Friday, April 11, 2008

Automated Warfare

"In the future, all wars will be fought by robots."

It sounds vaguely utopian, doesn't it? For anyone willing to skip over the implication that we will still be happy obliterating each other in order to solve the world's problems. But there is one other truly naive notion in this statement - the idea that both sides would have robots. Asymmetric wars will be the gold standard of conflict in the twenty-first century. As in Iraq, it will be people versus the machines.

So where does one's morality come in on something as bizarre as that? Is it better/worse to have little automatons out there, fighting the insurgents? Or to insinuate even further, massacring the innocents? Indeed, what does it say about human beings that we seem to find the ideal solutions in warfare those which involve the least amount of bloodshed on the killer's hands. Stealth bombers. Tomahawk cruise missiles. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. With the advances being made in automated devices, putting robots on the front lines seems an inevitable next step.

Questions of morality abound in the nexus of the electronic and the military. For instance, is hacking another country's infrastructure considered an act of war, to be preempted by an official declaration? And what are the rules of engagement for cyberwarfare? Tampering with the civilian infrastructure without directly harming any individual could be considered either illegal or perfectly acceptable depending on interpretation - whereas, say, interrupting the FAA's flight tracking network so that no plane was capable of landing safely might be considered illegal for intending undue harm to civilians, even though you'd technically be targeting non-civilian equipment for the hack.

This is the technical edge of warfare, and you may notice a singular factor uniting such implements - an aversion to seeing the whites of the eyes in the person you're smearing out of existence. UAVs probably take the cake for distance brutality. Some dude in Nevada, deep inside a bunker sitting in front of a TV screen is circling the skies of Afghanistan, trying to pick out the difference between nomadic sheepherders and Osama. He may never in his life come within a thousand miles of the country he's bombing.

And these drones come in all shapes and sizes. Bug-sized UAVs are already in use(!) for reconnaissance purposes. DARPA has enticed people into creating a car that drives itself across the desert - a race in live traffic also earned a victor at the end of last year. Autonomous is the new black when it comes to military spending, it seems.

And why not? There is something much cleaner and less abhorrent to the human soul about destruction from afar. If you never see up close the cradle in the shattered remnants of the home you've demolished, can you truly feel for the child?

Robots making war is the both the present day reality and one that will continue into the future. Automated battalions will also make lawmakers much less adverse to using force. But robots do not win hearts and minds. They cannot comfort the victims of genocide or give reassurance to women raped in the chaos of a guerrilla conflict. There is no robot solution for Darfur.

Robots will not write constitutions.

Or at least certainly not the same kind that will be spewing ordinance into the enemy.

And is it necessarily such a good thing to be taking humans out of the conflict - to wage a war without risking your own people? Obviously, from a purely American perspective, I could understand any who'd prefer it if we had robots doing the dirty work in Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving our young men and women to be safe and sound at home. But how much more willing would we be to endure a conflict that has gone on longer than World War II and killed over a million civilians by some estimates? Without real consequence or tragedy for our families, would there be nearly such an outcry from the American public to get the hell out of there? If carbombs were only ever killing Sunnis and Shiites, would we really even notice?

A robotic army would, if anything, encourage the use of blunt force in situations where the consequences would normally forbid it - a world in which the rich and capable nations are more willing to go to war than ever before. And that is a far more dystopian sentiment than any other I can think to offer.

Maybe there is a perverse benefit to putting human lives on the line and losing them: to remind us just why war is such a terrible thing.

As for the robots, for the time being we shall still have to face the consequences of our decisions - they've been pulled off the front.

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