Wednesday, November 17, 2010

PW Singer's Wired for War

Considering how long we've been in the Industrial Revolution and just how long the concepts of robots have existed, it almost is an amazing thing we haven't taken things farther than we have. How many people out there think robots are cool? And yet the ones we make are still relatively simple when you stop to think about it. With the computer and information revolutions we are seeing now however, robotics at last appears ready to make leaps and bounds by taking advantage of recent developments in automation and computerized intelligence. In chosing this as a subject, PW Singer's newest book, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Armed Conflict in the 21st Century gives us a broad look at where the future might be taking us. It's a long and meaty discussion on not only how machines themselves are changing now, but also how they might be changing us. While mainly a discourse on machinery, its other major topic is war, and like many technologies developed in the past, this one also seems to be receiving a major push from military interest on how it can help win future struggles.

Effects of new technologies on war

The book starts out with an explanation of where we currently are with regards to robots and intelligent machines. Several of the most common and advanced ones are introduced and described. There are small and domestic ones like the Roomba which saves you time by automatically scanning the room to determine if the floor is dirty enough to warrant a cleaning, and then vacuums it for you. There are others that are more like advanced remote control toys but have been specialized to do difficult or dangerous jobs e.g. bomb diffusal robots like the Packbot, which is currently being used in Iraq (this robot made an appearance at the beginning of the recent movie "The Hurt Locker"). Then there are ones that more resemble automated or unmanned vehicles than anything else (self driving cars, planes and tanks). Still others can be more malevolent and aggressive. These machines are able to analyse a potential threat and its direction, and are often armed, carrying bombs and guns. One frightening aspect is that sometimes they are also given enough autonomy to fire at will, though generally this final command must be confirmed first by a human making the decision.

That a need is created in warfare for a new type of device or resource has often spurred invention to fill such needs. Ancient examples include catapults and seige engines which came about with the advent of castles. More recent ones are rubber boots for walking through mud, and canned food that would keep longer without spoiling for providing armies with nutrition on long campaigns and marches. Wired for War includes a description of some of these advancements while going on to detail how the current conflicts against terrorism and insurgency in places like Iraq and Afganistan have led to new needs that robots have begun to fill. Specifically hidden dangers like bombs and traps, as well as an anxious public back home that wants the military to accomplish its goals with minimal troops and loss of life. It is for this reason that automated or intelligent machines now increasingly do the dangerous jobs such as bomb diffusal and patrolling the neighborhoods and skies in the foreign countries we've come to occupy.

It's fascinating some of the information presented early in the book on the difference between human and robotic combatants. We learn that not only is using a robot safer, but in many cases more precise or deadly. Humans holding guns, for example, are prone to many negative factors such as tension, shock, and emotion affecting heartbeat and consequently the stability of grip and aim. A robot with a mounted gun, by contrast, doesn't have to deal with shakiness of aim, or even the stress and fear caused by having someone shoot at you, its aim is much more steady. On the example of unmanned aircraft, we learn that they are not only cheaper than those requiring pilots (think of all the costs cut by not building a cockpit with levers, buttons and other user interface and instead having it all internalized) but also are capable of maneuvers impossible to humans. This last point is a result of increased aerodynamics by removing the cockpit and also the machine not being subject to the human limitations of a pilot who might lose consciousness doing certain extreme types of rolls and drops.

In putting together a history of war and its significance, a few other important concepts are introduced and disected. A "Revolution in Military Affairs" (or RMA) is an advent that occasionally comes along which completely changes warfare and causes a lot of the older tactics to become obsolete. Guns and cannons destroying the relevency and practicality of old armor and large castle walls are example of this. A more recent one is the development and proper deployment of tanks ending the trench warfare of World War I.

Another major concept given the rundown in this book is Military Doctrine. This is probably best described as the protocal of how a military acts and reacts to given situations, a combination of strategy and guidelines of conduct. Major literary works of the past (both fiction and non-fiction) are mentioned as having had an immense ammount influence on military doctrine and one can't help but wonder if someday this book (and possibly Singer's others as well) will be included on such a list of required reading for soldiers and military leaders with aspirations. The book makes clear that RMA's aren't everything, and that without an according change in doctrine, may not necessarily mean success. To use the book's example, France and England both had tanks before Germany, but it was the Germans who developed the doctrine to use it most effectively with their "blitzkreig" style of warfare, and thus they were the ones most successful during WWII (at least until the US entered the war).

Among the interesting ways war has changed with technologic advancement are that more space was continually required per soldier on the field. Knights in armor fought hand to hand and thus the battles were close combat in smaller areas. The development of longbows enlarged the space of the battlefield and guns and canon enlargend it even further. Recent developments have now moved the fighting into cities, yet another major change which throws out the window much of what we once knew. A more recentl observation the book makes is that while modern communication devices are making the exchange of information more efficient for militaries, they're creating new problems at the same time. This occurs by creating a flood of too much information and giving people far removed by the chain of command the ability to simply "jump in" and take control via computer rather than allowing others closer (and perhaps better able to make important judgements) to the situation to handle things.

Other factors mentioned deal with the effects of increased robot use on opponents. One positive might be that suicidal insurgents who are willing to risk or even give up their lives to take down a US soldier, might not be so willing to do so merely to destroy a robot used by the US military. Also, while the safety of the soldiers might be increasing through robotics, the psychological effect on opponents may or may not be the desired one. While some designers and generals drool over the concept of creating "shock and awe" by using robots in war, the end result might simply be an increased hatred and a perception of cowardice by hiding behind machines. The idea of a foreign power coming to your country to occupy it, and then sending machines to patrol your neighborhoods does sound like something that would incense ordinary people and not just insurgents. On top of that, "shock and awe" might not be the best way to win the hearts and minds of the those you'll need to leave in control when you leave, and in the end, tanks and airplanes were also once viewed as monsterous and frightning but now are taken for granted, which leads one to believe the same might be just as true of robots.

The Effect of Robots on Us

Warfare isn't the only thing that looks to be affected by the increased use of robotics. The book makes it a very emphasized point that this is something which stands to change the everyday lives of people as well.

The concept of "The Singularity" is discussed briefly. Being a hypothetical that will supposedly change things in ways we can't understand (and thus has a lot of skeptic attitudes towards it), however, there isn't much to be done here than to give an overview of the idea and examine the various opinions of experts in this area.

With remote systems now engaging in the fighting another unique occurence is looked at. What of the "fighters" who control these machines from US soil? They wake up and go to work like the rest of us, but then their work consists of controlling a machine thousands of miles away in another country and at times fighting and killing real people with it. At the end of the day they get right back in their cars and do mundane things like go home or head to PTA meetings. Much has been made in the past about advancements removing soldiers further and further from the actual fighting and the potentially negative effects of feeling detached from carnage and the repurcussions of one's actions. But these people are literally beaming death halfway across the world. What kind of psychological effect does this have on people? For that matter, can we qualify them as "combatants", and if so is an enemy within the ethics of war to attack one of these men on their home soil viewing them as a threat? And if one of them commits a war crime using a machine, what then? We've all seen people get furious and throw tantrums over losing at video games, sometimes reacting by crashing their or killing their in-game avatars on purpose. Is the day coming when someone operating from US soil simply flips out and uses a machine to kill civilians in another country?

Ethics are becoming murkier and murkier with the development and spread of this new technology. And on the domestic side of the story another issue mentioned only very briefly is that of using robots for pleasure. Porno, like the military, has strangely enough actually been responsible for many advancements in technology, particularly when it comes to making things more for private use. What's at issue in a nutshell is this: human-looking robots are going to keep becoming more and more life-like, and sooner or later someone's going to make one that looks like a child. Do we allow pleasurebots that look like children to be bought and sold and used? Proponents will likely argue that it's therapeutic and allows them a release by indulging in what isn't permitted by law with real children. Opponents most likely will protest that it encourages an already unhealthy mental state. My own thoughts: if it's made illegal a black market will almost certainly emerge, but if it's made legal expect protesters to surround stores and business and harass those who try to buy or sell one. By making a product which caters to such a despised desire, it might become easier for people to find those they hate.

Cultures react differently to robots too. Because I currently live in Japan, one area that I personally was quite interested in is how the Japanese use and design and feel differently about robots than us in the western world. There isn't any one section that focuses completely on this, the examples instead are usually littered throughout the book. I'll try and keep this brief because I think I'd like to explore this one further in a future "Notes on Japan" entry, but the bottom line here is that the Japanese in general do seem much more comfortable with the idea of robots multiplying and playing a larger role in daily life. Americans, by contrast, have something of a fear of them: that they will steal more jobs on the mild end and that they'll take us over completely on the more extreme side of things.

This of course leads into one question I'm sure everyone has on their mind when the future of robots is considered seriously. Could they take us over? Will they? Is it inevitable? Or is it all just paranoia? Alas, the book does not have an exact answer although it does certainly recognize and address the question. The discussion unfortunately is rather a brief one being that there are simply too many unknowns to say anything for certain. Several important "prerequisites" for a robot apocalypse are brought up which definitely enlighten the topic though. I don't think there's anyway for me to say it better or sum it up any shorter so I'm just going to go ahead and quote them here:

"Essentially, four conditions would have to be met. First, the machines would have to be independent, able to fuel, repair, and reproduce themselves without human help. Second, the machines would have to be more intelligent than humans, but have no positive human qualities (such as empathy or ethics). Third, they would have to have a survival instinct, as well as some sort of interest and will to control their environment. And, fourth, humans would have to have no useful control interface into the machines' decision-making. They would have to have lost any ability to override, intervene, or even shape the machines' decisions and actions."

While things are advancing quickly, it's "a pretty high bar to cross, at least in the short term" he goes on to add, before chronicling several other important things to consider on this topic.

"With so many people spun up about fears of a robot takeover, the idea that no one would remember to build in any fail-safes is a bit of a stretch... Of course eventually a super-intelligent machine would figure out a way around each of these barriers... However, if ever it does happen, humanity will likely not be caught off guard, as in the movies. You don't get machines beyond control until you first go through the step of having machines with little control. So we should have some pretty good warning signs to look out for... But for all the fears of a world where robots rule with an iron fist, we already do live in a would where machines rule humanity in another way... We are dependent on technology that most of us don't even understand. Why would machines ever need to plot a takeover when we can't do anything without them anyway?"

That such an interesting and important question is brought to an inconclusive end might be a little disappointing, but it's one we just will have to accept. It really is too soon to tell on a lot of things but the future is coming faster than we think. Robots and AI are limited and at the moment not up to our level of intelligence. But things are changing.

One example Singer gives is that robots are only better than us at things like chess and math because math is their language. When it comes to other things, however, it's a different story. Ask a robot if what you're holding is an apple or tomato and it might: compare pictures from a database, examine repeatedly from multiple angles, or even do a DNA test whose data would take a long time to analyze, and still in the end the thing wouldn't be able to say for certain and might give you instead a probability of one or the ohter. On the other hand, a human child could tell you in an instant if something were an apple or tomato with little hesitation or doubt. The machines are getting smarter though. The day is coming when a robot intelligent enough to be able to call someone on the phone and use its voice and wits alone to trick them into thinking it's another human, and it's going to upset a lot of people when it does.

The book's final chapters contain an appeal to the readers that more thought and especially discussion on the issues raised take place. The future is always uncertain to some degree but it only really becomes a problem when it takes us unaware.

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