Prepare for the Robot Wars

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

January 27, 2009

Peter Singer joined Harper’s Magazine Contributing Editor Scott Horton to discuss the future of military technology and his new book Wired for War.

1. The received wisdom is that developments in military technology allow the fortunate nations that control them to fight more effectively and with reduced risk to their own career military. Is that putting too rosy a perspective on things?

These systems are being bought in such great numbers (5,300 in the air already, another 12,000 on the ground) not only because they save lives, but also because they offer an amazing array of military capabilities. But we also have to remember that there is no permanent “first mover” advantage in either technology or war. The Turks and Chinese discovered this with gunpowder, the French with tanks, and, in turn, I doubt you still use your Wang computer. Forty-three other nations have military robots programs, including states like Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China. But, importantly, robotic warfare will also be “open source” warfare. The systems are also available to non-state actors, made all the easier by the fact that so much of the technology is off-the-shelf or do-it-yourself. For a thousand dollars, you can now build a drone that has essentially the same capabilities as the Raven drones our soldiers used in Iraq just a few years ago. The book features a group of college students who raised money to do something about the genocide in Darfur, upon which a private military company offered to rent them an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) of their own.

A particular area of concern is the use of such systems by terrorists. During its conflict with Israel, Hezbollah operated at least four drones of their own. A militant website already has offered as a prize the chance to remote detonate an IED in Iraq via your home computer, while one of our bomb-squad robots in Iraq was even captured and then turned back into a mobile IED. So we may also see new sparks of terrorism. One of the people I interviewed was Richard Clarke, the government official who warned about 9/11, but was unfortunately not heeded. He talked about how our new technologies raise such fundamental questions in ethics and law that we’ll see the rise of “neo Ludditism”–people who will resort to violence to stop it. The next wave of terrorism may therefore be a mix of Al Qaeda 2.0 and the Unabomber.

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