January 15th, 2009

Captain Obvious

Warbots are NOT a revolutionary development.

[Robots] are changing the experience of war itself. This is leading some of the first generation of soldiers working with robots to worry that war waged by remote control will come to seem too easy, too tempting. More than a century ago, General Robert E. Lee famously observed, “It is good that we find war so horrible, or else we would become fond of it.” He didn’t contemplate a time when a pilot could “go to war” by commuting to work each morning in his Toyota to a cubicle where he could shoot missiles at an enemy thousands of miles away and then make it home in time for his kid’s soccer ­practice.

As our weapons are designed to have ever more autonomy, deeper questions arise. Can the new armaments reliably separate friend from foe? What laws and ethical codes apply? What are we saying when we send out unmanned ma­chines to fight for us? What is the “message” that those on the other side receive? Ultimately, how will humans remain masters of weapons that are immeasurably faster and more “intelligent” than they ­are?


The problem is that humans will use robots to kill other humans without risking their own lives. This will amplify the human tendency for the powerful to regard the lives of the weak as nothing more than an inconvenience.

Nothing new about that, though. Ever since someone first figured out how to sharpen a long stick so they could stab someone with less risk of being clubbed back, humanity has been trying to find ways to kill each other without risking their own lives in the process. Robots make this easier, to be sure. But then, so do bombers and ICBMs.

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Meanwhile, the powerful will continue to slaughter the weak in cold blood for no reason other than they feel like it. And there will be very little (in many cases no) civilized restraint upon them. That's humanity for you. When you get right down to it, most of us are vicious little sociopathic children - particularly those who pursue and retain power on a large scale.