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?

A Reaper drone. Click image to expand.
An MQ-9 Reaper 

A couple of weeks ago, I was on the phone with a reporter doing an interview about Sen. John Cornyn's, R-Texas, complaints that DHS hadn't yet sent any border-patrol Predator drones to his state. In the midst of the interview, I snuck a peek at my computer to see what was happening with my two most important assets: my fantasy sports team and my investments. While, fortunately, everything was OK for the "Raging Pundits" franchise, the same couldn't be said for Wall Street. Major components of the stock market had fallen by as much as 60 percent in a few minutes, with stocks like Accenture and Boston Beer falling all the way down to just 1 cent before they jumped back to $40 a few minutes later.

Think about this: A politician was angry that the federal government hadn't sent any robots to patrol his state's borders. At the same time, our financial system was spinning off in a way that we humans not only didn't control but didn't even understand, because the artificial intelligence programs the major financial houses have become reliant on acted in unexpected ways. As I sat there trying to piece it all together, it felt like I, Robot (the Isaac Asimov novel, not the crummy Will Smith movie) had come true. The book ends with a world in which robots are no longer seen as remarkable and AI runs an economy that has become too complex for mere human stock traders.

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When the U.S. military went into Iraq in 2003, it had only a handful of robotic planes, commonly called "drones" but more accurately known as "unmanned aerial systems." Today, we have more than 7,000 of these systems in the air, ranging from 48-foot-long Predators to micro-aerial vehicles that a single soldier can carry in a backpack. The invasion force used zero "unmanned ground vehicles," but now we have more than 12,000, such as the lawnmower-size Packbot and Talon, which help find and defuse deadly roadside bombs. The Packbot is made by the same company that makes the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. It is called iRobot.

While these real-world robots often seem straight out of science fiction, they are merely the first generation—the equivalent of the Model T Ford or the Wright brothers' Flyer. Both the Air Force and Army have recently issued roadmaps that plan an ever-greater use of more advanced and autonomous and deadly robots. While it's easy to wave our hands in confusion at such a massive, quick change, much as those hapless traders on Wall Street did last week, we've actually been through something like this before. Many scientists compare our "unmanned" systems of today to "horseless" carriages of a century ago. Automobiles became important not merely because most of us now have garages instead of stables but because they caused huge ripple effects. Horseless carriages didn't just help mechanize industry and warfare; the technology also reshaped our cities through the creation of suburbia, gave massive economic power to Middle East nomads who lived above previously worthless oil deposits, and heated up our planet.

Like automobiles, gunpowder, the printing press, or the atomic bomb, the field of robotics is similarly revolutionary. The capabilities of the technology are enormous, but what really matters are the ripples it will send out into wider society. We can't yet know what the ripple effects of robotics will be, but if we want to do a better job of shaping them, we need to identify exactly what questions we are going to have to answer.

Where is the (unmanned) military headed?

The U.S. military has gone from barely using robotics to using thousands of robots in a bureaucratic blink of an eye. But as one Air Force captain put it to me, the problem is that "It's not 'Let's think this better'; it's only 'Give me more.' "

The Pentagon will need to avoid its usual tendency of buying overpriced, over-engineered, unwieldy systems that have gold-plated processors made in congressional committee chairmen's districts.

We also need to have a vigorous debate about how best to use robots—we need what is known in the military as "doctrine." Having the right doctrine can be the difference between winning and losing wars, between committing America to the 21st-century version of either the Maginot Line or the Blitzkrieg. This is not just a matter of tactics in the field but also of personnel and organizational issues. How can we better support the men and women operating this new technology, who may not be in the physical war zone but are experiencing an entirely new type of combat stress? And how do you ensure their future career prospects so that the prevailing status quo culture inside a service does not stymie change? And we need to rethink the roles of warriors and civilians in this strange, new technologic space. Is it proper that presently 75 percent of the maintenance and weapons loading of systems like the Predator has been outsourced to private contractors, including to controversial firms like Blackwater/Xe?

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