Sunday, February 8, 2009

Unmanned War

PW Singer, author of several books on the military, talked about just how far robots have penetrated into the military. He opened by describing Pakbot, a 42 pound robot that demolishes IEDs in Iraq, and reading a mock letter describing its destruction. This highlighted how much easier it is to report the 'death' of a robot than a soldier. Singer showed film of soldiers throwing robots into buildings that needed to be cleared - they looked just like soldiers throwing in grenades in some old war movie, but much more effective..

The scope of unmanned warfare is astonishing. As just one example, the US now has 5,300 drones in the air in Iraq, after starting the war with almost none. Many of these drones are controlled by soldiers back in the US guiding the drones remotely. And the implications are unexpected. These soldiers spend the day killing people, and causing destruction and havoc in Iraq. It's like playing a video game for them. Then they go home for supper with their families. Although these soldiers are in no danger, they suffer more post-traumatic stress than those in the field.

Singer pointed out that the US was significantly ahead in their capability for technological, robotic war. However, many of these robots can be put together from off-the-shelf components and their lead may be short-lived. For instance, Hezbollah flew four different types of drones against Israel in their last war. This can make insurgents increasingly capable of destruction, even with small numbers of soldiers.

Another implication of these robots is that they record everything. In fact, most of the YouTube footage of the Iraq war is from drones. So we can now watch war even more, yet experience it even less.

Lastly, we were very close to having autonomous robotic warriors, needing no control from a human.

So, what happens to the concept of war crimes in 'committed' by an autonomous robot? Will remote 'video warriors' be more vicious than real soldiers? Will we find it easier to go to war when we don't have to contemplate those coffins being unloaded from planes? Some questions worth thinking about.

His book should be quite interesting.

No comments: