Radical Instrument

IT is changing the exercise of power. Radical Instrument is picking up the signals.

Killer robots for peace?

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John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org has a baffling piece in today’s Washington Post, in which he argues that advances in military robotics could provide such an advantage as to all but cement a new Pax Americana. Even genocide could become a “thing of the past,” policed and prevented by killer robots. 

I’ll avoid Terminator references, but offer a few arguments to deflate Mr. Pike’s optimism:

1.  There are fewer and fewer true “battlefields.” The column scarcely mentions the term “battlefield,” giving the impression of something static, neutral, and removed from populated areas – a place where robots and human armies can duke it out in sanitary conditions. Assuming rates of urbanization continue on their present course, this scenario isn’t likely. Future conflicts stand a good chance of looking a lot more like Gaza today – more complex environments with far greater chances for civilian death and injury.

2.  The more complex the technology, the greater the risk of a catastrophic breakdown.  According to a 2004 GAO report, the Army’s Future Combat System (mentioned in the article), included, as of that writing, “18 advanced systems, 53 critical technologies, 157 complementary systems, and 34 million lines of software code.” GlobalSecurity.org itself noted in early 2008 that this had increased to 95.1 million lines of code, and we’re still several years away from a demonstration of the technology (as a point of comparison, Windows Vista has about 50 million lines of code). A single piece of malware – agent.btz – wreaked havoc on military networks earlier this year, if the reporting is to be believed. If it was indeed the case, would you trust genocide prevention, protection of civilians, or just plain military superiority to a more complex network of robots?

3.  Fog of war. Fog of war. Fog of war.  It can’t be said enough. Machines have a hard time with ambiguity and confusion. I’m not convinced that the right decision rules can be programmed in advance. Especially when you consider #1 and #2, above.

4.  Robots aren’t just made in the USA.  It’s not like the world is standing idly by while the U.S. pursues the development of more sophisticated UAVs and other technologies. Even Hizballah was flying drones three years ago. The advantage is unclear – and I suspect it might favor AntiMoore’s Law as much as it favors Moore’s Law.

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Written by Mark

January 4, 2009 at 8:32 pm

One Response

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  1. […] which we define “war” are less and less valid. This is critical, and it seemed to be a point overlooked in a Washington Post opinion piece that caromed around a few blogs […]


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