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Robotics revolutionizes war

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KAI RYSSDAL: The White House said today it has asked the Pentagon to trim its budget request for next year by $60 billion from recent forecasts. That would put the defense budget at $527 billion — not counting Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the fighting in those wars isn’t happening over there. It’s being waged from hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles away, robotically.

P.W. Singer’s new book about technology and national defense is called “Wired for War.” Welcome to the program.

P.W. SINGER: Thanks for having me.

RYSSDAL: Is this development that you write about, is it technology for technology’s sake, or technology as an effective weapon of war?

SINGER: My sense is that we’re experiencing an historic revolution right now, probably on the level of the atomic bomb, or even more. Because it’s not just changing how we fight, but who fights at the most fundamental level where we have people that are at war, but they’re not physically at war. They’re really sitting at home. It’s creating all sorts of psychological disconnects, challenges, you know. . . . There’s a Predator drone pilot who put it this way to me: “You’re going to war for 12 hours, shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants. And then you get in the car and you drive home. And within 20 minutes you’re sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework.”

RYSSDAL: And maybe it’s not too surprising, given one of the anecdotes you start with in this book. And that’s about a weapon of war, one of these robots, made by the same company that makes the Roomba, that little vacuum cleaner thing.

SINGER: Yeah, I joke that iRobot, the company that makes it, is the only business that sells both to the Pentagon and to Linens ‘n Things.

RYSSDAL: The logical extension of all of this, of course, is the fear of the Terminator showing up on the battlefield.

SINGER: Or showing up at your door.

RYSSDAL: Yeah. Well, that’s right. That would be worse, I suppose, huh?

SINGER: And, I don’t think we’re at that kind of revolution, yet. But what is somewhat interesting is that when I went around interviewing all these various scientists and Pentagon folks. . . You know, I call this issue the Lord Voldemort issue. It’s like the Harry Potter series where there’s the issue that shalt not be discussed. And it’s arming autonomous robots. We don’t like to talk about it. But the reality is that, first, our war logic is taking us down that pathway right now. Where, for example, we say, “You know what, you don’t get any personnel savings if you just have one guy controlling one robot. It’s gotta be one guy with 10 robots.” Well, that means you have to make them a little bit autonomous. Or they say, “Well, you know, there’s an enemy. And if the enemy can cut the controller out of the loop, then that’ll end the use of the robot. So, we need to give them that kind of autonomy.

RYSSDAL: This is what the secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, might call — not to put words in his mouth — but it is a force multiplier, right? When you have an Army that is stretched so thin, if you can get robots doing what human soldiers would ordinarily have to do, then that is a net savings.

SINGER: There are hundreds of Americans, if not thousands of Americans that are alive right now because of robots taking over their roles in things like defusing IEDs in Iraq. But there’s the flipside to that equation, which is, Does it make you cavalier about the use of force? In a Democracy, you know, the concern is to keep your public linked with your military in our defense policy. What happens as you move more and more people out of harm’s way? You know, we already don’t have a draft. We don’t buy war bonds. So you may have these already lowering bars to war hit the ground.

RYSSDAL: For good or ill, though, this all sort of was inevitable wasn’t it, from the time we first started building machines?

SINGER: I think it is. And this question of, For good or ill?, really does encapsulate it. We have incredible creativity, and we’ve used it for things, like, to take our species to the stars. And yet, we are also using this creativity to create this new technology that one day may even be a new species. Who knows? But right now it’s certainly fantastic. But the reason that we’re doing it is because of war. And so it raises this question as to whether it’s our machines that are wired for war, or is it us?

RYSSDAL: P.W. Singer is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. His book about robotics and the military is called, “Wired for War.” Thanks for your time.

SINGER: Thank you.

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