Robots, War, and the End of the World as We Know It

Perhaps you think you aren’t interested in robots (but probably you are, because, as author P.W. Singer notes on the first page of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, robots are “fracking cool”). However, even if you aren’t naturally disposed to want to find out about robotics, you might change your mind after reading Singer’s highly engaging book, which covers the way post 9/11 wars have propelled robotics research, the applications for those advances in everyday life, the implications for society, and the incredible array of ethical dilemmas looming as a result.

The first section of the book details the amazing things robotics are able to do.  I stopped after just about every fourth sentence to read something aloud to someone.  “Get this!  This robot diffuses IEDs and can crawl down tunnels or swim underwater!” I was astounded by the way the technology has grown exponentially over the past ten years and the ways that robots are saving lives and money on the battlefield.  I also enjoyed reading about the people who create them, the companies that do both military and civilian robotics (for example, the company that makes the IED diffusing robot also makes Roomba vacuums).

Singer then turns to the history of robotics.  Since we just finished studying Ancient Greece I remembered about the Hephaestus myth and how he had robots and sent a robot to guard Crete, but I was not aware that divers found the first known mechanical analog computer in a ship wrecked off of the coast of Crete in 200BC (the box contained 37 gears and calculated the positions of the sun, moon, and other planets).

Singer then examines competing views of the future of robotics.  The fact is, we’re already living with and dependent on a staggering array of technologies, and the advances coming at an ever faster rate will change the way we live even more precipitously.  It was interesting to read about how some people have bizarrely rosy views of a new robotic future, while others have desperately negative views. I found myself thinking quite a bit about how a person’s worldview impacts the way he interprets events and possibilities.

Finally Singer delves into the moral, ethical, and philosophical questions of technological advances.  I found this section the best of the whole book.  As in related fields like bioethics, in robotics and technology our abilities have fast outstripped our ethics.  We do not have a commonly understood ethic or philosophy of technology, so we haven’t grappled in advance with the implications and acceptable boundaries for its use.

Robotics come with an incredible array of ethical questions.  Take, for example, the question of technological augmentation.  We all know what to do with the fact that people get pacemakers.  We’re glad when an amputee can use a robotic arm.  After a terrible car accident in college my brother had the bones in one of his legs completely replaced with titanium.  We’re pretty much OK with this, and don’t worry that he is secretly a Borg now.  However, what do we think about augmentation that changes a person’s abilities?  What about technology that would allow a person access to unearned knowledge or athletic ability?  These are not far off questions, but a matter of a few years.  As robots are increasingly given artificial intelligence that mimics human responses, who will be responsible for their actions?  And how will we be responsible for our actions toward them?  Singer does a thorough job of presenting a variety of possible solutions and competing viewpoints, and also writes about the way in which science fiction literature contributes one of the few sources available for thinking through ethical implications of technology.

As is probably obvious from the length of this review, I found Wired for War fascinating and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in technology, sociology, philosophy, or public ethics.


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