Review of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century by P.W. Singer
Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century
by P.W. Singer
The first time I had ever seen, let alone heard of, a Predator drone is from the episode "Chuck vs. the Predator" of the NBC television series Chuck (the drone actually appearing in that episode was a Reaper, the Predator's even deadlier successor). Before the Predator's appearance, I had no inkling of the extent to which the American military—indeed, any country's military—has integrated unmanned and robotic devices into its forces. Maybe I just don't read the right books (or blogs). Wired for War, then, is a good step in the right direction!
We're living in the future. Even if that is impossible by definition, it's happening. Unmanned technologies aren't new in war, as Singer points out when he talks about the Norden bombsight and other innovations introduced in World War II. Yet they're increasingly pervasive, and they raise a swathe of practical, social, and ethical issues. Who's liable when a robot screws up? How should the military balance its manned and unmanned forces? Will robots revolt?
This is a massive subject, and Singer takes a good swing at it. In the first part of the book, he gives a brief history of the use of unmanned devices in warfare. Then he explores what we're doing right now. For instance, iRobot, the same company that manufactures Roomba vacuum cleaners, has a bomb disposal device called the Packbot that the military uses in Iraq to defuse IEDs. I sort of understand now what my parents and grandparents experienced when cell phones and colour television came about. I feel like we're living in something of a science fiction novel. But it's real!
Singer eases us into the subject of robotic warfare with anecdotes and pop culture references. Still, beneath his easygoing style and the layers of humour, there lies a serious theme. As Singer reminds us in the final chapter of part one, "The Refuseniks: The Roboticists Who Just Say No," as cool as the robotic revolution is, we need to remember that it's ultimately going toward military ends. When DARPA invests money in something, it's because the agency believes the project will result in a defence-worthy technology.
The real meat of Wired for War happens in the second part, where Singer focuses on the implications of robotic warfare. The book starts to lose steam near the end of the first part. It's long, and it's repetitive at times, with Singer re-iterating facts that, while relevant, have already appeared three or four times. In the long downhill descent toward its denouement, Wired for War picks up the pace and begins to deliver.
First, Singer asks how we'll fight with robots. It sounds simple enough: buy robot, deploy robot, task robot to kill things, drink beer. But there's a host of logistical and bureaucratic issues entangled with robotic weaponry. For example, Singer talks about how the use of drones in Iraq has "flattened the chain of command" and lead to what he calls the "tactical general." Generals back home are able to watch hours of Predator footage and then make decisions. On one hand, this is great, because it means the command staff is more informed about what's happening overseas. On the other hand, it leads to micro-management. Moreover, as Singer points out, "who was doing the general's job?" Soldiers in the field receive phone calls and contradictory orders from commanders with access to the same footage. The robotic revolution gives the military access to unprecedented amounts of information—but that also creates problems when it comes to filtering and acting on that information.
Singer also examines the effect of robotic warfare on civilians and the organization of the military. More men and women in the air force are no longer fighter pilots but pilots of unmanned drones. Most of them can't even fly a real plane. For now, the prestige continues to go to the fighter pilots (even if the new ones haven't been in many serious engagements). It's the "sexy" job. This might change in the future, as the trend continues to shift toward the unmanned. Yet these drone pilots aren't in Iraq or Afghanistan. They're sitting at a base in Nevada, pointing and clicking, then they go home to their spouses and children. Just another day at the office . . . another day killing people across the ocean and watching friendly soldiers die.
Finally, Singer speculates on what will happen as robots improve. If strong AI emerges, will we have a Singularity? Will robots demand rights equivalent to those of humans—and rebel if they don't receive them? The one certainty amid all this speculation is that robots won't just go away. The weapons will get fiercer, the tech will get scarier, and the implications will only worsen.
Not that I intend a forecast of doom with a side of gloom, but Wired for War exacerbated my tendency toward pessimism about the future of humanity. After learning about all the various ways in which robotic warfare can go wrong (and probably will go wrong), I wonder if we as a species are mature enough for this sort of power. We managed to avoid a nuclear holocaust, but in some ways, I think robots are worse. Because with robots, it's possible for us to dismantle society without just destroying everything, for humans to survive but for our basic rights (like freedom or privacy) to be diminished into nothingness.
So I have to recommend Wired for War to anyone interested in how technology is changing how we fight. It took me longer to read this book than I'd like, partly because it drags in the middle. But as this rambling review probably indicates, it also gave me a lot to think about. P.W. Singer cuts through the political rhetoric that pervades discussions of war and military in the contemporary media. What's left is a look at where we've been and where we're going. Because—at least until our robot overlords say otherwise—we live in democracies, and so we must hold our military accountable for the technologies it unleashes in its service to us.