News & Politics

The Insider: P.W. Singer

P.W. Singer noticed the military’s growing use of robots instead of people. Photograph by Chris Leaman.

P.W. Singer, 34, is the author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, a New York Times bestseller. The director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, he was the youngest senior fellow in the think tank’s history. Considered one of the country’s top experts on the future of war, he was coordinator of the Barack Obama campaign’s defense-policy task force.

In his own words:

Why robots? A couple of years ago I started noticing things that were fascinating but also a bit troubling—not just things like our Roomba vacuum cleaner but stories from friends in the Air Force who would talk about carrying out combat missions in Iraq without ever leaving the United States. And yet in the Washington policy world, people weren’t talking about it.

The 5,000-year-old human monopoly on war is starting to break down, and I think that’s a pretty remarkable and scary thing to be living through.

We went into Iraq with zero unmanned systems on the ground and a handful in the air. Today we have 12,000 unmanned systems on the ground and almost 7,000 in the air. An Air Force three-star general says we’ll soon be at tens of thousands. But it won’t be tens of thousands of today’s models. As amazing as they are, today’s machines are merely the Model T Fords or the Wright Flyers compared to what’s in the pipeline.

Warriors’ experiences are being fundamentally changed. I talked to a Predator drone pilot who related his experience of being “at war” in a way that was so different from my grandfather’s experience when he went to war in the US Pacific Fleet after Pearl Harbor.

Being “at war” once meant you went to a place filled with danger such that your family didn’t know whether you were ever coming back. But this guy talked about getting in his car, commuting to work, spending 12 hours shooting missiles and directing kills, and then getting back in his car and 20 minutes later talking with his kids about their homework at the dinner table. He was definitely at war, and yet he was not—under our old understanding of it.

Even with more machines doing the fighting, war is still about humans and our failings.

How do you take the laws of war, which are so old, and update them for this 21st-century technology? Who do you hold responsible when something goes bad—the military commander or the software programmer? We’re at a complete loss to answer this.

Of course, I could be wrong. One Pentagon scientist told me there were no legal or ethical issues he could see with arming robots. That is, he added, “unless the robot kills the wrong people repeatedly—then it’s just a product-recall issue.”

Robots may take many of the trends we’re seeing in our body politic to their logical conclusion. We don’t have a draft anymore. We don’t have declarations of war anymore. We don’t have war bonds or pay higher taxes for war anymore. And now you add in this trend where more and more of those you send into harm’s way are American machines. You already have the bars to war lowering; robotics may well take them to the ground.

I may sound like I’m talking about science fiction, but it is already battlefield reality. I’m talking about Iraq and Afghanistan and what’s happening today. We did the same thing with tanks, submarines, airplanes, and atomic bombs. All four were in sci-fi before they were in politics.

It was H.G. Wells’s 1903 story “Land Ironclads” that inspired Winston Churchill to pursue the idea of tanks. A.A. Milne, the Winnie the Pooh author, was among the first to talk about arming airplanes.

Submarines—of course you had Jules Verne, but another was Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote in 1914 about how submarines might be used to blockade England. There was a huge uproar, and the British Admiralty even went public to mock him, saying that’ll never happen. Just a few months later, World War I starts, and it comes true.

With nuclear bombs, again it was H.G. Wells in the novel World Set Free. Indeed, the very term “atomic bomb” and the concept of a “chain reaction” come from him.

We repeatedly pooh-pooh a new technology at its start and then aren’t ready when it comes true. Here in DC I fear we’re in denial about the amazing things going on with robotics because they sound too much like science fiction. The result is that we could end up making the same mistake a previous generation did with atomic bombs—not fully wrestling with all the ripple effects on our politics, law, ethics, et cetera until after Pandora’s box is open.

This article first appeared in the March 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.

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