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« Wired UK | Main | Wired for ... Nuclear War? »

Studying War on an Infinite Battlefield

In many ways, Peter Singer's Wired for War marks the coming of age for robotics in warfare. The breadth and depth of this work provides an outstanding, and entertaining, exposition of how robots both entered into, as well as changed warfare. The sheer existence of this volume; however, highlights an important shift in our fundamental understand of what constitutes war. Humans are no longer inhibited from creating conflict by our own biological restrictions, and as such, the boundaries of future battlefields is limited only by our imaginations.

Singer's book illustrates this better than any previous work on the subject, and in providing a balanced account of both the costs and benefits of creating war with robots, the work (as a good work does) generates many more questions than answers. Singer himself has presented several interesting questions in his opening remarks, and perhaps later in the discussion we will dive into these. After reading Wired for War, however, a different set of questions kept coming up in my head, all of which centered on the same general theme: how will robotics in conflict change the way wars are quantified, analyzed—and ultimately, defined?

The idea that technology changes our concept of war is something that cycles into popular discourse anytime new technologies are applied to conflict, but the incorporation of robots has a singularly unique affect in that it removes the inherent human consequence of war. The loss of human life, though crude, is the de facto metric for measuring conflicts; their escalation, proportionality, severity, and so on. As the use of robots continues to increase, this metric becomes less applicable, particularly in a future where the use of robotics is no longer a luxury for those with the preponderance of power.

For scholars studying conflict, like those in this symposium, this change will require a complete rethinking our analytical models and data sets, as well as the theoretical foundations upon which we derive these models. Soon we will have to understand the difference between traditional acts of war and incidents of drone-on-drone violence, or the destruction of an autonomous medical robot performing its duties. In my view, a great deal of future scholarship will be dedicated to reconciling our old concepts of war with the realities of the modern battlefield.

While these challenges are great, the use of robots in war has the potential to provide the researcher with a level of granularity on the dynamics of conflicts never before possible. Robots keep excellent records, and as a result the massive amount of data downloaded from these machines may be exploited to better understand how conflicts escalate, and more importantly, de-escalate. Also, though hard to imagine now, as the technology driving autonomous robots matures, this data will allow research to investigate how synthetic social dynamics develop, and what their consequences are for robotic decision making.

Wired for War introduces its readers to a fascinating, yet potentially frightening new world. As technology continues to press forward researchers must follow its path, illuminating the reverberations of these changes along the way. As we reach a time when robots are ubiquitous in conflicts, scholars will need to be equipped with the tools needed to distill their effect, and now is the time when these new tools and concepts must be developed.

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Reader Comments (5)

But as you point out, popular data sets, such as the COW MID use, and continue to use, number of battle deaths proxy conflict escalation. How, then, can this be resolved as humans become a smaller part of the conflicts themselves? It may be that your metrics, degradation of C2, but this requires us to incorporate all of the new potential cyber warfare issues that directly affect these measures.

Mar 30, 2009 at 22:52 | Unregistered CommenterDrew Conway

The notion that measuring success (or failure) in war is approximated by the number of deaths due to some kind of hostile action is a fallacy, has been one for a very long time, and is not changed by the introduction of robotics. 2500 years ago (more or less) Sun Tzu noted that "the acme of skill is to win without fighting." In recent times, the "Correlates of War" project used 1000 battle deaths to operationally define war for the authors' purposes. The use of "body counts" to measure the outcome of conflict is, at best, an aberration and, at worst, an attempt to show success (or progress) where there are no indicators of success or progress.

What soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines tend to use as indicators of success are the destruction or degradation of command, control, and communication facilities, infrastructure, and fielded forces. How might one measure this with the introduction of robotics? We might ask if our reconnaissance and combat drones still have command of the skies (can generally fly freely) or are being destroyed in ever increasing numbers. In an environment where the other side also has robots, the measurement of our success is found in whether we can destroy or degrade his robots without suffering similar destruction or degradation of our own.

In other words, I don't see so much a change of kind as changes of degree. The question that always arises in such cases is when changes of degree become changes of kind.

Mar 31, 2009 at 1:15 | Registered CommenterJohn T. Fishel

My thought is that we always should have been using them, as, indeed, effective commanders have.

Mar 31, 2009 at 1:17 | Registered CommenterJohn T. Fishel

An additional thought, clearly there is data available to commanders on the ground that will never be available to researchers out of the military. The measurements that you mention indeed fall into this category. Given that this will remain the reality going forward, the scholarly community will still need to reconcile their methodologies with modern battlefield tactics.

Mar 31, 2009 at 1:33 | Registered CommenterDrew Conway

I think it important to study the ramifications of technology and robotics; iIhave not had the benefit of reading wired for war yet, never the less, how will this research take into account the "Power of Personality in War"? How will it take into account the "WIll" of a people? The resultant rage from collateral damage that ultimately transforms those that would have been neutral or remained on the fence?
Although the COW data set considers actual casualities, what of the measure of OTHER measures of destruction?
the conflict over the last 7 years, since at least 9/11 has been one of increasing "DIY" or "Do it Yourself" innovations by the insurgents. It will be interesting to see how these radical, increasingly educated and increasingly disinfranchised minds innovate robotics in asymmetrical war.
This happens to be our problem now in Afghanistan; an over reliance on everything else except the complexities of the social dynamics. A LACK of deep understanding of precision in language and understanding of complex culture.
I encourage the research, but I also encourage MORE education and training in skill sets outside of the traditional military sphere; which is also something that plagues our lack of success, the narrowness of the thinking from those that wield this blunt instrument called the military. My god, we have yet to change a basic skill such as how commanders approach the military planning process and intelligence analysis to get integrated operational design across multiple lines of effort/operations at the tactical level, do we really really think robotic technology will make this any better?

Dr. Terry Tucker
COIN Trainer/Mentor Afghanistan

Apr 1, 2009 at 11:37 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Terry Tucker

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