The 3 Laws May Not Be Enough To Guide Robot Warriors

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

April 1, 2009

What does the Pentagon think about a possible robot uprising? Is Star Trek’s view of combat realistic? Peter Singer addresses these questions and others in an interview with io9 about his new book, Wired for War.

Q. You open your book with a reference to the show Battlestar Galactica, and throughout, I caught a huge number of science fiction references, from the Terminator, Star Trek, Short Circuit, the Matrix and others. How close to truth do some of these fictional stories come? Will the machines rise up and kill us all?

A. The book is very much about how the machines that were once only used in science fiction are rapidly becoming battlefield reality.

I use these science fiction references not only because I was the kid who grew up with Star Wars bedsheets, who now consults for the Pentagon, but also because of the very real impact of science fiction on what we build, but also how we understand it. New technologies often can seem not merely incomprehensible, but unimaginable. Science fiction, though, helps to take the shock out of what analysts call “Future-Shock.” By allowing us to imagine the unimaginable, it helps prepare us for the future, including even in war.

This preparation extends beyond future expectations; science fiction creates a frame of reference that shapes our hopes and fears about the future, as well as how we reflect on the ethics of new technology. One set of human-rights experts I queried on the laws of unmanned warfare referenced Blade Runner, Terminator, and Robocop with the same weight as they did the Geneva Conventions. At another human rights organization, two leaders even got into a debate over whether the combat scenes in Star Trek were realistic; their idea was that resolving this could help determine whether the fictional codes of the Federation could be used as real world guides for today’s tough ethical choices in war. And, of course, every single roboticist knows Asimov’s “3 Laws” by heart and they have become the reference point for ethical discussions about robots.

[On the other hand], I don’t think we have that kind of world coming any time soon. You can’t do a book about robots without dealing with the question of a robots’ revolt, so there is actually a chapter in Wired for War on it. That is, what do the actual experts in both science and the military think about robot revolt and whether it’s a likelihood, and why it might, or might not happen? Here’s a hint: It is not The Terminator, but The Matrix that may be more informative.

Read the full interview »