Saturday, March 12, 2011

Books Yay!: Wired for War, by P.W. Singer

NB: This review was originally drafted for a course I am taking at Boston University called "Ethics and Force" with Prof. Neta Crawford. 

P.W. Singer has created a remarkable book about the future of wartime technology and technological warfare. In the process, he has also provided an overview of modern robotics and an accompanying cautionary tale for us all. As we rush towards an electronic future, we must take care to consider the ramifications of ceding control to robots. We must do our best to consider the many ways that increased reliance on robots may affect our lives. Singer’s book, with its heady blend of statistics, personal interviews, and technical research, does not leave the discussion of robots at utility, but tackles the ethical concerns that surround robot use and how it changes human behavior as well. Though his ethical discussion is somewhat limited to the rules that must govern robots in order to maintain an ethical standard that war theorists have hovered around for the better part of the modern era, this book provides a solid foundation from which we can explore these concerns ourselves. After all, centuries of war theory have unfolded without an authoritative answer to the questions of ethics in combat; indeed, to answer these questions may in some ways be the end of war all together. P.W. Singer may not have all the answers, but he has a lot of them, and Wired for War clearly shows the need for active consideration of those that remain.

Singer begins with an examination of technological development and its deployment in the war theatre. In many ways, robotics have taken over the “accidental benefits” role once dominated by NASA, where the demands of space travel and existence resulted in startlingly useful objects and technologies for earthbound life. Singer points out that defense contractor iRobot is also the creator of the Roomba and its helpful cousins. In this way, he shows us that robotics are edging into all of our lives and not just into war, drawing in the reader and demonstrating that the need to consider the ethics of robots is not limited to military leaders. There are clear benefits to allowing robots to do the work of soldiers – the book opens with a heartwrenching account of an IED explosion that kills a soldier…who turns out to be a robot – but there are also problems of adaptation, best practices, and malfunction that come along with the territory. Generally, though, the brilliant minds of robotics techs are creating machines that dramatically reduce the human casualties of war.

There are a variety of social factors that guide both the development and the application of robotics. Science fiction has made us as a society both better at imagining wild capabilities for robots and worse at taking their impact seriously. To a certain extent, this means we’re willing and able to imagine a friendly facsimile of the Jetson’s Rosie the Robot toodling around our home, but never consider the possibility that she could break, turn against us, or malfunction in a way that causes accidental harm. We also assume that some of the larger conventions of robots in science fiction provide the same safeguards in real life; Singer cites Asimov’s Three Laws, which limit robots’ capacity to harm humans, and immediately follows it up with a bevy of engineers explaining that not only do those laws not get programmed into robots, but that they would be nearly impossible to program. The military programs also guide robotics development through funding, tailoring much of robotics research to military products, and this is in part whence the title came. Singer’s suggestion is that we as humans are in fact “wired for war” and because of this, our forays into robotics (and other technologies) will necessarily turn to military use. Singer provides a concise yet awfully chilling account of how easy it is to adjust one’s description of their non-military research to military terms when government funding is the only way to keep your program funded. He compares those who reject funding from DARPA and other government agencies to those who stood against the atomic bomb. These social forces direct the progress and speed of robotics, and they do so without concerted effort to consider the ethical demands of using these new machines.

Perhaps the most worrying section of the book is when Singer looks at attitudes from military leaders towards robotics. There is a distinct tendency amongst military officials to look at upside and brush off the idea of malfunction, loss of control, or even the idea that robots may not provide a true substitute for a human soldier. Singer references Clausewitz’s “fog of war” and updates it with an example from the Iraq war to show that even with robotics, that fog persists. In his example, the US force was identified with “blue trackers,” so soldiers could see each other in the midst of a sandstorm at dusk, but the enemy – untracked for the obvious reasons – remained at best elusive and at worst invisible. It gets worse than simply not having robotics help as you hoped they would, too. During one of the largest infusions of robots into the Iraq War, the US military immediately and comprehensively ran out of...batteries. They had failed to account for the power requirements necessary to operating all of the robots. There have also been problems of malfunction, breakdown from environmental factors like sand in the war theatre, and extensive problems with control signals, which can be scrambled and interrupted by any number of factors. Moreover, Singer points out that with the enthusiastic embrace of many of these technologies has come a certain assumption that the entire war is being fought with the same weapons, leaving troops less than prepared for the low-tech menace of their opponents. These robots are being integrated with little thought for the worst case scenario. This is all, of course, before one gets to questions raised by scientists about the possibility of hostile Artificial Intelligence or a Singularity that would produce sentient machines which have very little concern for humans.

Once Singer has shown us the potential hazards posed by the rise of robotics, he works to address some of the ethical challenges that surround the machines. In many ways, he is leading from Asimov’s Three Laws, trying to establish a way we should govern our robots in a way that uses them best while protecting our intent and safety. This discussion brings into sharp relief something that has been assumed in our course reading: that judgment is an essential part of wartime ethics. Singer explains the possibility of programming the Geneva Convention and other war rules and standards into robots, but we can see even in his fairly short discussion that this would not solve the problems of ethics as applied to robot actors. Justice is about more than setting rules and following them precisely at all times; this is why we distinguish between the letter and the spirit of laws and often give primacy to the latter rather than the former. Rather than programming robots with legal texts, Singer suggests that the best way to avoid ethical violations with robots is to limit and strictly proscribe their application, putting the onus on the human operators rather than investing the robots with the responsibility of navigating the complex ethics of war.

Singer mentions in passing and in his conclusion that the development of robotics makes it “easier” to go to war. Wired for War would have been stronger had this been explored more completely – which is not to say that this book is in any way a lightweight – particularly since the title and premise are based on the idea that we, as humans, are wired for war. It may be that Singer thought that his examination of the ethics directly surrounding the deployment of robots covered more ground on this front than it actually does. That discussion is important and certainly connected, but it does not go as far in parsing out the development of “traditional war” into this new robotic war and how that changes the ethical constructs that have been built up around the old method of war.

Singer does point out that an essential part of war has been soldiers’ willingness to lay down their lives for whatever cause prompted their participation, and notes that robotics eliminate that sense of honor that permeates the battlefield. Without this, he argues, war ethics have the legs cut out from beneath them. Much of just war theory is either predicated or directed by this honor. When war theory is rooted in honor, it is easily parlayed into concerns for ethical behavior before and after war, and we can apply the inverse to the decay of necessary honor in war. Much as we saw with the example of the troops assuming that everyone would be fighting a technological battle, it becomes easy to simply “send out the robots” and forget the human costs of the war. Singer points out that war is about more than having the biggest stick, that it is about using all of your resources to engage, resolve and move past a conflict. If robotics turn our military policy into a matter of engagement alone, it is easy to see that wars, once started, may never end, but merely roll on into ever more comprehensive struggles. On the one hand, this would be an odd kind of peace, were everyone to attain a commensurate level of technology – robots off on a limited battlefield, waging sterile wars with little to no human casualties. Still, nations would know they were fighting, and would take sides, producing a "peace" in which people would still be at odds and engaged in a fight. It would maintain a basic level of hostility that would look nothing like the peace aimed for by the great just war theorists, and it has the potential to change almost everything we know about politics by returning us to a sort of modernized state of nature.

In sum, Singer’s book is a remarkably comprehensive look at the dramatic change promised by robotics development and its military application. Though there are some areas of ethical concern that could be been more deeply examined, the work still provides a sound foundation from which to develop a new ethical framework for a robotic military. The value of such a book is evident in Singer’s interviews with military leaders, politicians, and scientists who seem to have given the matter little thought in the face of the utility and “cool factor” of these technological advancements. As Singer also mentions some of the more comprehensive ethical questions that relate to humans as well as the robots themselves, one may hold out hope that he will include a more probing examination of these matters in future editions.

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