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Barbara Ehrenreich: 12,000 Drones, Lethal Cyborg Insects, See-Shoot Robots -- How Machines Are Taking Over War

How far will the automation of war and the substitution of autonomous robots for human fighters go?

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When the sensory data coming at a soldier is augmented by a flood of instantaneously transmitted data from distant cameras and computer search engines, there may be no choice but to replace the sloppy “wet-ware” of the human brain with a robotic system for instant response.

War Without Humans

Once set in place, the cyber-automation of war is hard to stop.  Humans will cling to their place “in the loop” as long as they can, no doubt insisting that the highest level of decision-making -- whether to go to war and with whom -- be reserved for human leaders. But it is precisely at the highest levels that decision-making may most need automating. A head of state faces a blizzard of factors to consider, everything from historical analogies and satellite-derived intelligence to assessments of the readiness of potential allies. Furthermore, as the enemy automates its military, or in the case of a non-state actor, simply adapts to our level of automation, the window of time for effective responses will grow steadily narrower. Why not turn to a high-speed computer? It is certainly hard to imagine a piece of intelligent hardware deciding to respond to the 9/11 attacks by invading Iraq.

So, after at least 10,000 years of intra-species fighting -- of scorched earth, burned villages, razed cities, and piled up corpses, as well, of course, as all the great epics of human literature -- we have to face the possibility that the institution of war might no longer need us for its perpetuation. Human desires, especially for the Earth’s diminishing supply of resources, will still instigate wars for some time to come, but neither human courage nor human bloodlust will carry the day on the battlefield.

Computers will assess threats and calibrate responses; drones will pinpoint enemies; robots might roll into the streets of hostile cities. Beyond the individual battle or smaller-scale encounter, decisions as to whether to match attack with counterattack, or one lethal technological innovation with another, may also be eventually ceded to alien minds.

This should not come as a complete surprise. Just as war has shaped human social institutions for millennia, so has it discarded them as the evolving technology of war rendered them useless. When war was fought with blades by men on horseback, it favored the rule of aristocratic warrior elites. When the mode of fighting shifted to action-at-a-distance weapons like bows and guns, the old elites had to bow to the central authority of kings, who, in turn, were undone by the democratizing forces unleashed by new mass armies.

Even patriarchy cannot depend on war for its long-term survival, since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have, at least within U.S. forces, established women’s worth as warriors. Over the centuries, human qualities once deemed indispensable to war fighting -- muscular power, manliness, intelligence, judgment -- have one by one become obsolete or been ceded to machines.

What will happen then to the “passions of war”? Except for individual acts of martyrdom, war is likely to lose its glory and luster. Military analyst P.W. Singer quotes an Air Force captain musing about whether the new technologies will “mean that brave men and women will no longer face death in combat,”  only to reassure himself that “there will always be a need for intrepid souls to fling their bodies across the sky.”

Perhaps, but in a 2010 address to Air Force Academy cadets, an under secretary of defense delivered the “bad news” that most of them would not be flying airplanes, which are increasingly unmanned. War will continue to be used against insurgencies as well as to “take out” the weapons facilities, command centers, and cities of designated rogue states. It may even continue to fascinate its aficionados, in the manner of computer games. But there will be no triumphal parades for killer nano-bugs, no epics about unmanned fighter planes, no monuments to fallen bots.

 
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