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Coming Soon to a Battlefield Near You

Hugh Gusterson

WIRED FOR WAR: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. P. W. Singer. xii + 499 pp. The Penguin Press, 2009. $29.95.

Peter W. Singer, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, has an extraordinary ability to locate the cutting edge in the evolution of warfare before others get there. His two earlier books, Children at War (2006) and Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (2003), showed how child soldiers and military contractors are changing the face of war. Now comes a new book built around the bold premise that robotics is “the most important weapons development since the atomic bomb.” Singer sets out to map the new robotic technologies on the battlefield and on the horizon of possibility, and to explore their ethical and political implications.

If Singer’s two previous books were readable but scholarly, Wired for War is written in the caffeinated, technology-hyping, young male style of Wired magazine, replete with annoyingly cute section and chapter headings such as “It’s All about the Network, Baby,” “Doctrine, Schmoctrine,” “Robots that Don’t Like Apple Pi,” “Do Robot Soldiers Dream of Electric Sheep?” and “Woe-bot, Whoa-bot!” There are copious allusions to science fiction (including a whole chapter making the dubious argument that science fiction writers have a better track record predicting the future than professional analysts do), multiple vignettes of technology gurus and, in keeping with the young male ethos of the book, numerous faux-macho quotes salted with the F-word. Singer’s own attitude toward robotics is largely captured by his approving quotation of Carnegie Mellon researcher Daniel Wilson’s explanation of why people enter the field: “Robots are just plain cool as hell.”

In the first 180 pages of this unnecessarily long book, Singer hypes the technology, acting as a sort of curbside barker for the military robotics community. Then, just when this reader was giving up hope, the acute intelligence that illuminated Singer’s earlier books reappears: In the second half of Wired for War, Singer casts a critical eye on many claims made by military analysts and asks the kind of farsighted questions that too few are asking about this emergent technology.

A Warrior robot uncovers a roadside bombClick to Enlarge ImageBy 2005 there were about 5,000 robots in Iraq. One of the most common was iRobot’s Packbot, a lawnmower-sized gizmo with a mechanical arm and a high-resolution camera, which was often sent ahead to scout for insurgents and to disarm improvised explosive devices. Another is the Foster-Miller company’s SWORDS—a remote-controlled miniature tank that can be armed with anything from machine guns to rocket launchers. Extolling the virtues of these machines, a Pentagon official says, “They don’t get hungry. 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.” And a U.S. Navy chief petty officer expresses his relief that “When a robot dies, you don’t have to write a letter to its mother.” Robots’ lack of human family members notwithstanding, Singer says that soldiers often develop strong attachments to their robots, grieving when they are blown up and, in one case, running through a hail of bullets to rescue a Packbot under fire.

By 2008 the United States also had more than 5,000 unmanned drones flying over Iraq and Afghanistan. They are flown remotely by “cubicle warriors” in the United States. At first the drones were used only for surveillance, but now they are armed with Hellfire missiles for use against ground targets. Drones offer obvious advantages: They can fly longer missions without fatigued pilots aboard, they are more expendable than manned planes and can therefore fly lower, and they are relatively cheap at $4.5 million each. Despite these advantages, the Air Force, according to Singer, was slow to adopt them because they lacked the glamor of the supersonic jets beloved by the Air Force flyboys and because they threatened the fantastically expensive contracts that are the bread and butter of the military-industrial world.

Moving from air to water, Singer expects increased use by the Navy of unmanned boats and miniature submarines, some of them designed like fish. Also on the horizon are insectlike drones that could perch on windowsills and observe, perhaps recharging themselves from light bulbs and poisoning people with tiny darts. The big question is to what extent these unmanned systems should be left under direct, if remote, human control, with all the possibilities for enemy hacking and jamming this would entail. Also, how much autonomy and learning ability should be programmed into them, running the risk that they would create mayhem of one sort or another? (Singer briefly documents a number of instances when robotic systems have run amok, including a malfunctioning industrial robot that took a swing at Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during a factory tour.)

The Global Hawk spy dromeClick to Enlarge ImageIn the second half of the book Singer explores the ethical and political corollaries of a future in which these technologies have matured and have been integrated into warfare. Although some analysts assume—just as they did when the United States was the first to develop the atomic bomb—that the United States will retain technical dominance in the arena of military robotics, Singer is skeptical. He worries that other countries with better-educated workforces and less dysfunctional military contracting systems, especially in Asia, may leapfrog the United States. Given that some of this technology can now be bought off the shelf, he is also concerned about terrorist robot attacks. Insurgents in Iraq have already used crude robots to attack U.S. troops, including a remote-controlled skateboard with an IED aboard.

But Singer’s most interesting ruminations concern the implications of military robotics for democratic war-making. When a drone operator can kill people thousands of miles away by pressing a button, experiencing it like play in a video game, and then head off to a PTA meeting, has war become too sanitized for our own good? And in an era in which 7,000 video clips from the Iraq War have found their way onto the Internet, at least one of which stylizes the deaths of Arabs by setting them to music, has war become a form of voyeuristic entertainment—“war porn”—in a way that should trouble us? Above all, Singer worries that in a post-draft era in which most Americans are already disconnected from the serious business of being at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospect that robots could do most of the killing and dying on our behalf holds out “the lure of riskless warfare.” He fears that “by seeming to lower the human costs of war, [robots] may seduce us into more wars.” Singer quotes military veteran and literary luminary Paul Fussell to suggest that wars in which we do not wager our own human bodies for causes we believe in may not, whatever the casus belli, be virtuous wars in the traditional military sense.

Finally, in a chapter on ethics and international law that should be mandatory reading for senior Pentagon officials, Singer explores a tangled knot of questions provoked by robotic technologies: Is a Predator drone pilot who is killing people in Afghanistan from a console in Nevada a combatant? If so, does that make him a legitimate target, even though he’s several thousand miles from the battlefield? If robots “are incapable of intent, are they capable of war crimes?” If a robot kills civilians because of a bug in its programming, is its manufacturer or its programmer guilty of a war crime? And is it reasonable to expect that a machine that has enormous difficulty telling an apple from a tomato will be able discriminate between civilians and combatants?

If there is a weak spot in these discussions, it is that Singer sometimes lets his guard down and, despite an often bracingly skeptical attitude toward Pentagon hype, is still too credulous toward some of the claims being made for these technologies. Repeating Pentagon claims about a nonlethal “pain ray,” for example, he says that although it could make people “feel like their skin was catching on fire” by heating the water in the top layer of their skin, “the ray doesn’t permanently hurt the person.” It’s difficult to evaluate this claim because many aspects of the research that allegedly backs it up are classified. Surely the jury is still out on such a new technology.

Elsewhere Singer extols the ability of Predator drones to “dwell and stare” so that their operators truly understand what is happening in a neighborhood under surveillance, or to “watch the rear of a building for a bad guy escaping when troops go in the front.” But how does a drone operator thousands of miles away know that those escaping from the back are “bad guys” who should be killed and not innocents terrified of American troops? In a talk given on May 20, 2009, at the Center for National Policy, David Kilcullen, special adviser to General David Petraeus, estimated that U.S. drones had killed 14 Taliban and 700 civilians in Pakistan. This suggests a need for a still more critical stance than we get from Singer about the drone way of war. As well as questioning the potential political consequences of this technology, as Singer does, we need to be more skeptical about its very efficacy.

Singer might have been able to write about these issues with greater critical distance if he had talked to more critics outside the military and the world of military robotics. He does have a chapter about roboticists who refuse military funding, but it is the shortest in the book, and it feels superficial. So in the end, Wired for War, seesawing between hyperbolic enthusiasm and intelligent skepticism, is largely an insider’s critique. If you imagine a very smart person writing about the ethical and political implications of nuclear weapons without speaking to scientists from the Union of Concerned Scientists or the Pugwash movement, you will have a pretty good sense of the limitations of this book. If we are to make robots work for us to create a better world, rather than get caught up in a process of half-blind technical drift, we will need a debate that involves more voices than we encounter in this book. Still, as always, P. W. Singer is the first on the scene to identify an important issue we are ignoring. He has gotten the discussion off to a good start.

Hugh Gusterson is Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at George Mason University. He is coeditor with Catherine Besteman of The Insecure American, which will be published by University of California Press in fall 2009.

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