Monday, June 15, 2009

Wired for War

"Wired for War", by P.W. Singer, is a far broader book that the title indicates (although the subtitle -- The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century does give some indication.) Rather than limit his inquiry into the the current state of the robotics world, Singer covers the entire gamut of how wars will be fought in the next century.

But he does spend some (first) exploring the current state of the world. He identifies two current robots: PackBot, built by iRobot; and Talon and its "pissed-off big brother" SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System) built by Foster-Miller.

Singer considers himself a child of pop culture, and references to film, books, and even video games are littered throughout the text. Some of the references are direct, as when he wonders whether Star War's C-3PO will be the future shape of robots; others are more obscure. But Singer is at his best when he can merge the influence of science fiction -- from Asimov to the original Star Trek; from James Cameron (director of Terminator) to J.K. Rowling (the 'invisability cloak' described in Harry Potter is inspiring scientists today -- to show how culture influences scientists and their expectations of and for robotics.

Singer also wonders and writes about the role that robots will play in the warrior culture. Separation of the warrior from his opponent has long been a theme of technologic advance (after all, even Japanese samurai eventually acknowledged that their swords were no match for a peasant with a gun). But Singer notes that the very fact of "going to war" -- heading off to a distant place where the laws of normal society are suspended -- no longer applies when a Predator drone can be flown over Afghanistan by an operator who can finish his mission and be home in time for dinner.

The book also raises the topic related to robotics: artificial intelligence. As systems become more and more sophisticated, human oversight becomes an temporal impediment to resolving a conflict successfully. In other words, if machines are waiting for human approval of a pre-emptive attack, the opportunity will be lost, and the machine (and perhaps one or more humans) will suffer as the result. But the alternative: humans ceding control to machines without "human fail-safe" is a topic that, as Singer records, is not one very many scientists working in the field wish to discuss.

Singer does a admirable job of identifying issues that the new technology will raise. While he doesn't try to predict outcomes, he also points to a future that will continue to challenge us. The book is well-worth reading for those who are looking to quickly grasp a state of the robotics/AI world, as it applies to war-making. And in a post-9/11 environment, defense budgets and political resistance to casualties means that more, not less, resources will be available for placing machines "in harm's way."

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