Robot Army: Rise of the Military Machines

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As the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan continues to rise, robots are looking like an increasingly attractive alternative to human soldiers. Sending robots into battle is politically easy, because it ostensibly avoids some of the human cost of war. There is, however, a hidden, paradoxical cost of waging war with robots, P. W. Singer writes in the Wilson Quarterly: “By appearing to lower the human costs of war, they may seduce us into more ­wars.” 

Technological advancements now allow everyone to watch combat footage from anywhere, and sometimes to be a part of it. Soldiers may be able to drive to work, launch some missiles from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and then drive home in time for dinner. Singer, the author of the bookWired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century,connects that to the popularization of “war porn” videos, some of which show UAVs launching missiles at people. The footage allows viewers to “watch more but experience less,” according to Singer, which “widens the gap between our perceptions and war’s realities.”

Even supporters of the robotic soldiers concede that the technology can lead to overconfidence. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb is quoted by Singer saying, “Leaders without experience tend to forget about the other side, that it can adapt. They tend to think of the other side as static and fall into a technology trap.”

Excessive optimism is already a psychological bias that leads countries into war, Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon wrote for Foreign Policy in 2007. One doesn’t need to look beyond the predictions of a “cakewalk” in Iraq to know the problems of overconfidence in the lead up to a conflict. The distance allowed by military robots could exacerbate this psychological bias.

The hidden costs of these robotic warriors doesn’t mean the military should abandon technological advances, according to Singer. In an excerpt from the New Atlantis, Singer writes, “High technology is not a silver bullet solution to insurgencies, but that doesn’t mean that technology doesn’t matter in these fights.”

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