The imaginations of Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, James Cameron, and many other science-fiction visionaries may not have been as wild as they seemed years ago. The concept of an automated robot army fighting on the front lines of battle has been slowly moving from a fantasy to a reality over the last thirty years.
Even now, hundreds of robots are sparing soldiers from potential danger by digging up roadside bombs in Iraq, standing as armed guards at weapons depots, and searching the remote crevices of Afghanistan’s caves. A NYT article recently shows the Pentagon’s overarching goal of building upon these prototypes to create a fully automated fighting force at the Army’s disposal.
By April, an armed version of the bomb-disposal robot will be in Baghdad, capable of firing 1,000 rounds a minute. Though controlled by a soldier with a laptop, the robot will be the first thinking machine of its kind to take up a front-line infantry position, ready to kill enemies.
Congress ordered in 2000 that a third of the ground vehicles and a third of deep-strike aircraft in the military must become robotic within a decade. If that mandate is to be met, the United States will spend many billions of dollars on military robots by 2010.
It’s more than just a dream now,” [Gordon] Johnson said. “Today we have an infantry soldier” as the prototype of a military robot, he added. “We give him a set of instructions: if you find the enemy, this is what you do. We give the infantry soldier enough information to recognize the enemy when he’s fired upon. He is autonomous, but he has to operate under certain controls. It’s supervised autonomy. By 2015, we think we can do many infantry missions.
“The American military will have these kinds of robots. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.”
Of course the potential for sparing the lives of young American soldiers is an enticing concept, made even more so by the mounting American casualties in Iraq’s post-war occupation. Nearly as appealing to the military is the ability buy robots for a fraction of the cost of training, paying, and feeding live soldiers , let alone funding the benefits for them and their family during and after their term of service.
The concept of unmanned warfare is far from new — the Pentagon’s Predator spy drones fly reconnaissance missions over Iran currently — but the ability to send in an invading force on the ground with the ability to kill is still years away.
What happens when the American soldier is replaced by a machine, however? What happens when the main cost for armed conflict, lives, becomes significantly less than ever before. Of course those the U.S. is fighting will still face casualties, but if the risk of American lives is drastically decreased, how much will America’s aversion to war — due to its inherent cost in homegrown lives — be decreased along with it?
Would the willingness to fight increase as the human price of fighting lessens? With the wars in the Middle East the government has asked precious little of American civilians. There is no real call to service or conservation, no increase in taxes to fund the military, no 21st Century equivalent of the victory garden. The only price being paid by this country is in American lives. Once that is gone, what is left?
While these issues are more concrete and pressing, I would be remiss in failing to mention the danger of handing over the matter of killing, the decision of life or death, to a machine. It’s easy to belittle the premonitions of science-fiction writers, but when so much of what they have foretold — submarines, space travel, the electric engine, servant (vacuum) robots, military robots, etc. — has come true, It’s not impossible to imagine the future dangers inherent in this project.