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Military technology is being transformed but with inadequate vision, planning, and attention to ethics.

The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century
by P.W. Singer
Penguin Press 2009, 499 pages

The opening lines of Pete Singer’s new book sum up his enthusiasm for his topic: “Why a book on robots and war?” he writes. “Because robots are frakin’ cool.” Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century explores with considerable excitement the latest developments in the new and rapidly expanding field of military technology. Yet Singer is also concerned about the ways in which robots are changing the players, strategies, and impact of war – as well as the dizzying rate at which change is occurring. He approaches these complex issues in an engaging, highly readable manner. But make no mistake: This is a serious study that is stirring debate on the future of modern warfare.

The book’s first section details the current research and development of university, industry, and military labs. All the robots are here, from one of the earliest, iRobot’s sturdy, remote-controlled Packbot, used to detect explosive threats in Afghanistan and Iraq, to a growing arsenal of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the newest microscopic “nanobots,” and Lockheed Martin’s high-altitude airship, which will be five times as large as a Goodyear blimp. We learn, as well, of creations like the medbots being designed to locate and retrieve wounded soldiers and of Johns Hopkins University engineers who are refining remote surgery techniques for such ‘bots. Throughout Part One, “The Change We Are Creating,” Singer includes case studies, statistics, and interviews, as well as fascinating anecdotes of technological history, revealing, for instance, how in 1893 the U.S. military rejected Nikola Tesla’s remote-controlled torpedoes because the technology seemed too far-fetched. It took the Pentagon more than a century to embrace robotics, but the rate of increase is staggering: When U.S. forces entered Iraq in 2002, there were no systems in operation; as of 2008, there were more than 12,000 separate units. By one estimate, the total number of civilian and military robots in use by 2010 may reach as high as 55.5 million.

While Singer celebrates these advances, he feels strongly that much greater vision is needed to guide the strategies of unmanned war. So little planning has accompanied the use of UAVs, he charges, that units in Iraq have found themselves armed with a drone without proper understanding of how to use it, let alone how to maximize its abilities. As one iRobot executive complains, many in the military “still think of robots as RC [remote-controlled] cars” — fancy “gee whiz” toys. And there are more pressing issues: As robots ease the tasks of human soldiers, what ethical concerns should be addressed about increased efficiency of killing by machines – as well as problems of “collateral damage”? What psychological dislocations will be experienced by people who fight at a virtual remove, engaged in actual killing but in front of a video screen, putting in eight-hour days at “war” before driving home to the suburbs? And can Western forces overcome the negative perceptions of local populations of “cowardly” or “disengaged” high-tech warfare? In September, NATO forces faced a firestorm of outrage after an accidental bombing by a U.S. drone cost the lives of some 90 Afghan civilians. Particularly in the book’s second section, “What Change Is Creating for Us,” Singer explores the problems inherent in greater reliance upon machines.

Singer urges readers to address the issues of robotics war because “our scientists, our military, and our political and business leaders are making decisions now that will matter for all of human society in decades to come.” Some may feel that this author, a senior fellow and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, is too alarmist in his concerns. But as someone named by the president to the U.S. Joint Forces Command’s Transformation Advisory Group, he clearly has people thinking about how to navigate future military engagements.

Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.




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