Of course, the big story here is not that robots are being used in Iraq or tested by the U.S. Army -- the big news is that they are being equipped with lethal weapons. Up until now, robots have always been limited to support roles, such as carrying equipment, sniffing out bombs, or performing remote detection of nuclear, biological, or chemical contaminants. But now there are Army robots with shotguns. Next up? Robot-controlled Hummers that can't drive straight, but can still shoot. Once they get the bugs out of the software, they'll even be able to limit their shooting to the enemy rather than just randomly firing off shotgun rounds at anything that moves.
To give you some perspective on why I think this is a horrific and yet important milestone in the use of military robots, you have to go back to some of the articles I've already written about this. In previous articles, I've talked about the Pentagon's obvious desire to create an army of robotic killing machines. It might sound like a bit of science fiction at first, but stay with me on this, and I'll tell you why this makes perfect sense, at least from the distorted point of view of the Pentagon. (Which, by the way, somehow managed to make the wreckage of an entire jet liner vanish within minutes after the 9/11 Pentagon attack...)
For one thing, the United States loves to engage in military action around the world. We can debate the effective use of military force in the global theater all day long, but the fact is that the U.S. under the Bush administration has bypassed diplomatic actions and gone directly to the use of deadly force to accomplish what are essentially diplomatic goals. Negotiations are a lot more effective when you have a gun in your hands, apparently. Or, in the near future, a gun in your robotic claws (that way, you can stand back at a safe distance in case the software goes haywire again...)
To get some perspective, recognize this: the history of the United States, like many nations of the world, is highly militaristic. Yet the U.S. is the only country in the world to have dropped nuclear weapons on a civilian population. Yep, a civilian population. Furthermore, the U.S. routinely violates international law by, for example, invading Panama and kidnapping a foreign leader, and bringing him back to the United States to stand trial. Why is that illegal? Well, imagine somebody in Iraq invading the United States, kidnapping President Bush, and taking him back to Iraq to stand trial. That's a violation of international law, and it's precisely the sort of action in which the United States frequently engages.
The only thing that's really holding back the United States from being even more aggressive and militaristic in the world is probably the fact that every time the U.S. declares war on a country and sends soldiers in to do the fighting, soldiers end up being killed and we see a stream of body bags coming back from the front lines. Of course, the Pentagon is doing its best to suppress those images, but they exist nonetheless. What really shocks Americans is the rarely-admitted fact that inside those draped coffins are the bodies of American boys. That's right: guys who used to be living, breathing human beings who had families, friends and college loans to pay off. The public hates finding out that war -- can you believe it? -- actually results in the ending of human life. Go figure...
If you recall the controversy surrounding the publication of photos of flag-draped coffins from Iraq -- the Pentagon was terrifically embarrassed by those photos and even enacted new rules that outlawed the use of cell phones with cameras or other digital photo-taking devices by soldiers. Their reason? They want to cover up and bury the fact that American young men are being killed in action. Let's all imagine that war is just a bunch of virtual targets, shall we? It all sounds so much nicer when we don't mention blood, bodies, shrapnel and human suffering. In fact, Fox News can even make it look cool and fun, like a giant interactive video game!
So how can the Pentagon avoid all these embarrassing images of Americans being killed in action? Easy. If you develop advanced robotic technology to the point where robots can navigate battlefields and use lethal weapons, then you eliminate the primary reason why Americans don't like war in the first place: that their young boys are being brought home in flag-draped coffins. In other words, if you can send machines out to do the killing for you, all of a sudden the war becomes more acceptable to the American people. And robots don't carry cell phone cameras, either.
Now, George Bush has proven that selling a war to the American public is remarkably easy. The reasons given for justifying the war don't even have to make sense. In this case, the war was justified with all sorts of creative distortions about weapons of mass destruction. And yet, even after a thorough investigation revealed that there were no weapons of mass destruction, both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney insisted they would have invaded anyway, even had they known there were no weapons of mass destruction. In other words, the justification for the war didn't really matter at all. They might as well have said, "We're going to invade Iraq because they have too much sand." And 50% of the American people would have believed that, pitching in to help redistribute the sand to the other sand-poor nations of the world, most notably Canada, which has almost no sand whatsoever but still somehow manages to remain calm.
In the future, if we have robots handling the bloody reality of warfare, then wars become even easier to justify, because the nation can say: "Oh well, our sons and daughters aren't dying on the battlefield -- it's just a bunch of 'bots. And besides, if we don't invade with robots, the terrorists will get us. And those guys are KILLING MACHINES!" So there's little doubt that the Pentagon is working hard to develop a system of robotic soldiers -- you might call them Terminators -- to take over the role of on the ground fighting and, in effect, avoid the coffin-draping / body bag issue. Nobody gets freaked out over a pile of robot rubble.
Now, don't take my sarcastic attitude about all this as meaning I'm not sensitive to the core issues of war and national defense. In fact, I'm all for defending the U.S. borders from countries everywhere. And the best way to do that is to wipe them out first. I mean, why stop at Iraq? Isn't every country in the world a threat to our national security? Personally, I think we should invade the entire world, and bring all people under our rule, and create a new order in the universe... wait, that's Darth Vader talking again. Sorry. I've been watching Star Wars way too much.
Even as the Pentagon wants to use robots as war machines, it's thankfully nowhere near making it a reality. Consider the robotic navigation road race sponsored by the Pentagon and DARPA, held in 2004. The road race revealed that robotic vehicles are nowhere near being capable of navigating even basic terrain (not a single vehicle finished the race, but one Hummer with a mounted shotgun did manage to nail three desert rabbits before it ran out of ammo), but there's clearly the motivation and willingness on the part of the U.S. military to fund prize money and encourage the private development of robots that can then be retrofitted for military use.
Not surprisingly, independent inventors are drooling at the idea of being the first person in history to build a robotic machine that actually kills another human being. I mean, who wouldn't want to go down in history as that inventor? What an incredible milestone in the history of technology.
One of the robotic vehicles used in the race was a Hummer outfitted with vision recognition systems and onboard computers. If they ever get the Hummer to successfully navigate a battlefield, it would be easy to attach a 50-caliber machine gun and program the system to fire on enemy combatants. At that point, you basically have a 2-ton robotic vehicle cruising around some city in Iraq, firing on anything that moves with a 50-caliber weapon, and presumably controlled by U.S. soldiers who were trained on the Xbox gaming platform. This is the vision of the U.S. military: 19 year old video game junkies winning wars around the world by beating each others' top scores for "most kills." Any of this remind you of the book, "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card?
Now, of course, vehicles can't go everywhere in a city, and thus they need robots like the Pacbot, which has tracks. But the ultimate military robot, of course, is one that is humanoid -- think Terminator, but with an American flag stamped on its chest. A humanoid robot can go anywhere that a human being could go. With the right technology, it could climb a flight of stairs, squeeze through a crevice or leap over walls. It could basically handle terrain that vehicles or tracked robots could not possibly navigate today. This way, America can invade nations beyond those built on the plains, and we can move up to invading mountainous nations as well.
There's little doubt where all of this is heading. Granted, we are many years away. But in the decades ahead, you can bet that the U.S. military is going to be looking at building and deploying an army of humanoid robotics armed with lethal weapons that go out into the world and do all of the unjustified killing for us, instead of using young men and women that have to be recruited from the general population. The one thing these robots WON'T have is video cameras with broadcast capability, because god knows the U.S. population won't be shown images of the killing actually taking place. And robots can easily have their RAM erased, as NASA has readily proven with the Mars rovers.
The whole question of armed robots brings up all sorts of ethical questions about warfare, diplomacy, the use of technology, who's in charge, failsafe mechanisms, and so on. I'm certain the Pentagon is pouring over the more obvious ethical implications right this minute. Stuff like: "If a U.S. military robot shoots and kills a young civilian child in Iraq, can we still count it as a kill?" Or, "If U.S. civilians become a pain in the ass by holding public protests about the use of military robots, can we unleash the robots on them too? Do these also count as kills?"
Let me mention my number one concern in all of this: that a Hitler-like madman would someday gain control of an army of technologically advanced robots armed with weapons and decide to use them for some personal or political gain by invading yet another country for an unjustified reason. But, thankfully, the American voters never elect power-hungry madmen to the nation's highest office, so that will never happen. Good thing our public education system keeps our citizens smart, huh?
Essentially, advances in robotic technology will make warfare easier. It will lower the threshold of resistance to engaging in warfare, and that makes for a dangerous recipe when the nation with the most firepower in the world doesn't yet have the maturity to know how to properly threaten the use of force without actually unleashing it.