the title of one of the Pentagon research projects on it, which is actually entitled, "Taking Man Out of the Loop."single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.