Building them one laser gun at a time

I just finished P.W. Singer‘s latest book, Wired for War, the other day, and I’ve spent the past couple of days thinking over what I’d just read. Through my work at io9, I’ve also written up a review for the book, but I had some thoughts that I wanted to write down for here as well.

Wired for War is an inherently geeky book, one that looks at how the world is becoming one where science fiction is rapidly becoming reality, a topic that fascinates me. The lyrics of Jonathan Coulton‘s song The Future Soon seem very appropriate, as there are a ton of references to numerous Science fiction works throughout the book:

It’s gonna be the future soon
I’ve never seen it quite so clear
And when my heart is breaking I can close my eyes and it’s already here

In a very interesting way, the recent introduction of robotics is a signal of things to come in the coming years, and Singer really highlights that in this book. While looking at the blurb, a casual browser might thing that this book is just about the robots on the front lines, this book covers so much more than that – it goes into depth to not only the robots that are on the battlefields, but how they are constructed, how the military utilizes them and how the technology is progressing. From there, he looks at what the battlefields themselves will look like, taking into consideration global economics and trends, and what will be happening between now and 2025. At times, I think that he gets a little alarmist, but the picture that is painted is frightening and wholly plausible.

What I found fascinating, even more so than the robots themselves, was the ways that the military has been wholly prepared for a revolution in this way. With the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, there were no robots on the line. Now, there are thousands, ranging from the Wall-E looking PackBot (ironically produced by the same company that makes the Roomba, iRobot)to the familiar MQ-1Predators to numerous others. Part of Singer’s examination looked as the military hierarchy, and how that is essentially at odds with how the current generation of soldiers thinks and works in the digital age. Components of these robots, such as the controls, are modeled after play station controllers, but even more than that, there seems to be a far looser collaboration, rather than a strict chain of command when it comes to soldiers in these units. Singer recounts several instances of where Generals talk directly to privates, and where enlisted men are flying alongside officers and having trouble getting orders and clear chains of information across. Clearly, the military needs to catch up with the electronics trend.

This has gotten me thinking, along with my Master’s studies, where I learned much about the evolution of warfare. Generally speaking, there are three generations of war – Massed infantry, firearms and maneuver warfare. Theorists have been predicting that a fourth generation is emerging, and where some people, such as Col. Thomas Hammes, who wrote the Sling and the Stone, think of urban warfare as the next generation, I believe that the introduction of computers will be the defining factor in this instance. To be sure, urban warfare plays into this, but the impact of computers and the advances in communications and coordination that they allow provide a far bigger impact than the actual battlefield surroundings. Singer looks at the possibility of much of warfare becoming automated, as robots have already proven that they can be more accurate and place less lives at risk. Instead of a soldier dying, an expensive machine is sent back to be rebuilt.

But to what extent is this a good thing? I don’t want to seem like I like the possibility of soldiers getting killed in combat, I don’t, but in a culture that is already heavily against war because of false expectations that technology alone can sanitize war. On one level, yes, but that is a very superficial one, and it doesn’t address some of the bigger issues. Singer notes that at some point in the future, people will go to war because their televisions tell them to, a very disturbing notion. War needs to be brutal, it needs to be painful, and we need to learn from our experiences with it. Just after the First World War, there was a peace summit in Paris in 1919, where the negotiators attempted to make war a thing of the past. Unfortunately they failed, and allowed for the Second World War, but with all of this technology, war becomes easier, and that is something that really shouldn’t be the case.

The book also looks at the future of robotics, one of the more science fictional elements of the book. It is predicted that humanoid robots will join the battlefield in the next ten or so years, alongside flesh-and-blood soldiers, that leaders might have robotic AI aides, and that the very nature of leadership is changing with instant communications. Like anyone who is a fan of science fiction, Singer also looks at the possibility of a robotic revolution, such as what has been seen in the Terminator, Battlestar Galactica and the Matrix, where machines come to know that they can be better than humans and push us aside. While this is taken a bit with a grain of salt, it’s certainly a concern, and even some soldiers note that they’re working on something that might end up causing problems for their grand kids. If robots do rise up, I don’t know that we’d have a chance.

Something that I also found interesting was the perceptions that the military has for the drone pilots and crews. Fighter pilots and others think that the profession is extremely nerdy or geeky, and as a result, turn their noses up at it. The squadron commander of the first predator drone flight group recounted how he was literally kicking and screaming at his assignment, but after a little while, he grew to enjoy it. This brings up some interesting points about the military and perceptions of masculinity, and how that could also be changing, to some degree. Honestly, this book has me thinking that being able to pilot one of those planes would be a very interesting job. It is certainly at the cutting edge of technology and warfighting.

This is an interesting, scary and relevant book that Singer has put together. It is exceptionally organized and researched, with interviews from high ranking officers from around the world, to the enlisted men who operate them, to the people who build and design military robots. And it’s chalk full of science fiction references, even opening with the line: Robots are frakin’ cool.

So say we all.

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