Wars of Ideas and killer robots

The book Wired for War, by P. W. Singer, is a fairly broad-ranging account of the history of how technology changes war, right up to the current rise in robotics. A number of “revolutions in military affairs” have occurred over the course of history, and there has been a very poor record of world powers making the transition before getting usurped by the early adopters. Nonetheless, the use of robots and drones in combat is the source of an ongoing debate. Still, war has existed for a long time, and as we approach a time when people may no longer be directly involved in the combat, the focus should probably be turned back to the reasons we fight.

I’m no historian, but I have some passing knowledge of major conflicts in recorded history, and I have the internet at my fingertips, retinas and cochleas. Nation states and empires began to appear in ancient times, and the Greeks and the Romans were happy to conquer as much as they could. In the Middle Ages the Islamic Empires expanded and the the European Christians fought them for lands they both consider holy. The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States of America was fought largely on the grounds of different societal and economic ideals: capitalism versus communism.

Though probably an oversimplification, I’m going to fit a trend to these events. The underlying basis for these wars could be described as strong convictions: “we are people of a different ethnicity or nation–we want resources, power and glory”; “we have religious beliefs–we want to spread our religion and we want what is holy to us”; and “we have different beliefs regarding how our society and economy should be structured–we want to subjugate the intellectually and morally inferior”.

Even more generally these thoughts boil down to ideas of national identity, religion and ethnicity, and ethics and morality. These beliefs often combine dangerously with ideas of infallibility, self-importance and superiority. If people didn’t take these ideas so seriously, many wars might not have occurred. There has recently been a reduction in wars among developed nations; most likely a result of the spread of democracy and moderate views. Nevertheless, the ideas of nationalism, ethnicity and religion are still deeply ingrained in many places and are significant factors in current tensions and wars all over the world. If there were strong enough economic incentives developed nations would likely still enter into conflicts.

Recent conflicts have been complicated by the lack of clear boundaries between sides. With the ideas underlying conflicts often coming from ethnicity and religion, the boundaries become blurry and the groups of people diffuse. Non-state actors emerge in larger areas and populations. As military technology gets more powerful and accessible, people holding fringe ideas can exert more, threat, force and damage than they ever could before. Explosives are a glaring example of this.

Robots are the source of the current debate though, even though groups with access to advanced robots are still mostly limited to advanced militaries and corporations. The main concerns that surround the use of robots are: wars will likely be easier to start and more common as countries don’t risk their own casualties; and concerns that autonomous robots might be worse at discriminating civilians from combatants.

Robots will almost certainly make wars less unattractive, but whether there being less reluctant to take part in wars is actually a bad thing is somewhat dependent on the wars and conflicts that are entered into. Peacekeeping would be a great use of robots, though perhaps not robots of the “killer” variety. Horrific conflicts are happening right now, and developed countries intervene minimally or not at all because of issues such as low economic incentives, UN vetoes, and the certain loss of life they would sustain.

No doubt it would be possible to start wars; probably a less noble practice than interventions in civil war and genocide. However, initiating wars is no longer an easy thing to do secretively these days. The proliferation of digital media recording devices and the internet make it much harder for wars to not draw international attention. But perhaps more important is that most developed countries that possess robots are the liberal democracies, where there is more to the opposition of war than just the loss of soldiers’ lives. This opposition to war is a large source of negative sentiment people have for killer robots in the first place.

Even though the “more wars” issue is far from resolved, let’s turn our attention to the use of killer robots in the conflict itself.

First, from a technical perspective, robots will one day almost certainly be more capable and more objective in determining the combatant/non-combatant status of people than human soldiers. Also the robots aren’t at risk of dying in the same way as a person, the need to rush decisions and retaliate with lethal force is reduced. But let’s return to the idea-centric view of conflict, and consider the use of robots in conflicts such as the “War on Terror“.

The drones being used in Pakistan and Afghanistan are being used against people that believe in the oppression of women and death sentences for blasphemers–people who oppose many things considered universal rights by the West. It seems that to many it’s a forgone conclusion that the “bad guys” need to be killed, and the main issue using robots and drones is civilian casualties. However, a real problem is that many “civilians” share the beliefs underlying the conflict, and at any moment the only difference between a civilian and a combatant might be whether they are firing a weapon or carrying a bomb.

Robotic war technology may get to the point of perfect accuracy and discrimination, but the fact will remain that the “combatants” are regular people fighting for their beliefs. If “perfect” robotics weapons were created that were capable of immediately killing any person who plants a bomb or shoots a rifle, this would be an incredible tool for war, or rather, oppression. I think that kind of oppression would deserve a lot of concern.

In spite of something as oppressive as a ubiquitous army of perfect killer robots, people in possession of  the right (or wrong) mixture of ideas, and strong enough conviction, won’t likely give up. Suicide-bombers don’t let death dissuade them. Is oppression and violence even the best response to profoundly incompatible beliefs and ideas? Even ideas that, themselves, advocate oppression and violence?

Counter-insurgencies are not conventional wars. Belief and ideas are central to their cause–the combatants aren’t going to give-in because their leader is killed or their land taken. The conflict is unlikely to end if the fighting only targets people, it needs to target their beliefs and ideas. Hence the conceived strategy to win the “hearts and minds” of the people. Ideas are not “defeated” until there aren’t any people who still dogmatically follow them.

While robotics look to be the next revolution in military affairs in conflict between nation states and counter-insurgencies, improvements in technology and techniques for influencing beliefs that are the cause for war might be a better revolution. To that end, rather than having robots that kill, a productive use of robots could be to safely educate, debate with, and persuade violent opponents to change beliefs and come to a peaceful resolution. Making robots capable of functioning as diplomats might be a bigger technical challenge than making robots that can distinguish civilians from combatants. But let’s be fanciful.

It continues to be a great tragedy that the ideas that give rise to conflict are themselves are rarely put to the test. It’s unfortunate, but I think it’s no coincidence. Many of the most persistent ideas–the ideas people fight to defend–are put on pedestals: challenging the idea is treason, blasphemy or, even worse, politically incorrect. 😐

Information, interpretation and life

Despite the existence of information theory, a firm definition of information of doesn’t seem to exist. Consider that information is still being investigated as a broader philosophical notion in the philosophy of information. And while I claim no special expertise in these areas, and no doubt should acquaint myself more fully with them, I’m going to start writing about information.

Over the course of writing posts on information I’m going to ponder whether information might be a fundamental property, similar to energy and matter. In this post I’m going to argue that for information to exist, something must exist to interpret it, and I’ll describe an example of interpretation at the most fundamental level–the genome.

To start, I’ll work from my understanding of the philosophical description of information credited to Luciano Floridi: information can exist as embodied information (information as something), descriptive information (information about something), abstract information (information in something) and instructional information (information for something).  Without examples this is pretty vague, but what is worse, perhaps, is that some things fit multiple categories of information.

Take, for instance, a genome. As a collection of long molecule chains, it is a physical embodiment of “information”. We could imagine that with the right knowledge and analysis, we could get from it descriptive information about organisms with that genome. This descriptive information though, is an abstraction of certain patterns of repeating base pairs: the information is in the pattern. Lastly, the information in the genome is a set of instructions for the construction of an organism.

Where does interpretation come in? In our everyday lives, we often read and write, listen and talk, see and signal. When we do this we are interpreting incoming information and communicating in outputting information. This information can exist without an immediate recipient in recordings, e.g., books and blogs, audio messages and songs, and images and videos. However, if the information becomes corrupted–and ceases to be readable–the information is lost. Without the capability existing to interpret the information, it has no more meaning than random (or perhaps orderly) noise.

If we consider genomes as information, we should ask: what is interpreting that information? Complex molecular machinery physically interprets DNA in the replication process. However, because of the scale and fundamental nature of the atomic and molecular structures involved in the replication of DNA, the physical laws of our universe provide the basis of this interpretation. Our genomes are instructions, interpreted by enzymes operating under physical laws, to structure matter into living organisms.


Genomes are interpreted by molecules working in concert with the physical laws of matter and energy at the atomic scale. This information could, therefore, exist and be interpreted anywhere in the universe that these molecules exist and the physical laws are the same.  In this way, life could be described as the process of the universe interpreting and creating information. This notion will be explored further and refined in future posts.

[Edit: clarifications and grammatical corrections. (24/12/2012)]

Consciousness’s abode: Subjugate the substrate

Philosophy of mind has some interesting implications for artificial intelligence, summed up by the question: can a machine ever be “conscious”? I’ve written about this in earlier posts, but recently I’ve come across an argument of which I hadn’t considered very deeply: that substrate matters. There are lots of ways to approach this issue, but if the mind and consciousness is a product of the brain, then surely the  neuroscience perspective is a good place to start.

Investigations show that the activity of different brain regions occurs predictably during different cognitive and perceptual activities. Also there are predictable deficits that occur in people when these parts of the brain are damaged. This suggests that a mind and consciousness are a product of the matter and energy that makes up the brain. If you can tell me how classical Cartesian dualism can account for that evidence, I’m all ears. 🙂

I will proceed under the assumption that there isn’t an immaterial soul that is the source of our consciousness and directs our actions. But if we’re working under the main premise of physicalism, we still have at least one interesting phenomena to explain–“qualia“. How does something abstract and seemingly immaterial as our meaningful conscious experiences arise from our physical brain? That question isn’t going to get answered in this post (but an attempt is going to emerge in this blog).

In terms of conscious machines, we’re still confronted with the question of whether a machine is capable of a similar sort of conscious experience that we biological organisms are. Does the hardware matter? I read and commented on a blog post on Rationally Speaking, after reading a description of the belief that the “substrate” is crucial for consciousness. The substrate argument goes that even though a simulation of a neuron might behave the same as a biological neuron, since it is just a simulation, it doesn’t interact with the physical world to produce the same effect. Ergo no consciousness. Tell me if I’ve set up a straw-man here.

The author didn’t like me suggesting that we should consider the possibility of the simulation being hooked up to a machine that allowed it to perform the same physical interactions as the biological neuron (or perform photosynthesis in the original example). We’re not allowed to “sneak in” the substrate I’m told. 🙂 I disagree, I think it is perfectly legitimate to have this interaction in our thought experiment. And isn’t that what computers already do when they play sound or show images or accept keyboard input? Computers simulate sound and emission of light and interact with the physical world. It’s restricted I admit, but as technology improves there is no reason to think that simulations couldn’t be connected to machines that allow them to interact with the world as their physical equivalent would.

Other comments by readers of that Rationally Speaking post mentioned interesting points: the China brain (or nation) thought experiment, and what David Chalmers calls the “principle of organisational invariance“. The question raised by the China brain and discussed by Chalmers is: if we create the same functional organisation of people as neurons in a human brain (i.e., people communicating as though they were the neurons with the same connections) would that system be conscious? If we accept that the system behaved in the exact same way as the brain, that neurons spiking is a sufficient level of detail to capture consciousness, and the the principle of organisational invariance, the China brain should probably be considered conscious. Most people probably find that unintuitive.

If we accept that the Chinese people simulating a human brain also create a consciousness, we have a difficult question to answer; some might even call it a “hard problem“. 🙂 If consciousness is not dependent on substrate, it seems that consciousness might really be something that is abstract and immaterial. Therefore, we might be forced to choose between considering consciousness an illusion, or letting abstract things exist under our definition physicalism. [Or look for alternative explanations and holes in the argument above. :)]

Writing this blog in style (or not)

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted on this blog. I’ve written numerous lengthy drafts that haven’t (and may not) see the light of day. This has prompted me to consider what I want to achieve with this blog, and how I might change the style and content of my writing. And that’s what I’ll write about here: the style that my posts might start to take moving forward, and the rationale for how and why that might work better.

Going back to the beginning, I wanted a platform to share my ideas and opinions on a broad range of topics. A blog seemed to be a good alternative to more formal publishing, and the pseudo-anonymity the internet still affords means that expressing some of my more unusual ideas might be less likely to come back and haunt me. However, the incorporation of recreational writing in my everyday life, when having a lot of other things that need doing, is less easy to manage than I’d hoped. I’m sure many bloggers know this feeling.

The posts I’ve written in the past have been of a moderate length, and have been reasonably planned out rather than spontaneous. I’ve been aiming for word limits, but under the current circumstances, time limits might be more effective. This would probably push me to write in a different format and style. Most ideas and topics can, and probably should, be broken down into smaller elements. This was done  for the first series of blog posts I wrote on values, but my posts could probably be broken down even further. Long and winding posts might be useful for explaining the drawing of links–painting larger stories with vivid similes and poetic phrases–but are less concise and sometimes lose clarity.

Part of the beauty of blogs is the incremental nature in which posts can be made that build a story or a concept. Leveraging the blog as a central store of writing, posts can be very short and reference previous or future posts rather than cover the material all in one place. And that is what the aim will be for the immediate future: to write shorter posts, not necessarily self-contained, but focused on a single idea concept or topic. Ignoring the immediate gaps that are almost certainly exist at the beginning, but hopefully identifying them, pointing to references, or dealing with them in future posts or comments as they become apparent.

This is almost a necessity when I hope to be dealing with topics that cross philosophy, ethics, psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, technology, artificial intelligence and robotics. The boundaries blur and merge, as the horizons lie within each others’ borders. I hope that, if I still have anyone reading, people will challenge these ideas, point out when I’ve made unfounded assumptions and prompt me to find references and evidence.

I’m always open to revising my point of view in light of sufficiently compelling evidence and arguments. I’ll see what I can do to write arguments that are thought-provoking and compelling too.