War of the Robots — All Too Real Questions We Have to Ask

Peter W. Singer

When the U.S. military went into Iraq in 2003, it only had a handful of unmanned systems in the air, none of them armed. On the ground, the invasion force used not one unmanned ground vehicle.

Today, we have over 7,000 of these unmanned systems in the air, ranging from 48-foot long Predators to micro-aerial vehicles that a single soldier can carry in a backpack. On the ground, we have over 12,000, including the lawnmower-sized Packbot, which helps find and defuse the deadly roadside bombs.

But such PackBots and Predator drones are merely the first generation — the equivalent of the Model T Ford or the Wright Brothers’ Flyer. At the same time, they are being armed everything from Hellfire missiles to 50 caliber machine guns. So, the term “killer app” (short for “killer applications,” technologies that send massive bow waves onto industries, like what the I-Pod did to the music industry) is now taking on an entirely new meaning. 

Every so often in history, a new technology rewrites the rules of the game. Like gunpowder, the printing press, or even the atomic bomb, such revolutionary technologies are game-changers not merely because of their capabilities, but rather because of the ripple effects they have on everything from our wars to our politics. They force us to ask tough social, military, business, political, ethical, and legal questions.

That’s what we’re looking at when it comes to robotics today. Indeed, Bill Gates has described robotics as being, right now, where computers were around 1980. If this is the case, think how the computer has reshaped everything from our economy to our social relationships and “friendships” to how we plan wars and even fight them (even creating a whole category: cyberwar). Other scientists make the parallel of robotics being much like the atomic bomb, a cutting-edge technology that we may one day regret building.

Yet, to most of the public, as well as the media and policy world, this all remains the realm of science fiction, not battlefield reality. The New York Times recently described it as one of the least covered stories this last year. Or, as one journalist put it to me, our government has authorized literally billions of dollars for these programs, but few members of Congress have even a rudimentary knowledge of what is happening, and not a single hearing has even been held on the topic. Such a situation is great for an author with a book out on the topic, but maybe not so great for the public good.

So what are some of the questions that might be asked on the growing field of robots and our wars, just to get a much-needed conversation going?

Q. Where is the (Unmanned) Military Headed?

The U.S. military is planning for over one third of its future systems to be unmanned. How do we make sure the military buys the right ones — and not the ones that have gold-plated processors only made in committee chairmen’s districts? What are the proper organizational structures and doctrines for using these new systems? How do you ensure their security, so that insurgents in Iraq can’t continue to hack into their communications with a $30 software package they bought off the Internet (something that has already happened)? How do we better support the men and women operating them, who may not be in the physical warzone, but are experiencing an entirely new type of combat stress?

Q. Are We at War in
? (Or Is It Not a War Because We’re Only Using Drones?)

American unmanned systems have carried out more than 80 air strikes into Pakistan, more than we did with manned bombers in the opening round of the Kosovo War just a decade ago. By the old standards, this would be a war. But why do we not view it as such? Is it because it is being run by the CIA and not the military? Is it because Congress never debated it? Is it because we view the whole thing as costless (to us)? Or, are the definitions changing — and what used to be war, isn’t anymore?

Q. What Are the Perceptions of Robots in War?

How do robots change the public’s relationship to its war? Does the ability to YouTube video clips of combat 7,000 miles away turn war into a form of entertainment? By comparison, how do the people on the targeting end, 7,000 miles away, feel about it? Do they view our use of robots as efficient and inexpensive, or, as one newspaper editor in Lebanon put it, “cruel and cowardly”? Is America painting itself into the same corner that Israel did in Gaza, where it got very good at targeted strikes of Hamas leaders — but also good at unintentionally inducing 15 year old Palestinian boys to want to join Hamas? 

Q. Who Should Be Allowed to Use This Technology?

It is not just the military that is using unmanned systems. The Department of Homeland Security is flying them for border security – as are some of the civilian “militias” as well. Local police departments like Miami-Dade have gotten authorization to use them. But as one federal district court judge put it to me, the legal question they raise in such areas as probable cause and privacy will likely reach up to the Supreme Court one day. How about me? Does the Second Amendment cover my right to bear (robotic) arms? It sounds like a joke, but where does the line stop, and why?

Q. Can the Laws of War Keep Up?

The existing laws of war were written in a year in which people listened to 45 rpm records and the average home costs $7,400. Do they still make sense when a 21st century technology like a Reaper drone is being used to target an insurgent who knows he is not supposed to hide out among civilians, and that is exactly why he does? If the laws of war do need to be updated, how and in what ways?

Q. Will America Go the Way of Commodore Computers and GM?

If this is a growing industry that is also crucial to national security, how will America fare — especially given that 43 other countries are also working in this field? The state of our manufacturing economy and the state of science and mathematics education in our schools don’t augur well for our dominance in this area. What would it mean to have soldiers whose hardware increasingly says “Made in China” and whose software increasingly is being written by someone in India?

Q. When Are the Metal Ones Coming for Me?

Editors need not ask this for their own sakes yet, but generally speaking, we do need to start to think about what roles are appropriate for machines to take over and what roles are not, and what sort of firewalls are set up to ensure this.

And as robots become more ubiquitous and autonomous, who is responsible for their actions? It is cool that your Lexus SUV can parallel park itself, but if it scratches my car, I certainly want an actual person to hold accountable.

In sum, these are all sorts of questions that used to be debated at science fiction conventions. But much like past science fiction technologies as the atomic bomb or the horseless carriage, they are now all too real.