Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Robotic Soldiers: Brilliant, Sensible, and Scary

One of the hallmarks of this, er, weblog will be argument, discussion, and disagreement. So, my inagural post here will be a refutation of my colleague's characterization. The fundamental error in his analysis, in my most humble of opinions, is assigning a morality to what, at the end of the day, is no more than a tool. This is a common fallacy perpetrated by pop-culture time and again. You constantly hear that nuclear weapons are "evil." Well, no. They are devastating weapons of apppaling scope and effectiveness but they are not, in and of themselves, evil. Indeed, one could argue that the very existence of nuclear weapons has saved millions of lives. I personally disagree, however, it is important to realize that it is not the technology in and of itself that is evil.

The moral distinction comes down on the one who makes the decision. If robotic soldiers are deployed in Iraq without proper oversight, safety measures, and testing (as they almost certainly will be, because that's how these things go) then it is not the technology or even the advocates of the technology who are held responsible. Rather, it is those who chose to implement the robots in that particular way that are ultimately responsible. It all comes down to the same questions we've been asking all along. Part of the questions of Vietnam was reasserting the individual responsibility that the soldiers had to follow or disobey orders. It was eventually decided that they were morally culpable for following through with an order that they believed to be fundamentally wrong. This is why Graner, even if he was acting under orders, is a disgusting human being and should rot in prison for many years to come. A robot defers this obligation back to the original decision maker. It is no more culpable than the rifle is or the bullet.

A robotic soldier can save lives. Fewer American soldiers would die as a result and, with some qualifications, fewer native civilians as well. This is an unqualified good thing. Whether or not that provokes us to become more involved in more conflicts world-wide is a separate question. As it stands we have a great degree of automation in our armed forces. Unmanned spy plans, robotically guided smart bombs, robot mine sweepers, have been employed to great effect and save lives. They can perform tasks better and safer than humans in certain situations. I am certainly not advocating that robots take over for the humans, which is nothing more than paranoid irrational fear. At this point we can barely create artificial systems that mimic human behavior, much less something capable of independent rational thought (rather, irrational thought).

As for a deterrent, robots are expensive. We are broke. The costs compared to a human soldier are incomparable of course. A human life lost is a tragedy no amount of money can ameliorate. However, the simple cost of feeding, supplying, and sustaining an army is enormous. This is no different than an army of manufactured robots. War, as the man said, is an extension of politics. And politics, as the economists say, is just economics with words.

Ultimately, a robot is a good thing. It is a piece of inert metal and plastic that enables us to do our jobs more effectively. Moral choice and obligation remains the same, robots are simply the enabler. Simply because there are potential abuses is no reason to turn your back on a new thing.

Contentiously yours,
--Wanker Swansong