Monday, September 10, 2007

Killer Robots

Let's consider for a moment the implications of a military armed with robots. Lots of robots.

If you want to be pedantic, you could argue that this had already begun with the use of cruise missiles. Certainly the introduction of the Predator in Afghanistan, and it's rapid conversion to a missile-platform, marked a milestone. The development of the SWORDS, though, is something you sort of have to sit up and take notice of. Read this Defense Review article for the details on that, if you haven't already heard of it.

Now, this year's models are rather clunky, with their tracks and their hydraulics; a supplement but certainly not a replacement for actual boots on the ground. The technology is only going to advance, though, and it will do so quite rapidly. It could easily progress to the point where the robots are agile enough and smart enough that they can wage war with very minimal human supervision, perhaps nothing more than a token authorization to kill. At the same time, as the cost of manufacturing robots decreases, it could eventually get cheaper to manufacture ten robots and send them in the place of a single human.

(As a side-note, while soldiers could very well be replaced by mechanical killing machines, I very much doubt aid workers could be, at least not as easily. Post-conflict reconstruction ops are likely to be the very last service to be mechanized.)

The US could simply build up stockpiles of robots to be deployed at a moment's notice, to make war on anyone within strike range. Admittedly, this is a capability they already have, but robots would allow them to concentrate military force as never before; support units (mechanics, mostly) who never leave the base would be able to support ten times as much destructive potential, all the scarier for the fact that it can be wielded with a precision unthinkable in any previous war.

Territory could be defended the same way, and of course if the US can build lots of cheap killer robots, well, so can any other country. Which they will, and which development will undoubtedly lead to the odd spectacle of wars in which only machines are destroyed, with nary a drop of human blood shed in the process (I can't help but mention the explanation for warfare at the end of 1984, that it served primarily to burn off wealth and prevent the people from becoming rich.)

That bit about blood not being spilt doesn't necessarily follow, and indeed I expect a long time will pass before any war is truly free of bloodshed. Nevertheless I expect robotic warfare to make war gentler on humans than it has ever been. The men pulling the trigger are no longer, after all, in life-or-death situations; they're sitting at an easy-chair, somewhere in a control building (or maybe their apartment) back in the home country. People will naturally assume that a certain coolness should accompany that absence of risk; soldiers (if indeed they are still referred to as such) will be expected to behave more as judges do. Incidents such as gang rapes will disappear as a matter of course (given that the troops are no longer within sexual range of any potential victims); accidental killings will not be tolerated; and massacres will simply not happen. The operator of a remote killing machine will be held to a standard higher than that required of a chivalrous knight, and he will be held to it more strictly.

A lot of people get nervous at the idea of killer robots, and I don't blame them. The idea of an autonomous mechanical killing machine is pretty scary, especially if they go fully autonomous and start killing everyone a la Terminator. I think it will be a positive development. Wars might ultimately become a mixture of law enforcement and public spectacle along the lines of a sporting event.

But just to keep you from thinking I'm too rosy on this, I'll leave you with this:

It is well that war is so terrible - we should grow too fond of it.

Robert E. Lee

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: