"Wired for War" Asks What Happens When Robots Kill for Us

If you're interested in the future of non-fictional robot armies, P.W. Singer's Wired for War will give you an intriguing glimpse into the present state of mechanized warfare. This is where scifi meets reality.

Until now, the idea of the use of robots on the battlefield has been the stuff of science fiction - which is alluded to heavily throughout Singer's analysis. He and the subjects he interviews have learned about warfare from science fiction. Indeed, the book opens with a reference to the current version of Battlestar Galactica, and quickly follows with a number of references to Star Wars, Star Trek, Terminator, the Matrix, and the works of Isaac Asimov.

Looking at the promotional blurbs for this book, one would expect this to be a fairly straightforward concept - an examination of the rise of the use of robots in warfare, some of the history and how this is impacting the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The assumption fell impressively flat as I worked my way through the book, because not only is the concept of robotic warfare covered, but Singer also goes beyond the battlefields and world of today and leaps forward into the next twenty five years. While at times very alarmist, Singer paints a frightening view of the future.

At the beginning of the current Middle East conflicts post-9/11, the US military entered war as a technologically advanced army, but it did so without the use of robotics. Singer traces the beginnings of the introduction of such robots as the now-familiar Predator Drone and the Packbot, among others, from their conception on the drawing board to their gaining attention from the military to their widespread use today on the battlefields. Singer interviewed hundreds of people for this book, from the technicians who built and repair the robots, to the Privates and Sergeants who deploy and depend upon them to the ranking officers who oversee their use against enemy forces. In doing so, Singer outlines an impressive sub-story of the perceptions of warfare on the part of the United States, going back to earlier wars.

To some extent, it's unclear where Singer falls when it comes to robotics. On one hand, he demonstrates just how we have come to depend upon the intelligence and abilities that robots offer our fighting forces. On the other hand, we see a trend of a highly technical and advanced military, with a public that is increasingly withdrawing from the necessary pains of warfare. We are, he worries, becoming inured to the horrors of war because robots allow us to distance ourselves from the action.

However, there is also an argument to be made that warfare has always tended towards distancing soldiers from the action. In conflicts past, massed infantry forces would clash, with horrendous injuries and trauma ensuing. As time progressed, warfare became far more distant - the introduction of the Long Bow, for example, allowed English archers to hit targets from further away, transforming the battlefield from a massed infantry and cavalry force to one that was capable of striking from a distance. The same goes for the introduction of gunpowder, with allowed for an entire revolution in how militaries were organized and trained. The Civil War, Napoleonic War and World War I all introduced, to varying degrees, an element of mechanization to warfare, which further placed warfare away from the soldiers, who could now hold off battalions with an entrenched squad and a machine gun. Still further up the timeline, with the introduction of airpower, theorists became increasingly convinced that warfare would become even more impersonal, as militaries could bomb enemy civilian populations with little risk to their own forces before ending a conflict. While this turned out to be not the case, it is interesting to note that with the further introduction of technology to a battlefield, war has reached the ultimate impersonal level, as our own soldiers can direct robotic forces into danger.

While robots are extremely advantageous in combat, they have the effect of sanitizing warfare, while enraging our enemies abroad. I recall a documentary that I watched by New York film maker Eugene Jarecki, Why We Fight, which noted that with the numerous advances in warfare, it becomes far easier to wage, and in a scenario where soldiers are able to fight with lessened risk, this has frightening possibilities. What would happen if a military force could field an army of robots? Singer notes the scary possibility that in today's media-rich environment, there is the possibility that people will go to war because there are few immediate consequences.

"Wired for War" Asks What Happens When Robots Kill for Us

Singer also does not ignore the time-honored notion of a robotic rebellion, a scenario where robots realize that they are able to do far better than we can, and seek to become a dominant race on the planet. This has happened in countless films and movies, and at a couple of points, soldiers and scientists note that they are working on robots that could someday overthrow humanity. While his subjects say this in jest, there is an element of truth to it. Singer notes several instances of robotic systems going haywire, from a robot in a car factory killing a worker by mistake, to South African automated gun turret suffering from a computer glitch that caused it to open fire on soldiers during a series of wargames, killing several before it ran out of ammunition. Singer also examines the increasing influence that technology has on our lives, from Play Stations to iPods, and how these systems have influenced soldiers on the ground. Playing videogames generally helps soldiers adapt very quickly to robotic systems, to the point where controls are modeled after gaming controls.

Military historians often talk about three generations of warfare: First generation, which includes massed manpower as a dominant element; second generation, which includes firearms; and third generation, maneuver warfare, which links coordinated manpower and mechanized forces, and is widely in use today. In the past two decades, there has been much debate over the possibility of a fourth generation of warfare emerging, largely thought to be a sort of urban warfare that pits highly trained specialist-soldiers against irregular forces.

However, while observing the trends of the past conflicts from the Gulf War, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, I would propose that Singer's strength in this book is that he's defining a fourth generation of warfare, characterized by the use of computers on the battlefield. (Urban and guerilla warfare have been in use since antiquity.) Singer notes that in addition to robotic forces, the lines of communication between soldiers and their chain of command is changing with the introduction of computers. This essentially lifts the so-called fog of war, and gives battlefield commanders an unprecedented view of the battlefield, aided by the use of robotic drones and sensors. This brings forth an entirely new set of problems with the existing chains of command.

"Wired for War" Asks What Happens When Robots Kill for Us

Singer and his interview subjects predict that the floodgates have opened, and there is essentially no turning back at this stage. Within the next twenty-five years, human soldiers will be fighting alongside humanoid robots, which will have extraordinary accuracy and initiative in how they react to enemy combatants. While we are certainly nowhere near that level of sophistication yet, the bulding blocks are already there: Robotic turrets shoot down mortar shells with impressive accuracy, and sensors can now tap into body language and other subtle elements to predict actions.

With issues such as global warming, fluctuations in the world economy, and an increasingly high-tech, worker-unfriendly world, Singer predicts that the future will only bring more conflict, and the U.S. will be involved to some degree. It is in this environment that robots will continue to fight for us.

Robots may not take over the planet, but there will be machines designed to be very good at killing humans. While there might be soldiers controlling elements of these systems, there is plenty of room for error. Still, if the future Singer predicts comes to pass, I am somewhat ready to hand over the keys to robot overlords - on the condition that we're allowed to keep our entertainment and food. They certainly can't do any worse than we have during our time on the planet.

Wired for War via Amazon

Image of PackBot from PackBot Page, and Predator Drone via jamesdale10 on Flickr.