I've often imagined what war must have been like for Stone Age cultures. We always imagine some burly caveman running down the hill confidently whacking to death his foe who is a few inches shorter and suffers from weaker biceps. I think the reality must have been much more grisly. Anyone, even a skinny 100-pound teenager with a bad stomach flu, could probably be a ferocious opponent if fighting for his or her life. I think any serious stone-age battle where life was really on the line would be terrifying. You could be as bad-ass as you want, but with a little slip on some wet moss or a hangover from last-night's magic-mushroom stew, some 50-year-old woman is plunging a sharpened stick through your gut.
The point I'm making here is that war, while being a favorite past-time since Cain and Abel, has traditionally involved at least some danger for the aggressors. The newest weapons are likely to shift the calculus of risk, making war, for the party with the weapons, a very casual affair that costs a few more dollars of taxes.
Of course, those on the right will argue that America, which is by definition always in the right, should have and use any weapons it can get its imperial hands on. And I would certainly agree with this sentiment if I were behind an American flag on a battlefield with bullets whizzing past. Of course, those of us more skeptical of America's manifest destiny have our own qualms in principle regarding America's imperial project. But putting these aside, for the moment, the new robotic weapons should make everyone on both the left and right a bit uneasy about the possibility for abuse. At some point, will robotic armies equipped with an effective combination of conventional, biological, and nuclear weapons empower small elite groups to control entire populations? It all sounds like science-fiction fare now, but one has to wonder at the new possibilities for totalitarian rule. Totalitarian projects have had some great successes but they've always had to struggle to maintain power over the individual. When most of the flesh-and-blood soldiers exit the battlefield, those in power will no longer need to appeal to the hearts and minds of the masses. Everyone loves shiny new weapons to rain down on their enemy. But the new Franken-armies can just as easily be turned around and used against their creators.
You can also check out the L.A. Times article or the NY Times article (copied below). Other blogments on the story can be found at Daily Kos and Mahatmama. The latter makes the point that when we get to the point of having purely robotic armies, the leaders can just play chess to settle disputes. (Hmmm. A world ruled by the three great powers of Russia, Germany, and Iceland).
by Tim Weiner (February 16, 2005)
The American military is working on a new generation of soldiers, far different from the army it has.
"They don't get hungry," said Gordon Johnson of the Joint Forces Command at the Pentagon. "They're not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes."
The robot soldier is coming.
The Pentagon predicts that robots will be a major fighting force in the American military in less than a decade, hunting and killing enemies in combat. Robots are a crucial part of the Army's effort to rebuild itself as a 21st-century fighting force, and a $127 billion project called Future Combat Systems is the biggest military contract in American history.
The military plans to invest tens of billions of dollars in automated armed forces. The costs of that transformation will help drive the Defense Department's budget up almost 20 percent, from a requested $419.3 billion for next year to $502.3 billion in 2010, excluding the costs of war. The annual costs of buying new weapons is scheduled to rise 52 percent, from $78 billion to $118.6 billion.
Military planners say robot soldiers will think, see and react increasingly like humans. In the beginning, they will be remote-controlled, looking and acting like lethal toy trucks. As the technology develops, they may take many shapes. And as their intelligence grows, so will their autonomy.
The robot soldier has been a dream at the Pentagon for 30 years. And some involved in the work say it may take at least 30 more years to realize in full. Well before then, they say, the military will have to answer tough questions if it intends to trust robots with the responsibility of distinguishing friend from foe, combatant from bystander.
Even the strongest advocates of automatons say war will always be a human endeavor, with death and disaster. And supporters like Robert Finkelstein, president of Robotic Technology in Potomac, Md., are telling the Pentagon it could take until 2035 to develop a robot that looks, thinks and fights like a soldier. The Pentagon's "goal is there," he said, "but the path is not totally clear."
Robots in battle, as envisioned by their builders, may look and move like humans or hummingbirds, tractors or tanks, cockroaches or crickets. With the development of nanotechnology - the science of very small structures - they may become swarms of "smart dust." The Pentagon intends for robots to haul munitions, gather intelligence, search buildings or blow them up.
All these are in the works, but not yet in battle. Already, however, several hundred robots are digging up roadside bombs in Iraq, scouring caves in Afghanistan and serving as armed sentries at weapons depots.
By April, an armed version of the bomb-disposal robot will be in Baghdad, capable of firing 1,000 rounds a minute. Though controlled by a soldier with a laptop, the robot will be the first thinking machine of its kind to take up a front-line infantry position, ready to kill enemies.
"The real world is not Hollywood," said Rodney A. Brooks, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at M.I.T. and a co-founder of the iRobot Corporation. "Right now we have the first few robots that are actually useful to the military."
Despite the obstacles, Congress ordered in 2000 that a third of the ground vehicles and a third of deep-strike aircraft in the military must become robotic within a decade. If that mandate is to be met, the United States will spend many billions of dollars on military robots by 2010.
As the first lethal robots head for Iraq, the role of the robot soldier as a killing machine has barely been debated. The history of warfare suggests that every new technological leap - the longbow, the tank, the atomic bomb - outraces the strategy and doctrine to control it.
"The lawyers tell me there are no prohibitions against robots making life-or-death decisions," said Mr. Johnson, who leads robotics efforts at the Joint Forces Command research center in Suffolk, Va. "I have been asked what happens if the robot destroys a school bus rather than a tank parked nearby. We will not entrust a robot with that decision until we are confident they can make it."
Trusting robots with potentially lethal decision-making may require a leap of faith in technology not everyone is ready to make. Bill Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, has worried aloud that 21st-century robotics and nanotechnology may become "so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses."