Is it dangerous to let drones fight our wars for us?

Military analysis.
May 19 2010 11:45 AM

We, Robot

Is it dangerous to let drones fight our wars for us?

(Continued from Page 2)

Will America go the way of Commodore computers?

Robotics is a growing industry, with billions of dollars in sales already and exponential growth curves expected in the future. And with its growing role in war, it's also crucial to national security. Yet unlike Korea, or even Thailand, the United States does not have a national robotics strategy. How will America compete with the 43 other countries building, buying, and using military robotics, including allies such as the United Kingdom and Germany, as well as rivals such as Russia, China, and Iran? Can we stay ahead, or will we fall behind like so many other historic first-movers in technological revolutions?


The health of the American manufacturing economy and the state of science and mathematics education in our schools give another cause for worry. The United States graduates fewer students with a degree in IT or engineering than it did in 1986 (but not to worry, we have had a more-than-500-percent rise in "parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies").

What does the "open source" revolution hold for us?

Robots are not like aircraft carriers or nuclear bombs; much of the technology is off-the-shelf and even do-it-yourself. Hitler's Luftwaffe may not have been able to fly across the Atlantic during World War II, but a 77-year-old blind man has already done so with his own homemade drone. This proliferating technology will thus inevitably pass into the wrong hands, allowing small groups and even individuals to wield great power. Indeed, Hezbollah flew four such weapons in its war with Israel, while al-Qaida reportedly explored using drones to attack a G-8 summit.

As the 9-11 Commission warned, the 2001 tragedy was caused in part by a "failure of imagination." We may well have to wrestle with something similar in the realm of robotics. We need to develop a military and homeland-security strategy that considers not only how we will best use such sophisticated technology but also how others will use it against us. That means widening the threat scenarios our agencies plan and train for. It also means new legal regimes to determine who should have access to such dangerous technologies—lest our best new weapon come back to bite us.

It is easy to discount all this as mere science fiction. Indeed, the idea of wrestling with laws for robots seems more apt for a science-fiction convention like Comicon than a Slate-sponsored conference in Washington, D.C. But remember past science-fiction fantasies: Jules Verne's submarine, A.A. Milne's "military aeroplane," or H.G. Wells' "land ironclads" (what Winston Churchill renamed the "tank") and "atomic bombs." What was very recently imaginary becomes all too real, all too quickly.

And thus, it is crucial for serious people to engage upon the serious issues that are playing out before us. And it is not like the stock market: With real-world robots, we can't just cancel the trades and act like nothing happened.

The article is being published in conjunction with "Warring Futures: How Biotech and Robotics Are Transforming Today's Military—and How That Will Change the Rest of Us," a May 24 conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. You can sign up to attend the event here. Read an article by Fred Kaplan about how the nature of war limits the use of technology and by Brad Allenby about why it's futile to resist  new military technology.

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Peter W. Singer is director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution.



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