The Unmanned Mission

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

February 22, 2010

The word “robot” first appeared on the scene in 1921 when Karel Capek, a writer living in what was the Czechoslovakia, wrote a play called Rossum’s Universal Robots. Then, as now, business was booming. As the play opens, Rossum’s general director is dictating a letter about a recently received order for 15,000 of its new robots.

In the years that followed, robots became a staple of science fiction – from the sexy Maria in the 1927 film Metropolis to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, the central figure in the Terminator series. But how things change. In the last decade, advancements in computing and demand for ways to lower human costs have led to a surprisingly quick and wide-scale adoption of what were once futuristic, sci-fi products.

The U.S. force that invaded Iraq in 2003 had a handful of unmanned planes – none of them armed – and no unmanned ground vehicles. Today more than 7,000 unmanned systems are in the air over Iraq and Afghanistan, ranging from Predators with 55-foot wingspans to micro-aerial vehicles that soldiers launch by hand. On the ground, more than 12,000 PackBots and other unmanned vehicles are hard at work finding and defusing roadside bombs.

What’s truly amazing is that these PackBots and Predators are merely the first generation – the equivalent of the Model T Ford or the Wright Brothers’ Flyer. One-third of the Air Force’s future planes will be unmanned, robots are moving into every Army brigade and the Navy and Marine Corps say the development of unmanned systems is one of their top five priorities. China, Britain, Iran, Pakistan and 40 or so other countries are building, buying and using military robotics.

And the military is just one side of the story. The Department of Homeland Security flies unmanned aircraft that patrol our borders,  and Japanese farmers use unmanned planes for crop-dusting. Toyota plans to eventually automate all of its factories, and a very lucky robot has drawn security duty at Victoria’s Secret headquarters. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has describe the current state of robotics as being similar to where the computer industry was in the mid-1970s. Robotic devices, he said are posted to “become a nearly ubiquitous part of our day-to-day lives.”

We already have cars that parallel-park themselves and warplanes that can be flown by pilots stationed 7,000 miles away. Current prototypes of new products include everything from robotic snipers to robotic medics. They range in scale from a giant 700-ton robotic mining truck made by Caterpillar to tiny spy robots the size of insects – “bugs within bugs,” so to speak.

But all this promise is also part of the challenge. Outsourcing to robots in both war and business may raise efficiency, but it also leaves some humans out in the cold and raises a host of concerns. From the ever-more-intelligent machines that clean our floors to those that fight our wars, robots are forcing us to ask an array of political, military, business, legal and ethical questions.

Despite their growing importance, robots remain locked in the realm of science fiction for most of us. Perhaps we need to reshape our thinking. Rather than worrying about the robotic revolution depicted in the movies, perhaps we should pay more attention to the historic revolution in technology that is profoundly changing our world.