08 Mar FT Review Essay on Battlefield Robots Books
Stephen Cave has a very nice short essay at the Financial Times, reviewing three books on battlefield robotics (“The New War Machine,” March 7, 2009), including a discussion of PW Singer’s new book, Wired for War.
Talon is a robot. He is the future of warfare and, with more than 12,000 robotic machines already deployed in Iraq, he is also the present. These machines range from the briefcase-sized PackBot that can scope a house for potential enemies, to the 35m wingspan Global Hawk spy-plane that can survey half of Iraq in one flight. They are doing some of the difficult, dull and dangerous jobs that once cost soldiers’ lives. And since 2002, when a Predator drone assassinated al-Qaeda leader Abu Ali al-Harithi, they are also doing the killing.
While our destructive power is launching into this science-fiction future, however, our principles are stuck in the trenches. There is no precedent for an android to stand in the dock for war crimes. And the Geneva Conventions don’t tell us who to blame when an automaton makes a lethal error, such as when US Patriot missile batteries shot down two allied aircraft in Iraq in 2003, killing two Britons and one American.
We are in the midst of a revolution in the way we wage war, as profound as the discovery of gunpowder or the building of the atomic bomb. Yet most of us hardly know it’s happening – and our legal and moral frameworks are entirely unprepared. But a few people have noticed: three fascinating and timely new books detail these developments and the issues they raise.
The three books under review are:
Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century
By PW Singer
Penguin Press $29.95 512 pages
War Bots: How US Military Robots Are Transforming War in Iraq Afghanistan, and the Future
By David Axe
Nimble Books $28.36 88 pages
Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong
By Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen
OUP £15.99 288 pages
This essay, in keeping with the third book, is primarily about the question of robotic autonomy – autonomous systems for use of force by a robot. That sounds like sci-fi to most people and, mostly, it is – although I have noted before that there might be a serious gap between the kind of autonomous system that the US or NATO would think ready to release in combat and what China might think ready for war.
But the more immediate questions are not so much about autonomy as they are about surveillance and targeted killing by robots that are not autonomous, but instead remote platform, standoff systems operated by someone off the battlefield. Robotics is today a central question in law and war and counterterrorism mostly because of the Predator and the issues of targeted killing – autonomy is some way down the road.