Robo-Stop

I have just read the most disturbing book yet. And for me, that is saying something. The facets of fear that P. W. Singer’s Wired for War manages to cut are sharp and dangerous. That he was able to write the book with a good dose of quirky humor only ameliorated the troubles a minor bit. The subtitle of the book is The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. I was drawn into robotics by the FIRST Robotics competitions in which my daughter’s school competes. Not an engineer or programmer, I merely sit on the sidelines and cheer along those who understand mechanics, hydraulics, and electronics. Quite often I get the sense that since science works so well there is little room left for serious consideration of the humanities. Particularly religion. By the end of Singer’s book, however, my choices in life were reaffirmed. I would rather spend the limited days left to the human race celebrating our humanity. For, it seems, our days may be numbered indeed.

Considering that Wired for War was published three years ago, the technology must surely now be even more advanced than it was when the book went to press. That such technology as Singer describes exists is not in itself too much cause for worry, but the fact that such technology rests in military hands is decidedly disturbing. One of the few resources able to tap into the tremendous budget of the United States with impunity, the military services have been able to commission robots that are even now deployed in our various conflicts. A strong ethical question run through Singer’s account: we are racing ahead with lethal technology and artificial intelligence—and no one is really driving this machine. Shouldn’t someone be?

One of the more sobering aspects of Singer’s account is how humans are increasingly left “out of the loop” when it comes to lethal decisions being made by robots. Their logic is flawless, as is their aim. Their understanding, however, is purely mythical. As I read this gripping account, several issues spiraled out to be considered on their own. I arrived home disheartened and concerned for a future that seems to be inevitably in the hands of those I fear most: those with excess capital. Military robots do not possess empathy or compassion, just physics and trigonometry. And they already exist. When those powerful enough to wage war discuss the rules, their decisions are tellingly called “the doctrine of war.” Doctrine, whether military or religious, is always a sure sign of danger to come. And the robots aren’t coming. They’re already here.

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