viernes, 6 de febrero de 2009

Robot Wars

A threat to humanity?

Do any of my readers remember the show Battlebots, which aired on Comedy Central from 2000 through 2002? For those who don't, the show was a live action game show in which people designed remote-controlled robots, armed with things like saws and flame throwers, and put them in an arena to fight in various tournaments. Rather transparently, the show was geared towards young, sexually frustrated and geeky men, combining engineering, competition, violence, and sex appeal (for announcers, the show hired former baywatch actresses and playboy models). While the show is no longer on the air, robot fighting tournaments are still held in the U.S. and the U.K. The "sport" of robot fighting was also the subject of a recent episode of the CBS sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory".

Despite the fact that, from 2000 through 2002 I closely resembled the target audience of the "Battle Bots" television show, I was never really a fan and have never seen an entire episode. I only mention Robot Fighting because it's come to my attention that the use of robots for combat has entirely transcended innocent game shows and science fiction novels. In fact, unmanned and armed robots have become a major part of our nation's military arsenal. For more on the use of robots in war, check out Amy Goodman's interview with P.W. Singer, author of "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century" on today's Democracy Now.

According to Singer, The U.S. military now possesses over 5,000 unmanned aerial drones and over 12,000 robots used for ground attacks. Just 6 years ago, the military had just a hand full of drones and zero ground robots. The aerial drones have made the headlines quite a lot recently, as they are frequently used to carry out attacks against suspected terrorist targets in the tribal regions of Pakistan, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. In fact, the first military order carried out by our new commander-in-chief, President Obama, was an aerial drone attack in Pakistan, which killed 22 people and at least 3 children. In total, drone attacks have been responsible for the deaths of 250 people in Pakistan. The drones, as well as ground robots designed to do everything from surveillance, to bomb diffusion, to shooting m-16's, are also widely used in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The use of robots in combat provokes a variety of ethical dilemmas, several of which are posed by Goodman and Singer during the interview. Firstly, by risking fewer American lives, Singer points out that using robots as weapons lowers the political cost of war. Resistance to war is likely to be far lower if future conflicts are fought with machines rather than American men and women, particularly in the U.S. political climate, in which American military deaths are rightly considered tragedies but little attention is paid to either enemy or civilian casualties. There's also the question of unavoidable mechanical errors, which may result in deaths. In such cases, who should be held responsible? The operator/pilot of the robot? The program designer? More broadly, Amy Goodman asked Mr. Singer, "how does international law address robots in war". His response: "we don't have a good answer to that question".

Another serious issue is the psychological impact of piloting robots in combat. According to Singer, many pilots of aerial drones in Iraq are based in Nevada, 7,000 miles away from the combat zone. This puts pilots in a very awkward position, somewhere between life on the front lines and normalcy. Being based in the U.S. allows pilots to drive to work, carry out bombing missions for 12 hours in a far away land, and then drive home, pick up your kid from softball practice, and have dinner with your family. However, it turns out that this arrangement may be even more psychologically damaging than actually being in the war zone: drone pilots suffer from higher levels of post traumatic stress disorder than soldiers in Iraq. Given that Iraq veterans are suffering from an epidemic of PTSD, which has led to an unconscionable rash of suicides, the percentage of drone pilots suffering from psychological disorders must be astronomical. Further, given the culture of the military, the general failure of the armed forces to deal with psychological disorders, and the distance of drone pilots from the actual war zone, drone pilots have little access to needed assistance and would likely feel ashamed to even ask for help.

Goodman and Singer also delved into the questions of who has access to these combat robots and who ought to have access to them. In the United States, not only does the military use unmanned drones, they are also used by the department of homeland security. While the drones were purchased with counterterrorism funds, they've largely been used for other reasons, namely to police the US-Mexico border. I think it's a bit of a stretch to consider economic refugees fleeing the catastrophe of neo-liberalism that is our southern neighbor terrorists. Local law enforcement officials, like the scion of human rights that is the Los Angeles Police Department, have expressed interest in using unmanned drones for criminal surveillance. Private mercenary armies, including the war criminals at Blackwater, have access to these robots as well. Moreover, unlike fighter jets or aircraft carriers, which have to be built in large, sophisticated industrial plants, combat robots are far simpler and cheaper to build. According to Singer, you can purchase a kit to assemble a ground robot for $1000 which, while unarmed, can conduct surveillance from more than a mile away and could easily be weaponized by someone with engineering experience. I can imagine there are all sorts of unsavory individuals, from peeping toms to criminal syndicates to terrorist organizations, who wouldn't mind having such a toy to play with and wouldn't have all that much trouble scrounging up a thousand bucks.

Towards the end of the interview, Singer compares combat robots to the atomic bomb and says that the history of the A-bomb offers a powerful lesson. Atomic weapons were built and used (only by the US of A of course) before there was any public discussion of their ethical implications. In contrast, the makers of these robots publicly advertise them and the army has not been shy about their use. This increased transparency gives us an opportunity to have an open, public discussion about the ethical and moral implications of the use of robots as weapons. I hope Singer's presence on Democracy Now today helps spark that discussion. Competitions like Battle Bots are fun (for geeks of course) because, in the end, the only thing that gets hurt is a soulless piece of metal, and perhaps the pride of the losing side. Taken out of the arena, combat robots are not fun, they are quite terrifying. Weaponized robots are a threat to human life and human rights. Humanity would likely be far better off banning their production and use than encouraging or even tolerating them.

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