Nora Ashmawi's Blog

War Robots Arouse Indifference?

Posted on: November 1, 2009

P. W. Singer writes a frighteningly surreal article titled Robots at War: The New Battlefield where robots and other highly advanced technologies are substitiuted for soldiers at war.

To summarize, Singer explains the hazards of IED (Improved Explosive Devices) and how EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) teams are sent on missions to disable or safely explode these devices. It seemed that the EOD team was effective because $50, 000 incentives were given to insurgents who could kill an EOD soldier. An example of a EOD soldier was 42-pound, $150, 000 PackBot. PackBot is an example of mastered engineering that allows flexibility of the robot so that it is able to climb, twist and squeeze through areas.

These robots are now commonly called “unmanned systems” and as of 2008 there has been a reported 12, 000 units operating.

Many of these battlefield technologies were inspired by science fiction pieces such as H. G. Well’s 1903 short story Land Ironclads which led to Winston Churchill’s developments of the tank. One war robot was inspired and designed to look like R2D2 of George Lucas’ Star Wars.

The technologically advanced robots are now available in an array of sizes and types. There are currently 22 different robot systems operating on the ground. However, this realm of surreal robots are taking over air and sea as well. A famous example of a UAV (Unmanned Aerial vehicle) is the Predator which is operated by a human pilot actually 7,500 miles away usually in the air force base in Nevada. The Wasp is an example of a smaller UAV with a tiny peanut-sized camera that allows soldiers to receive transmitted video surveillance of war sites or suspicious areas, thus keeping a safe distance.

The main functions of “unmanned underwater vehicles” are to aid the Navy by searching for hidden water mines and chasing down pirates.

There is a plethora of advantages with the unmanned systems at war. A pertinent advantage that is often emphasized is that it saves the lives of many soldiers by keeping them far from the dangers of war. As is mentioned in the article, soldiers can now operate at a base in the states, and make it in time for their child’s PTA! Other obvious advantages are that robots do not get hungry, afraid, emotional, or forgetful. Also, the robots unlike humans do not require breaks. For these reasons, they are also able to perform the “dull, dirty, or dangerous” jobs that humans may not be wiling to do. According to Singer “robots can do the same task in about a fifth the time and with greater accuracy” than humans. The unmanned system computers learn much quicker than human and share intelligence with fellow computerized soldiers through wiring and networks at digital speed.

In addition to the many advantages of unmanned system, there are many horrific disadvantages. First, many worry that working with robots has alleviated the horrors and seriousness of war that can even encourage more wars.

Secondly, the semi-automatic to fully automatic modes of unmanned robots may pose great threats as their judgments of what is and isn’t the enemy may be flawed. Take the U.S.S. Vincennes for example. This ship was equipped with the new Aegis radar system that would detect then shoot down enemies, or rather, any foreign objects. The Navy crew on ship trusted the computer systems without second thought when it detected an overhead plane. When the missile was released it hit the Iran Air Flight 655 passenger jet killing all 290 passengers…

Another consequence of using robots for battle is that it portrays an apparently cost-less view of war that leads to greater masses accepting, and reinforcing the idea of war.

Some argue that the greatest disadvantage of war is the fact that postings of robot-versus-enemy video footage are being viewed by people  as a form of entertainment. War that was once viewer as a serious and threatening experience is now a past-time as it encourages voyeurism.  As Singer rightly points out “the ability to watch more but experience less has a paradoxical effect.”

Singer ends his article by noting that “robots entail a dark irony” because by aiming to decrease the cost of human lives at war, they seem to increase the number of wars, which leads to highly human cost, just on the other side of the battle field. Further, since citizens have no emotional attachment to the soldiers at war and therefore the idea of war,  they are now able to look at war from an objective point of view and treat it like any other policy. Society may grow cold-blooded responses and reactions to one of the most volatile subjects on earth!

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  • norashmawi: Hey Yasmin! I am on both! On Twitter I'm @norashm and on LinkendIn.. I'm just there too! Hope you're doing well!!
  • Yasmin Helal: Where are you old friend? Can't find you on Twitter or LinkedIn!!
  • nazgolhrh: Good job on your blog... great word choice and creative as always.

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