The Robot Wars Have Arrived

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

March 12, 2009

Just as the computer and ARPAnet evolved into the PC and Internet, robots are poised to integrate into everyday life in ways we can’t even imagine, thanks in large part to research funded by the U.S. military. Peter Singer discussed his new book, Wired for War with CNET, and explored the future of U.S. war fighting tactics.

CNET: Your book is purposely not the typical think tank book. It’s filled with just as many humorous anecdotes about people’s personal lives and pop culture as it is with statistics, technology, and history. You say you did this because robotic development has been greatly influenced by the human imagination?

Singer: Look, to write on robots in my field is a risky thing. Robots were seen as this thing of science fiction even though they’re not. So I decided to double down, you know? If I was going to risk it in one way, why not in another way? It’s my own insurgency on the boring, staid way people talk about this incredibly important thing, which is war. Most of the books on war and its dynamics–to be blunt–are, oddly enough, boring. And it means the public doesn’t actually have an understanding of the dynamics as they should.

CNET: It seems like we’re just at the beginning here. You quote Bill Gates comparing robots now to what computers were in the eighties.

Singer: Yes, the military is a primary buyer right now and it’s using them (robots) for a limited set of applications. And yes, in each area we prove they can be utilized you’ll see a massive expansion. That’s all correct, but then I think it’s even beyond what he was saying. No one sitting back with a computer in 1980 said, “Oh, yes, these things are going to have a ripple effect on our society and politics such that there’s going to be a political debate about privacy in an online world, and mothers in Peoria are going to be concerned about child predators on this thing called Facebook.” It’ll be the same way with the impact on war and in robotics; a ripple effect in areas we’re not even aware of yet.

CNET: Right now, rudimentary as they are, we have autonomous and remote-controlled robots while most of the people we’re fighting don’t. What’s that doing to our image?

Singer: The leading newspaper editor in Lebanon described–and he’s actually describing this as there is a drone above him at the time–that these things show you’re afraid, you’re not man enough to fight us face-to-face, it shows your cowardice, all we have to do to defeat you is just kill a few of your soldiers.

Read the full interview »