Wired for War – The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century

by P W Singer                                


I believe that developments in robotics will be one of the major drivers of change in our world over the next 20-30 years. As such it is always beneficial to look at developments in the military field as defence forces are generally willing to take significant financial risks on the development of new technologies.  This is because if they make a mistake or their adversaries gain an advantage it means people die. So the military and the US military in general have tended to be on the cutting edge of lots of technological change.

For the purposes of this book robots are defined as any unmanned mechanical device such as drones, submarines, and bomb disposal robots that are built on a Sense/Think/Act paradigm. That is they can sense signals in their environment, they have some sort of processing capacity that can make sense of what they “see” and they have the ability to act on the environment they are in.

The title of this book would seem to suggest that it is a “Boys Own” look at the use of robots in military conflicts but it is a much more thoughtful and deep analysis than that. The book explores many of the developments of military robots, where that development has come from, and where it might go to given the accelerating pace of change. Bill Gates, for instance, believes that the robotic industry is poised on the cusp of a change in a similar way that the computer industry was in the early 1980s. Therefore a large part of the book is devoted to what these changes might mean rather than dwelling on “cool technology”.

For instance, the author explores the issues of the political ramifications of war in the modern era, especially from the point of view of the US as a “Superpower”.  One of the issues that is driving the development of robots is that, in an era where the losses in war are played across our TV and mobile phone screens, a modern power like the US is damaged politically by the losses of lives. Therefore robotics are one way of minimising these losses and reducing the negative effects of public opinion on a war. However such developments raise a whole range of philosophical and moral issues, for example, does a likelihood of reduced loss of life mean that a decision to go to war is more easily made? Also, if robotic developments become extensive, what does it mean to fight an enemy that does not know fear or will not surrender?

The author also explores the issue of whether a “techno-optimistic” approach has blind spots that will come back to bite the US military in the long term. There are many examples of technological developments in military hardware that have been supposed to change how war is conducted forever. In the end changes only really occur when the overall strategic doctrine is refined and thought through. It is the author’s opinion that this has not happened with the development of robotics, in part because the demand to get robots “on the ground” in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has overridden all other considerations.

We have all seen the changes that have occurred in the Iraq war where there was an overly optimistic view of how the conflict would play out. Supposedly the military have learnt that engagement with the population in such a conflict is a way to win in the long term. It is hard to envisage how that can be done with a robot, and if robots are utilised to reduce the number of combat troops in a conflict then that must also reduce the level of local engagement. In addition enemies have always adapted and with many of the robots discussed in the book being built with off the shelf components it is easy to envisage a future where both sides are in a robot arms war even if one side is less sophisticated.

The issue of war becoming like a video game is also explored in detail.  One quote on the Iraq war from a robot controller located away from the combat zone is chilling in its effect (p332):

“it’s like a video game. It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s fucking cool”

On page 329 the author describes the operation of a predator squadron that flies in the combat zone, but whose pilots are housed in trailers in Nevada and linked via optic fibre cables to satellite control dishes in Europe. This leads to the weird situation where these pilots are actually at war but are still going home at night and taking their kids to soccer practice or going out with their girlfriend to the movies. This has to have a multitude of effects on their psychology but also on how the conflict is conducted.

The issue of control is also explored in detail. The responses from the military and political leaders interviewed in the book are that “humans will always be in the loop” of decision making. At the same time the contractual and research demands on the robotic development companies are for more autonomy for the robots they are making. This means that as developments in artificial intelligence and robotics gather pace there will be more and more situations in which the robots will have better and faster decision-making than their human “controllers”. For instance, there has been considerable work done on the development of automated sentries that are now armed. If they are given automated capacity it is a very short step to where they are allowed to shoot once a certain set of criteria are met.

The author also explores a number of other broader philosophical issues such as robots rights and robot ethics. Overall the book is a well thought out and argued narrative from someone who has extensive practical and theoretical experience in the area. It goes well beyond a military and technology basis and therefore I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in the sort of change that robots may wreak upon our world.