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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Idea Festival speaker: Robots are changing war in profound and disturbing ways

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Predator, drone, robot, CIALOUISVILLE, Ky.—As impressive as today's robots are, engineers are no further along in their use on the battlefield than the Wright brothers were at Kitty Hawk. And, much like early aviators wouldn't have been able to predict the way air travel has transformed how we work and live today, the impact of increased robotic warfare will surely lead us in directions we can't (yet nevertheless must try to) comprehend. Such were the assertions made here by Peter Singer, head of the Brooking Institution's 21st Century Defense Initiative.


The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) used extensively to target the U.S.'s enemies in Afghanistan are comparable to the "horseless carriages" of a century ago, Singer said during a Thursday presentation, "Robots and the Future of Conflict in the 21st Century," at Idea Festival. "We can only wrap our heads around what they are not, not what they are," he said, adding that describing the impact that robots will have on warfare in the future would be like explaining cyber warfare to World War II General George Patton.


More disturbing than the unknown, however, is the ease with which robots enable countries to engage in conflict. The U.S. in particular has found ways to fight its enemies without necessarily sending young men and women off to die in faraway lands, Singer noted. This has surely been a blessing, but it also takes away one of the most important deterrents to war—the toll it takes in human lives, he added.


The Predator drones used by U.S. forces began as spy planes managed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) but have since been equipped to engage in combat. This means the CIA is now controlling a significant portion of U.S. combat in Afghanistan and Pakistan—the agency has carried out 75 drone attacks in Pakistan this year, according to The Long War Journal, a Web site produced by nonprofit Public Multimedia Inc. As a civilian agency, the clandestine CIA is not subject to the same public debate as Congress, which traditionally has held the power to declare war.


In addition to destroying targets, drones are also very good at gathering footage of their attacks. Often, this video finds its way to the Web (YouTube in particular), where it becomes "war porn," as Singer put it, or "the act of war turned into a crappy music video. We're watching more but experiencing less."


Should robots be fighting our wars for us? There's no simple answer. Drones have been successful in executing quick strike attacks in remote areas more effectively than ground troops and without endangering human pilots—they've saved an untold number of lives for the nations using them. But they have also been blamed for attacks on civilians and, as Singer pointed out, have given the U.S., in particular, a reputation of hiding behind its technology, at least among some Middle Eastern nations.


For this and other reasons, warrior robots conjure images of technology run amuck, such as those popularized by the Terminator movies. Yet Singer ended his presentation by emphasizing that people are ultimately responsible for where the technology takes us. "We're creating an entirely new species," he said, "but we can't get past the age-old human need to destroy each other."


Image of Predator drone courtesy of U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt, via Wikimedia Commons

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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