I wanted to be a fighter pilot when I was in sixth grade. Fresh off my first viewing of Top Gun, I decided to serve my country by learning to fly an F-14. Fifteen years later, I’m a civilian with no flight experience whatsoever. This is hardly surprising. Childhood dreams don’t always become adulthood realities. What’s truly astonishing is that even if I had joined the military, and even if I were an accomplished pilot today, I might still lack any meaningful flight experience.
That is, unless flying an unmanned aerial drone via remote control counts as flight experience. But does it? Such is one of the many themes Peter W. Singer explores in his new book, Wired for War (Penguin Press, 2009). In a wide-ranging study that moves seamlessly from science fiction and pop culture to engineering and entrepreneurship, Singer immerses the reader in a world in which robots are revolutionizing our military and changing the nature of conflict in the 21st century.
As the ground shifts beneath our feet, far too many important thinkers — from national security experts to human rights activists — have failed to recognize the implications of the robotics revolution. Yet in the words of military roboticist Robert Finkelstein, who is featured prominently in the book, the rise of military robots “could end up causing the end of humanity, or it could end war forever.” Our future is a game of Russian roulette with a cyborg.
More pressing than eschatological speculation is the near-term effect of military robots on warfare. Analysts from widely divergent backgrounds agree that handing off military tasks to robots will lower the perceived cost of conflict and make war more likely. This not only threatens the lives of civilians the world over, it could actually make the United States less safe. To some, the use of robots is an admission of cowardice, an unwillingness to fight with honor. This could embolden extremists, alienate restive populations, and convince terrorists that one more 9/11 is needed to drive the cowardly Americans into retreat.
Singer illuminates these problems with great clarity. What’s less clear is what we can do about it. America may be wired for war, but are we wired for weighing the consequences? The military is by far the most respected institution in American culture. As long as politicians — whether plausibly or cynically — can claim that robots will save the lives of U.S. soldiers, they’ll favor leaping without looking.
On the bright side, Wired for War is selling well and Singer recently appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, so word is getting out and Americans are starting to think the issue through. And therein lays the book’s greatest accomplishment. Written in highly accessible prose, it may not give us all the answers, but it certainly gets us asking the right questions. And that’s at least half the battle.