Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Robotic Soldiers: Scary, Stupid, & Wrong

The NYTs' Tim Weiner has a creepy article today about the Pentagon's heavy investment in robotic soldiers. If you're a sci-fi geek such as myself, you're already picturing Terminator cyborgs stalking post-apocalyptic warfields. Evidently the DoD believes this is a technology worth pursuing, even though Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, believes this technology could (I'd say will) cause all types of abuses and unforeseen consequences.

Writing in Wired, Joy argued:

As machines become more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage, the machines will be in effective control.

Gordon Johnson of the Joint Forces Command inadvertently states why we should cringe at the notion of robotic soldiers:

They don't get hungry. They're not afraid. They don't forget their orders. They don't care if the guy next to them has just been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes.

In a sense, perfect killing machines devoid of conscience and compassion. Now, admittedly, there are uses for robots in combat. Currently, robots in Iraq dig up mines -- a legitimate use of robots in the field and should be pursued. But developing near autonomous robotic soldiers to do battle raises myriad moral, legal, and pragmatic questions. The most pertinent being what will deter future presidents and Congresses from deploying this "new generation of soldiers" with impunity? We could effectively fight wars with little cost to flesh and blood Americans. What would hold us back from using this power illegitimately and tyrannically? Iraq was fought against global opinion as well as against the wishes of nearly half of the American population. You have to wonder whether there would have been that much resistance going into Iraq if we didn't have to say farewell to loved ones or see, albeit rarely, flag draped coffins.

As for the rest of the world, just imagine robotic soldiers embossed with the American flag stalking insurgents all over the developing world. And you think our standing in the world was low? Just wait till these babies hit the field.