The Tao of Toasters
First of all, props to Starbuck for telling the first humanity-questioning anecdote of 2010; please join me in referring to him from now on as “El Ninja de Sangre.” (Also, I would really like to hear you do an approximation of a Tennessee drawl, buddy. Just sayin’.)
I still haven’t decided what to title this blog–or if I should even title it at all, which is a suggestion I got a few times–but if I do title it, I’m waffling between “Hallow Every Cause” or “Permissible Arms.” The first seems kind of thinky and a bit abstruse, not unlike me, but the second seems, well, more like the intersection of ethics and military-state matters, and thus somewhat more apt. Thoughts?
I am going to go listen to Sebastien Junger speak at Powell’s this Friday. I was going to hold off on buying the book, because usually hardbacks are out of my book budget. But I do want the book, and he’s going to be speaking, so I was convinced. He’s blogging this week for Powells.com, and I’m wondering if this will contribute to what he’ll say on Friday.
It’s funny to find that the professionals have been working on something along the line of one’s own thoughts, though not particularly surprising–it’s what they’re paid to do, after all. Slate has a series of articles about drones, robots, and the furthering of military technology.
- P.W. Singer asks, Is it dangerous to let drones fight our wars for us?, which is a pretty broad debate-resolution-style question. The challenge in much of this is not that robotics remove humans from the decision-making but that they move that human role geographically and chronologically. Decisions now made hundreds of feet away in the case of Bum Bot or thousands of miles away in the case of Predators, or even years ago in the case of the designers of such systems, may have great relevance to a machine’s actions (or inactions). An automated anti-aircraft cannon in South Africa, for example, had a “software glitch” and accidentally killed nine soldiers in a training exercise. How to investigate and adjudicate this real-world version of the famous scene from Robocop is not simple.
- Fred Kaplan argues Wonder Weapons Don’t Win Wars. What has happened, in fact, is not so much a revolution in warfare as a revolution in the U.S. Air Force. Far from fulfilling the dream of wars waged far above the crude skirmish of terrestrial battle, the age of the drones has brought back the days when the chief mission of the Air Force was to support troops on the ground. Nor are these weapons in any sense “autonomous robots,” as Allenby puts it. In fact, the Air Force has gone back to calling them “remotely piloted vehicles” because they’ve discovered that these systems require far more personnel than they’d anticipated.
- Brad Allenby cries The Cyborg Insects Are Coming! . This article comes off as rather broadly hyperbolic, but should be read in the context of Kaplan and Singer. The military is tasked with projecting American power around the globe—that, after all, is what the military of a dominant world power does. But Americans are increasingly allergic to casualties, meaning that this projection of power must cost very few, if any, American lives. It’s difficult to argue against development and deployment of technologies that are saving American lives. And this American military is looking at very ugly demographics. The boomers are set to retire. The military will find itself competing with private firms hungry for talent and able to pay a lot more than enlisted salaries. The benefits that private firms can offer, such as not getting blown apart by an IED, make it difficult to compete. This puts the military under the same kind of serious pressure for efficiency—mission accomplishment per unit soldier—that has long characterized the private sector. And the only real long-term solution is the same in the military as in private business: rapid substitution of capital for labor. Robots replace wet-ware soldiers. Cyborg insects replace infantry squads.
All this is in the context of an event co-sponsored between Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University: Warring Futures: A Future Tense Event; How Biotech and Robotics are Transforming Today’s Military — and How That Will Change the Rest of Us. They’ll be streaming it online on Monday for those of us who can’t don a shiny dress code-approved outfit and kick it at the Army and Navy Club. I intend to watch and blog the event, and maybe I’ll come out of it with a little more certainty about, you know, drones and terminators and such.