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. 😐