Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Wired for War Comes to Cambridge

PW Singer, author of Wired for War, spoke yesterday at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Picking up on his book, Singer spoke to a full lecture hall that seemed evenly split between undergrad, grad, and faculty. He emphasized the fact that development of military robotics -- whether designed for defensive or offensive capabilities -- was outstripping (by far) legal, ethical, and scientific analysis of the impact that such new devices have on human's capacity to make war. Instead, he spoke of scientists and robotic developers who believed that such "non-scientific" concerns were not their concern, or that the developers would be able to maintain control over the robots (rather than policy-makers.)

Singer also spoke of the speed of this change, and the impact it has been having on both young soldiers (who can fly a drone over Pakistan from North Dakota, for instance, without even having a pilot's license) to senior policy-makers (whose understanding of the rate of deployment of such weapons is, at times, woefully behind the curve.)

There was some discussion of a recent New Yorker article about the Predator and Reaper (a more-heavily armed Predator) programs. The article expressed special concern about the drones operated by the CIA, which author Jane Mayer maintains, does not have the same experience or procedural limits on indiscriminate targetting as does the military. Indeed, the UN (through its Committee on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions) recently demanded that the US make showing that such CIA-operated drones are within the bounds of international law.

Singer was joined on stage by MIT Professor Missy Cummings, a former Navy fighter pilot. Her work is in the field of unmanned flight, and she discussed a few of her ongoing projects(*).

(*) - More to come on this.

Finally, it is clear that in the post-9/11 era, funding for robotics and related projects will be dominated by the Defense Department. From the Navy (like Japan) studying baseball-playing robots to self-driven cars, it clear that military uses (and plain old military research) will drive this field. And as Singer noted, such research funding comes with costs.

A recording of the Forum is expected to posted online shortly at the MIT Technology and Culture site.

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