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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

The replacement killers

Robots are increasingly taking the place of the human soldiers, but who is considering the moral questions this raises?
The Global Hawk unmanned aircraft.
The Global Hawk unmanned aircraft.

With Abu Dhabi's Big Boys Toys gizmo show only three weeks away, it was fitting that PW Singer should be at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research last week delivering a lecture about robots to an audience of scholars and professionals concerned with the national security of the UAE. Not just any robots, mind. Singer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, and his new bestselling book is Wired for War, an examination of "the robotics revolution and conflict in the 21st century", characterised by the robot arsenal upon which the US is increasingly relying in place of human soldiers.

This is not the cutesy fictional Star Wars future of C-3PO and R2-D2. This is the tomorrow-now world of Ucavs, UAVs, Revs, Vultures and Swords - unmanned machines designed to hunt and destroy human beings on sea, land and in the air - and, ultimately perhaps, autonomous killer cyborgs of the type familiar to fans of the Terminator films. In a few short years, military robots have evolved from mere trackers and stalkers to hunters capable of carrying weapons and delivering death to targeted individuals thousands of miles away from their human operators sitting in complete comfort and safety.

Despite his reservations about where all this is leading, Singer - whose previous books, Corporate Warriors and Children at War, tackled other aspects of mankind's fundamentally murderous nature - is no John Connor and is clearly something of a gizmo junkie. Wired for War oozes a kind of sneaky admiration for the lethal technology it reviews, and when asked what drew him to the subject, his first answer is frank: "If you're a fan of Battlestar Galactica, you will get it: robots are cool."

Cool, perhaps, but they also raise some hot questions about morality and human nature - not that anyone who counts seems to be asking those questions. We've been here before, of course, in science fiction. Apocalyptic warnings about the physical and metaphysical dangers of entrusting our dirty work to robotic doppelgangers have echoed again and again in popular culture, in books from the likes of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke and in films such as Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis through to Blade Runner, Terminator and RoboCop.

Was anyone paying attention? It seems not. "Science," as Asimov once said, "gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom." But to question the rise of the machines is to be labelled a Unabomber - and to do so in the US in the wake of 9/11 is to risk being labelled un-American. Singer, who has worked as a consultant for the CIA and the US defence department, says it was September 11 that supercharged the American military's love affair with robotics. One of the little-known "what-if" stories prior to 9/11 is that US observation drones flying over Afghanistan spotted Osama bin Laden several times, "moving in convoys between camps; the delay, though, between when we could get either cruise missiles or manned planes in the air was several hours and by that point he'd left".

What happened next was a replay of the way the role of observation aircraft evolved during the First World War. "Someone said, 'Hey, we can see them, why don't we arm them?'" That was the spring of 2001, "at which point the CIA and the air force get in an argument, not over whether to do it, but who would pay for it". The decision was deferred for the August holidays and before it could be resolved 9/11 happened. Suddenly there was no quibbling about the cost of arming drones.

Now, says Singer, there is "something big going on in the history of war, and maybe even the history of humanity itself. The US military went into Iraq with just a handful of drones; we now have 7,000. We went in with zero unmanned ground vehicles, we now have 12,000." We are, he says, "seeing 'killer app' take on a new meaning". And pretty soon, say the experts, there will be tens of thousands of these things doing America's dirty work - and thousands more going into action for the 40 or more other countries with similar programmes.

There is, of course, nothing new about warriors striving to put physical distance between themselves and the messy consequences of their violence against others; weapons from the slingshot, bow and ballista to the musket, bomb and missile were all designed to allow the user to inflict harm while remaining out of harm's way. But these revolutions changed the "how" of war. Robotics, says Singer, "changes the 'who' at the most fundamental level; it changes the warrior's very experience". "Going to war" now has a new meaning. In the book, a Predator drone "pilot" describes how each working morning he gets up in his house in Nevada and commutes to war: "I spend 12 hours behind a computer putting missiles on targets, killing enemy combatants. At the end of the day I get back in my car and 20 minutes after being at war, I'm sitting at the dinner table with my son, talking about his schoolwork." Such "warfare", conducted in comfy chairs in front of a screen and a games console, involves no courage, no physical effort and, most certainly, no risk of personal harm, and lacks the adrenaline-fuelled "him or me" justification of combat.

It is this fundamental disconnect between the video-game technology and the reality taking place thousands of kilometres away that is so dangerous; the use of such robotics, says Singer, is "a trend that allows you to use force but not have to deal with the consequences of sending people into harm's way". As a result, "we are seeing the bars to war dropping to the ground".

Such robotic warfare, insists Singer, is "as important as the invention of the printing press, the spread of computing and, in warfare, it's as big as the invention of gunpowder and the atom bomb. Robotics rewrites the rules of the game. It forces you to ask new questions about not only what is possible, but what is proper."

Yet in the US there has been little political or even media discussion about what is proper: "If you look at the number of targets hit, we've had the opening round of the Kosovo war, and yet there has been no debate."

There has been no declaration of this hi-tech war but, in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, that is what the war there most definitely is. No one knows the true toll of "guilty" and "innocent" victims and, even as recognition software starts to play an increasing part in the missions of the killer drones, they remain far from infallible. "There were three times we thought we'd got bin Laden," says Singer, "and we hadn't. One time it was an Afghan civilian who was unlucky enough to look like him."

And such victims are not the only casualties; for America, its robots might ultimately prove to be counterproductive in the battle for hearts and minds. There's a telling line in Singer's book from a US air force officer. It must, he says, "be daunting to an Iraqi or to an al Qa'eda member seeing all our machines. It makes me think of the human guys in the opening to the Terminator movies, hiding out in the bunkers and the caves."

But for those on the receiving end of the unmanned Predators or Reapers, the reality, discovers Singer, is that the word "unmanned" has a different meaning - and the message America thinks it is sending is not the one being received. As a drone flies above them in Lebanon, one man tells him that "this shows cowardice, that you are not man enough to come out and fight us". The underlying message being received is that "we just have to kill a few more of your soldiers to defeat you".

So, concludes Singer, "it's backfiring. It makes us look like the Evil Empire from Star Wars and the other side look like the Rebel Alliance." Ultimately, though, perhaps the biggest danger - and one familiar to fans of science fiction - is not that terrorists will turn these weapons back on their creators, but that the technology itself will turn against us all. Bill Gates has said that "robotics is where computers were in 1980" and if what we are seeing now is a revolution, says Singer, "we're not even talking yet about systems making their own decisions". The very real and disquieting possibility is that the mechanical agents of our destructive urge will gain the power of self-determination.

Researching the book, Singer came across four different project teams working on "armed autonomous systems". "We reassure ourselves that humans will always be in the loop," he says. "I call this the Lord Voldemort question: the issue that must not be discussed, but more and more systems are making their own decisions." Scientists working on such programmes believe a humanoid robotic infantryman could be on the battlefield by 2020. In the meantime, there is America's 12metre-long Global Hawk, the Predator's frankly ugly big brother.

This is the robotic equivalent of the Cold War's U2 spyplane, but there is no place on board - or need - for a Gary Powers. Relying solely on its own systems, the Hawk can take off, fly 4,800km to a target area and stooge around unseen at 20,000metres for 24 hours, monitoring all it sees with an array of sophisticated devices. It does all this entirely autonomously. All it needs is someone to fuel it and to click a mouse to send it on its way.

Perhaps we really are in the process of creating an entirely new species that will eventually destroy us. Singer prefers to take the doom-mongering of the Matrix and Terminator prophecies less literally - but nonetheless seriously. "It is human creativity that really distinguishes us from all the other species out there; this spark that allows us to build these incredible buildings, take our species to the Moon, create works of art. It defines us. And yet look what we are using our human creativity to build now."

Our deadly robots raise fundamental questions that only humans can - and should - be answering. "The bottom line question," says Singer, "is this: is it our machines that are good or evil, wired for war, or is it us?" It's a question, he says, that should be addressed now. By the time the governor of California turns up at your door, it will be academic.

Wired for War - The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, by PW Singer, is published by The Penguin Press.