Robots and DARPA

Ezra Klein offers up some neat video of a self-reassembling robotic chair:

On the continuum between today’s friendly iPod and tomorrow’s murderous T-1000 that you blow apart with a well placed grenade only to watch it calmly reassemble itself before your horrified eyes, this self-constructing robot chair is pushing uncomfortably close to the T-1000.

I’ve been reading Peter Singer’s Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century and I’m becoming somewhat less concerned about the looming robot slave revolt and somewhat more concerned about serious misapplication of social resources. Singer makes clear something I hadn’t previously understood, namely that military applications of robots isn’t like military applications of the internal combustion engine — a useful technology being used by the military simply because it’s so useful. Rather, in the United States the military actually represents the leading source of funding for basic robotics research (via DARPA) and the leading client for cutting-edge robots.


I think this is pretty problematic in pure economic terms. DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — is by all accounts an effective government agency and lots of technologies originally developed with DARPA funds have useful civilian applications. But at the end of the day, having research funded by DARPA rather than through some other mechanism tends, at the margin, to channel work to military applications rather than to civilian ones. Now on some level, that can fine. All the productivity-enhancing or quality-of-life-improving technology in the world wouldn’t be worth much if we were groaning under the Stalinist yoke. But realistically, a shortfall in high-tech military gear is far from the most pressing issue facing the United States of America. There are a number of respects in which the USA is lagging behind some group of nations or another, but military technology really really isn’t one of them. And over time our disproportionate focus on military-related research and military-related technology is going to undermine the very economic base on which our military strength — as well as our living standards more broadly — depends.