Time and again, intellectuals and artists alike have prophesized bleak futures for a race whose technology and hubris have far exceeded its wisdom. So, if the wet-dreams of futurists within the U.S. Department of Defense come to fruition -- far-reaching ambitions to apply robotics in the battlefield, bioengineer the perfect soldiers, and command complete dominance of Space -- let us not forget: we have been warned.
A Deadly Mosquito
On Jan. 13th, 2006, U.S. missiles struck Pakistan near the Afghan border. The failed attempt to assassinate al-Qaida leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, demolished three houses, killing at least 13 civilians, including women and children. What makes this airstrike interesting is not the "collateral damage" or the expected enflamed anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, but the technology used to carry out the attack: a Predator drone equipped with Hellfire missiles. The Predator, which looks similar to a mosquito with a 49-foot wingspan, is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operated from the ground via radio control. First deployed in the mid-90s for reconnaissance purposes, it has since been converted into a tool used to hunt and kill suspected terrorists--in any country with or without permission of the host government.
UAVs like the Predator--several dozens of which have been deployed throughout Iraq--are only a small piece of the robotic pie proposed by the Pentagon. According to Jon Pike, one of the world's leading experts on military-policy and director of the website GlobalSecurity.org, for a glimpse of the future, one only needs to look to the silver screen.
"A lot of people think we're a super power on a rampage because we keep blowing things up," says Pike, "Well they ain't seen nothing yet. You want to see what the future looks like, go watch those Terminator movies."
Research is underway to develop fully autonomous unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) which think for themselves rather than being remote controlled. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has even created an annual DARPA Grand Challenge, in order to spark grass-roots UGV development. Robot buffs from all over the country build autonomous vehicles for the event, in hopes of navigating a 131-mile desert course to win the $2-million prize. Last year, five vehicles completed the course with the prize going to Stanford University's robotic Volkswagen SUV.
The 2001 Defense Authorization Act mandates that one third of all ground vehicles should be unmanned by 2015, and a whole slew of researchers are designing a wide array of UGVs under the Department of Defense's Future Combat Systems (FCS) program. From unmanned convoys and scouts, to a five-ton Armed Robotic Vehicle--equipped with a machine gun, beyond line-of-sight missiles, and automatic cannon--the FCS bots are designed to increase the survivability of U.S. troops. A machine is always cheaper to replace than a human being, and it's hard to complain about the planned Robotic Extraction Vehicles, which will serve as automatic armored ambulances used to collect wounded soldiers.
Armed Ground Robots
The fully autonomous vehicles under development can not, as of yet, fire weapons on their own--they are all remotely operated. This small bit of reassurance is what the Department of Defense hopes will settle people's nerves who can't help but recall the malfunctioning Hal super-computer from Kubrick's Space Odyssey. But that's not to say some of the robots used by the U.S. military won't be lean, mean killing machines. Currently a semi-autonomous robot called Talon--a 100 lb treaded robot with a mechanical arm--is being retrofitted with lethal weapons and undergoing safety certification by the U.S. Army. According to Foster-Miller, the company who developed the Talon, there are 400 basic units in Iraq and Afghanistan used to safely disarm explosives. The armed variant, called SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Remote Direct-Action System) can be equipped with an M-249 machine gun, rockets, 40 mm grenade launchers, an M-240 machine gun, or an M-16 rifle. When cleared for operations, SWORDS will allow soldiers to engage in combat from a distance--like an eerie first-person shooter video game.
Brian Doherty, program manager for the Talon robot, isn't concerned about the ethical implications of such a machine. "We are saving the lives of our soldiers; the robot doesn't do any killing by itself," states Doherty. He also thinks armed ground robots like SWORDS will cut down on the number of civilian causalities. "When you are not being shot at directly, you have a little more time to check out [the target] and make a decision," he says.
On this point Jon Pike agrees, "As it is right now, we do a lot of killing with bombs which are lethal over a large area. With these robots we can do much more of our killing with bullets that can be precisely aimed at combatants and can spare non combatants." But Pike is skeptical the human will remain in the loop for very long, estimating the military will deem it unnecessary by the middle of the next decade. "You'll basically tell [the robot] it is authorized to go into a building and kill any male over five and a half feet tall--or whatever the rules of engagement are."
From a military strategy viewpoint, the benefits of these machines are obvious. You don't have to write condolence letters if one is destroyed, or supply veteran's benefits if one is wounded. They are infinitely brave and are never insubordinate. Most importantly, they will kill without mercy and without compunction. However, there may also be humanitarian applications to consider. Pike feels if all we are risking is robots, there will be a stronger disposition to suppress genocides, such as the current conflict in Darfur. Unfortunately, on the other end of the spectrum, this technology could make it more appealing to use force as an ends to a means.
"It's gotten awfully easy for us to commit troops--we've been at war almost continually for 16 years now--and this is going to make it a lot easier," says Pike. "When you can go into battle almost certain to suffer no causalities... Well, when you have a hammer all your problems start to look like nails." Pike is concerned that our robotic arsenal will increase with such rapidity; it will soon become too late for anyone to consider the consequences. And with hyped-up articles in Popular Science and news reports in Forbes filled with slick images of killer robots even a peace activist could admire, it's obvious the mainstream media isn't going to be trumpeting the alarm.
Thanks to advances in technology, modern warfare has become increasingly abstract to those involved. The neo-cons in the Whitehouse commit the U.S. to conflicts without having ever served in active duty themselves, while ignoring the advice of those who have. American citizens condone their decisions without ever seeing the carnage wrought by a military stronger than any other on the planet. And soon, thanks to the application of robotics on the battlefield, even the grunts on the ground will be taking out targets without ever having to look them square in the eye. While America marches toward this brave new world of letting machines do its dirty-work, it ironically seeks to label the tactics of its enemies--the suicide bomb--as cowardly because the killing occurs at close quarters. The mechanized wars of the future, by further reducing lives to distant targets, will remove what little humanity remains in the actions of the U.S. military.
Parts II and III will be published here in September and October 2009.