Robotic Warriors

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An interesting John Markoff piece in the NYT about the growing use of automatic or remote-controlled systems in the military:

Yet the idea that robots on wheels or legs, with sensors and guns, might someday replace or supplement human soldiers is still a source of extreme controversy. Because robots can stage attacks with little immediate risk to the people who operate them, opponents say that robot warriors lower the barriers to warfare, potentially making nations more trigger-happy and leading to a new technological arms race.

“Wars will be started very easily and with minimal costs” as automation increases, predicted Wendell Wallach, a scholar at the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics and chairman of its technology and ethics study group.

These issues are worth thinking about, but as I wrote reviewing Peter Singer’s excellent book on military robots, the biggest worry should probably be elsewhere:

Singer’s calm exposition, however, does not conceal the alarming substance of his book. Perhaps the most disturbing truth is that a book about military applications of robotics is largely coextensive with a book about robotics in the United States. Singer alludes to the fact that the world leader in robotics is Japan, where technological prowess is used to do productive work on behalf of a skilled but aging population. There robots are “used for everything from farming and construction to nursing and elder care” in a country that contains “about a third of all the world’s industrial robots.” In the U.S., by contrast, civilian applications of robots remain relatively primitive. The field is dominated by defense-oriented research funding and competition for large defense-related government contracts. Perhaps the most notable American civilian robot is the Roomba, a sort of semi-intelligent vacuum cleaner. But even this is made by a firm, iRobot, that has extensive defense contracts for its PackBot and other military robots.

Shunting such a large proportion of our talented engineers into dreaming up more clever ways to engage in misguided military adventures seems to me to be a policy that’s going to end up leaving a lot of useful ideas on the table. If you took the funds currently appropriated for specialized high-tech defense procurement and put some of them into basic research funding and gave some of them back to the private sector, we’d be on the road to higher productivity.