Friday, January 30, 2009
Terry Gross, host of the radio show Fresh Air, interviewed P.W. Singer, author of the book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, on the effects of the military’s increased use of robots in war. The military relies on robots in the air and on the ground to support military operations. Un-manned “Predator” drones (top picture, thanks to wikipedia), planes that fly over Iraq and Afghanistan to both collect intelligence and conduct hunter/killer missions, are piloted remotely from bases in Nevada. Ground-drones called “Pack-Bots” (lower picture, thanks to wiki again), made by the hands-free vacuum cleaner company iRobot, were at first used to collect intelligence and now are used to hunt and diffuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs). A robot whimsically dubbed “R2D2” because of its shape is an automated machine gun that eliminates incoming motor rounds faster than human soldiers are able.
Scientists tout that it is more advantageous to send robots than soldiers in military situations that are dull, dirty or dangerous. Robots are able to overcome certain human physical limitations in that they do not need sleep, food or potty breaks. Neither are robots susceptible to biological or chemical weapons and by using them in dangerous situations the military is able to avoid risks to human soldiers.
Yet, I could not help but wonder how these new widget-warriors might create divergent spaces of war and what the further effect on the soldiers might be.
The result of robots operating in-theatre but being controlled by non-deployed soldiers in the United States is the creation of divergent spaces of war. In one space, a soldier controlling a device actively engaged in war is responsible for the bombing of targets, killing of enemy forces, and providing support to men on the ground in the fight. However, this soldier works a shift with regular hours and drives to work and drives home, eats with her family and by all traditional notions of engagement would not be considered a combatant. Yet, her day-to-day activities suggest that she is engaged in the fight. She is a cubicle-warrior.
The other space is the conventional space of war. The physical war space: men and women actually deployed overseas supported by the robots – and the cubicle warriors. In this space, soldiers experience enemy fire, they return fire and none of it happens over a computer screen. They rely on support given by the robots, but there is anecdotal evidence (as mentioned in the interview, supra) of the machines getting preferential treatment – being spared from danger in certain instances. How do we reconcile the proclaimed advantage of machines to reduce the risk posed to soldiers with anecdotal evidence that the government’s expensive toys are being favored over our boys? While this may, in some cold-hearted world, make sense economically, how would it be explained politically?
In both these spaces of war, soldiers are fighting the “good” fight, they are both on the same side, but would the second recognize the experience of the first as equal to his own? Does society? The experience of the first soldier, however, should not be downplayed. I would argue that this divergent space of war creates a psychological impact. The virtual soldier, who causes real death and destruction, may not be able to completely empathize with images on a screen that resemble those of so many popular warfare games. This certainly has to desensitize a person from the realities of their actions. This experience over the course of an eight-hour shift juxtaposed with the family dinner scene shortly thereafter must create a rift in the psyche.