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« Whither the Anti-Killer Robot Lobby? | Main | Wired for Espionage »

Opening Remarks

I wanted to thank Michael, Matt, and Matthew, and all the other for putting together this symposium. It is a great honor to have one’s work looked at in this way so soon after coming out.

Wired for War is a book about how something big that is going on today in the overall history of war, and maybe even of humanity itself. The US military went into Iraq with just a handful of robotic drones in the air and zero unmanned systems on the ground, none of them armed. Today, there are over 7,000 drones in the US inventory and another roughly 12,000 on the ground. But these are just the first generation, the Model T Fords and Wright Flyers compared to what is already in the prototype stage. And, yes, the tech industry term of “killer application” doesn’t just describe what iPods did to the music industry, but also applies to the arming of our creations with everything from hellfire missiles to .50 caliber machine guns. 

This is what is happening now. Peering forward, one Air Force lieutenant general forecast that “given the growth trends, it is not unreasonable to postulate future conflicts involving tens of thousands.”

But the numbers matter in another way. That is, it won’t be tens of thousands of today’s robots, but tens of thousands of tomorrow’s robots, with far different capabilities. Remember, one of the laws in action when it comes to technology is Moore’s law, that the computing power that can fit on a chip doubles just under every 2 years or so. This means that in 25 years scientists believe that the technology that powers our machines of war will be, as one put it, “A billion times more powerful than today ”

What this all means is that the kind of things that we used to only talk about at science fiction conventions like ComicCon now has to be talked about seriously by people like yourselves, by people in the research labs, by people in the halls of power, by people in places like the Pentagon.

Wired for War is about how a robotics revolution may well be at hand.

I should be clear here. The robot revolution as I see happening is not the type where you need worry about the governor of California showing up at your door, a la the Terminator or your Roomba vacuum cleaner sucking away your life breath at night (death by dust bunny inhalation!)

Instead, when historians look back at this period, they may conclude that we are today at the start of the greatest revolution that warfare has seen since the introduction of atomic bombs.

It may be even bigger. Our new unmanned systems don’t just affect the ‘how’ of warfighting, but are starting to change the ‘who’ of the fighting at the most fundamental level. That is, every previous revolution in war was about  weapons that could shoot dramatically quicker, like the machine gun,  go dramatically further, like the gunpowder or longbow revolutions, or had a dramatically bigger boom, like the atomic bomb. That is certainly happening with robots, but they are also reshaping the very identity and experience of war. They don’t just affect the how, but also the who of war art the most fundamental level. In other words, Humankind is starting to lose its 5,000 year old monopoly on the fighting of war.

I thought this was a rather big deal. And, even more, it was a rather odd situation that so few people were writing on or talking about this immense change in war and what it would all mean. In many ways, it felt just like the situation I had seen with private military contractors when I first started out in academia; a growing phenomenon, that was in your face, but no one wanted to acknowledge it, because it didn’t fit into the neat little boxes we had drawn for understanding the world.

So I spent the last several years trying to capture just what is going on in this historic revolution, as the robots that had once been only science fiction begin to move into the fighting of our human wars. I interviewed everyone from robotic scientists who build them and the science fiction writers who inspire them to 19 year old drone pilots who fly them and the Iraqi insurgents they are fighting 7,000 miles away about how they view our machines and what it is doing to war. I wanted to understand the decisions on when and where we use these systems and, in turn, how these decisions are viewed by those we are targeting, so I interviewed everyone from 4 star generals and civilian politicians to news editors and reporters from places across the Muslim world. I wanted to know about the understandings we had of the laws of war and these new technologies, so I interviewed leaders at such organizations and the International Committee of the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch.

Wired for War is the result of this journey. My idea is that, much like in a book like Fast Food Nation, the gathering together of these research would not only yield stories that were interesting, informative, funny, cool, and even scary, but also shine a light on the political, legal, social, and ethical issues that ripple outwards.

I should also add a little bit about its deliberate style, which many have commented on (the best one so far being my wife who said this was the first book of mine she actually liked reading!). It is purposely not the typical think tank or academic book. I wanted to flavor it with humorous anecdotes and pop culture as much as with statistics, technology, and history. The reason is not only that I believe this aspect reflects who I am and makes the arguments in the book easier to understand. But, it is also because of the fact that to set out to write on robots several years back is a risky thing in our field. Robots were seen as this thing of “mere science fiction,” as one prominent analysts put it, even though they're not. Not a single foundation wanted anything to do with it and it certainly wasn’t something people on the political side thought was a career advancer. So, if tackling this topic potentially was a career killer, I decided to double down. If I was going to risk it in one way, why not in another way? It's my own insurgency on the boring, staid way people talk about this incredibly important thing, which is war. Most of the books on war and its dynamics--to be blunt--are, oddly enough, boring and few like to read them, including even those of us in the field that puts them out there. And, their inaccessibility is to the detriment of our field and those beyond it. Indeed, it means the public doesn't actually have an understanding of the dynamics of war as they should.

As I have described in the book, I am very much against the idea that technology revolutions are the end of the story, a la the Rumsfeld vision of how the world works. No, what we are experiencing here, what Wired for War tries to capture, is the beginning of the story. So, with that in mind, the organizers asked me to help kick off the symposium by presenting a few questions that might be food for thought. That is, these are issues I see moving forward to which we don’t yet know the complete answers, but are incredibly important to wrestle with.

  • What can we learn from the history of robotics so far? What lessons do they provide us, if any for the future?
  • What does the rise of robotics say about the future of war?
  • Will the robotics trend make wars easier or harder to start? Why? [author’s note: so far in the online polling we did on the Wired for War website,, over 1200 readers voted that robotics makes wars easier to start, and less than 200 voted the opposite]
  • What do you think will be the key legal issues to resolve in the robotics field?
  • Will the robotics trend make war crimes more or less likely? Why or why not?
  • Do you believe in the idea of the Singularity? If so, when will it happen? If not, why not?
  • How do you see the robotics trend affecting soldiers' identity?
  • What academic theories appear to be bolstered by the rise and use of robotics in war? Are there any that are now questioned?
  • Who should be allowed to operate armed robots? Who should not? How should this be enforced?
  • What would a robot's code of ethics look like?
  • What would a roboticist's code of ethics look like?
  • Are human beings "wired for war?"

I greatly look forward to watching the debate around these and other issues take shape and grow. Thank you again for your participation!


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