Military Robotics

A new arms race is developing in drones and robotics. A miniature robotics arms race is one which any power can eventually join, and it doesn't even need to be a nation. It could be any group for any cause, with garage laboratories and open source software. Get a blueprint from the internet, and anybody can build a robot.

Suicide bombers will someday be a relatively minor annoyance, the not-so-smart. Suicide robots are another matter. Actually, smarter robots don't need to commit suicide. They can just be killers. They can be quiet killers with bioweapons.

Already, the US military remotely controls drones killing people, using people based in the US who go to work in the morning, operate drones from a control center on the other side of the world, kill people, then at the end of the work day drive home to their families to have dinner, help the kids with school, and so forth.

Kids love to play internet games where they kill others. Technically, it is not that big a step to go from internet games to internet teleoperation of robots. Psychologically, while most people will not do step over the line towards malicious actions, it takes less than 1% of gamers to number over a million people who may.

Programmers who write malicious viruses are examples of the kind of psychology in this world. How many malicious viruses are there now? How many antisocial egomaniacs want to outdo others even more?

(It is also taken for granted that boys are raised with military toys all over the world. Just walk into any toy department and look around. That tells you something about the human species. I was a boy like this, too, who was fascinated by war and technology... but not so sure about encouraging this in the next generation. I have only daughters, who are different.)

The current wave of drones started as a national arms race led by the United States Department of Defense. America sure has unveiled and promoted the technology heavily in its Middle East wars, and provoked some adversaries in the process. When does "Defense" stop being defense? When does it start an arms race which will eventually come back around?

(Isn't it revealing that we did this for access to cheaper Middle East oil for American consumers to wantonly consume? Iraq had no WMDs, and it was just unfinished business from 1990, not 9/11. For people who argue that America did this for ethical reasons, why doesn't America also intervene in worse disputes in Africa and elsewhere in the world? We don't invade Sudan despite it harboring terrorists and engaging in genocide. Nor many other places with more ethical justification. It's mostly about wanton consumption of cheap oil, to the extent that the American military takes risks by starting an arms race in drones, without weighing the longer term consequences. Typical human shortsightedness.)

The introduction of drones threatens to be a much greater threat than the atom bomb which America invented and which was rapidly copycatted by adversaries.

The reason is that drones are much cheaper to build and to deploy secretly. Very cheap. Drones can be created by individuals and groups rather than nations -- so-called "non state actors". Coming to a door near you ...

The big expensive aircraft carriers, missiles, and tanks will be leapfrogged by the pursuit of smaller, smarter, more mobile weapons.

This is sure to become a nightmare, but could this lead to a scale large enough to cause human extinction? This would require a robot algorithm to do the following:

  • Seek out humans and kill them (by biotechnology, nanotechnology, or projectile)
  • Mass produce or reproduce both themselves and the killing agent to be a great enough menace
  • Evade lesser human defenses by adapting sufficiently

This won't happen next year, or in the near future. Actually, I think this is a much later threat compared to biotechnology and nanotechnology. However, it will eventually become a serious threat.

Drones may also work to deliver biotechnology and nanotechnology weapons without putting the perpetrator's own body at risk since they are far away. Indeed, robots can manufacture the biotechnology and nanotechnology weapons in isolation without putting the humans at risk.

How can we defend ourselves against small, quiet drones?

On a larger scale, if you have a swarm of ballistic, tiny killer robots heading your way, how are you going to defend yourself against all of them? It's difficult to see defense being dominant over offense, clearing out all of the threats, when only one robot needs to succeed.

Malicious robots will initially become a nuisance, and eventually spread to becoming more disruptive. On what scale, we don't know. However, malicious drones will eventually become much more terrifying than terrorists today.

We could try to create and enforce treaties and laws against such weapons, but this would be very difficult to enforce worldwide. People get away with crimes all the time ...

Factories of little robots can start up in a room most anywhere in the world.

Then there is the money factor, selling the emerging technology where demand exceeds supply. Arms merchants could make a killing.

How widespread is this? See this CNN Analyst's report in October 2012 titled "A dangerous new world of drones"CNN-Bergen:

"... more than 70 countries now own some type of drone ... .

China took the United States by surprise in November 2010 at the Zhuhai Air Show, where it unveiled 25 drone models, some of which were outfitted with the capability to fire missiles. ...

When President George W. Bush declared a "War on Terror" 11 years ago, the Pentagon had fewer than 50 drones.

Now, it has around 7,500.

As Bush embarked on that war, the United States had never used armed drones in combat. The first U.S. armed drone attack, which appears to be the first such strike ever, took place in mid-November 2001 ...

Drone technology is proliferating rapidly. A 2011 study estimated that there were around 680 active drone development programs run by governments, companies and research institutes around the world, compared with just 195 in 2005.

(How many were there in 2001 before the US military set the example to follow?)

The article mentions US export sales of drones to multiple Middle East countries allied to the US (including Egypt), and other countries developing these advanced technologies competing as exporters. Money talks.

If you go out and try to find any foreign, indigenous effort to create drones in the modern world, which predates the US example, then you may be hard pressed to find that. You should find Israel. However, much promotion comes from the US Department of Defense. Then there are copycats.

What goes around comes around.

However, once the idea is out and takes off (such as internet), then people all over the world start to develop it further, and quickly overwhelm any one nation, including the US.

Artificial intelligence will be the key to the success of these robots -- the software. It will surely make its way around the internet.

Compared to the pure thinking of artificial general intelligence inside a stationary box such as a desktop of mainframe computer, robotics adds the ability to manipulate matter around the artificial intelligence, and to relocate as desired.

Robots can roll, walk, jump, and fly. They can travel across the ground by wheel, legs, or jumping, can fly thru the air, or drift or propel in the sea. (Of course, they can also be fired from guns and missiles, or transported hidden in conventional vehicles, too.)

Robots could employ a variety of sensors -- optical, infrared, sound, mobile phone transmissions, smell. Already, robots are being tested which can recognize a face and follow an individual. Discriminating between a human and other animals will be relatively easy.

In the news, a lot of emphasis is put on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) but those are a lot more demanding of technology and budget than simple wheeled and water propelled robots.

On a personal note, I've noted elsewhere that I worked in advance planning in the military space program in the mid-1980s. Part of my reason to resign that was because it looked like a military arms race which we were promoting.

In the early 1990s, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, I did some work for DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) on a project to convert defense industries to civilian ones (a swords-to-plowshares concept) as requested under President Clinton, which would attempt to save projected job losses by reduced military spending in some ways (such as ship building) while promoting American competitiveness. My role was networking leaders in the contracting industry and government.

I reported to the director of a branch of DARPA, who in turn spent a lot of time visiting the White House.

He was himself a gadget enthusiast, often toying with the latest and greatest on the market, and one of the brightest government workers I have ever met.

One day, while in his office, as an aside, we went over what was seen as one of the coolest things -- military robotics. Actually, it was one of the scariest things to me.

This robotics was not nearly as scary as genetics, biotechology, or nanotechnology, because it's difficult to see robotics becoming an extinction threat within the next 20 years, but it clearly could become a major nuisance in the wrong hands.

At some point, as technology develops, ideas can become reality. We cannot hold a monopoly on things like this, as others react by copycatting them, both for "defense" as well as offense. If we lead the way, others will follow what we develop and promote. Most secrets cannot be kept for long. It stimulates an arms race.

When computer hardware and software advances, these things can be created by entities all over the world.

I don't expect these things to be coming down the pike in the next few years, but in 10-20 years, perhaps.

Robots can deliver all sorts of weapons and poisons.

In 30 or 40 years, with enough attrition of the human population, the remaining population may find it difficult to continue organizing and mounting defenses fast or flexibly enough to keep our economies very functional.

This is still a long shot scenario, relatively to genetics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology, but one to keep an eye on.

(This website is not so much about today as it is about the future, because that future will come soon enough. The author has seen transformative technologies, especially as a PC applications and internet entrepreneur in the mid-1980s. This particular application, drones, is computer and internet intensive, so it's easy to see some of the parallels. We can expect to see a merge of gamers and people with political or just antisocial tendencies such as virus writers going to the cutting edge of open source software and drones via internet.)

References and Footnotes: (To return to where you were reading, click on your Back button.)

Source: CNN Analyst, 10/2012Peter Bergen of CNN and the New America Foundation, and Jennifer Rowland, cover current military drone programs around the world.

External links: talk on current military robotics

A very interesting video on these issues, by P.W. Singer, entitled "Military robots and the future of war". He also has a book for sale on Amazon titled "Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century".

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