Tuesday, March 03, 2009

P.W. Singer's Wired for War


P.W. Singer’s Wired for War takes a lengthy look at current and future uses of robotic technology in war. Subtitled “The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century,” it ranges from today’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and bomb-squad robots to tomorrow’s fully fledged synthetic warfighters.

Although this blog is primarily about soft power, I’ll first comment on some hard-power aspects of robotic warfighting before considering soft-power issues.

While Singer could have written Wired for War as a Popular Mechanics-style summary of technological capabilities—Rifle-Armed Robot Makes 70 of 70 Bullseyes!—he knows better than to stop there. Since the ultimate robotic task is to replace human warriors, Singer tries to address the wider spectrum of issues that accompany robot-aided warfare, starting with the current use of unmanned vehicles and proceeding into a future that includes robots which make judgments about what to do and whom to kill. Some highlights:

Military culture clashes. Lightly trained UAV pilots currently fly lethal missions from the safety of their Stateside chairs at higher rates than pilots of manned aircraft. The manned pilots resent the chair jockeys, which wouldn’t be a problem except that it’s the manned pilots who tend to become generals and dominate policymaking.

Law of armed conflict (LOAC). Geneva Convention-style chains of command may be unclear in cases where an unmanned vehicle is in theater while its pilot is in an air-conditioned trailer near Las Vegas, its designers and programmers in Massachusetts, and its in-theater commanders in Qatar. Singer points out that under current international law, a Nevada-based pilot who attacks Iraqi targets via a deployed UAV is a legitimate target of war as he walks the streets of Las Vegas.

Liability for autonomous devices. LOAC problems will grow enormously in the context of the semi- or fully autonomous killing machines of the future. Singer believes these devices are much closer to deployment than most realize, perhaps as soon as a decade from now. If and when they are, responsibility for their actions becomes even murkier, particularly since certain rules of engagement become absurd: How does a robot return lethal fire in “self defense” when legally, it has no self?

Singularities and science fiction. Although he briefly detours into Ray Kurzweil-style Moore’s-Law-applies-to-everything! froth, Singer is on firmer ground when he illustrates the strong linkages between science fiction and science, which he says have driven robotics development to a greater extent than non-roboticists realize.

For example, even if roboticists agree it is impossible to express Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics in a programming language, Asimov’s stories of robotic moral dilemmas have deeply influenced what little thought has so far been put into the ethics of artificial intelligences. Similarly, the outright prohibition on thinking machines following the Dune universe’s Butlerian Jihad and fears of the Terminator movies’ Austrian assassins have also given roboticists pause.

(Speaking of science fiction: It’s outside Singer’s scope to cover the trickle-down of military devices to police forces across the U.S., but I'd like to note that Ray Bradbury addressed this concern beautifully many decades ago in his short story "The Pedestrian.")

Soft Power Implications
As this blog is about nations’ reputation and branding, the sections of Wired for War that most interested me cover how foreign publics perceive the U.S. and other countries’ forays into robotic warfare. It’s to Singer’s credit that he treats this question at some length—although the short answer is that foreign publics are likely to react badly to robotic warfighters.

Take the jihadi example. Jihadis are already prone to thinking Americans cowardly for bombing from afar, for not duking it out on the ground, for not showing the kind of commitment it takes to pilot an aircraft into a building or a truck into a checkpoint.

Unfortunately, the use of UAVs and (someday soon) armed ground robots plays right into this narrative: The Americans have become too cowardly to send even heavily protected soldiers into our territory. Instead they send satanic machines to do their killing.

Nothing could be calculated to further get a jihadi’s back up and make them resistant to surrendering. You can almost hear one saying to another, Dude, you got shot at by a toaster and ran? You’re a disgrace to the cause!

Robotic warfighters could also be bad news in the counterinsurgency wars the U.S. currently wages, which depend mightily on face-to-face contact and relationship-building of the sort that mechanized, autonomous infantry and air forces may only impede.

The second impact of robotic warfighters on U.S. reputation is less direct but also depends on understanding insurgents’ psychology. Despite its enormously precise war machines, the U.S. still occasionally kills innocents. However, many seem to think that only malice or some unannounced sinister purpose is at play when some gee-whiz technology goes astray.

Ever-more-advanced machines such as fighting robots will have to be ever-more precise lest any accidental killing or destruction be seen as intentional, giving rise to the colorful conspiracy theories that seem endemic to certain parts of the globe. As Singer reminds us, those shiny, wraparound, relief-pitcher sunglasses U.S. soldiers favored at the start of the Iraq war caused riots, thanks to rumors that they allowed GIs to see beneath Iraqi women’s clothing.

Third: Does the U.S. really want to take the damage to its reputation that will come from fielding a T100?

Wired for War has its tics. Its writing veers from brilliant to repetitive, never settling on a steady pace or grade level. Singer doesn’t think much of the revolution in military affairs (RMA) attempted by Donald Rumsfeld et al., which involved changing the U.S. military over to weapons and tactics that relied more heavily on high technology to achieve victory.

He also seems to conflate the RMA strategy with network-centric warfare tactics, and often holds military theorist Art Cebrowski and his “crowd” responsible for whatever has gone wrong with U.S. strategy and warfighting in the past decade.

However, I’d urge readers to just ignore these factors since on balance, Wired for War is an excellent primer for an era that has already arrived, unbeknownst to most diplomats and policymakers.

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