When Robots Attack: A Look At 21st Century Warriors - InformationWeek

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2/13/2009
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When Robots Attack: A Look At 21st Century Warriors

P.W. Singer, author of the new book Wired For War, is concerned about how battlefield robots are changing IT perspectives.

Society's leaders -- including the voting general public -- need to stay on top of these issues so that they can make informed policy decisions, Singer said. Even scientists working on robotics are often unaware of the use to which their inventions are being put. Singer spoke at the TED conference this month, along with a scientist developing robots, who spoke about how wonderful robots are and their potential to develop into a new species. The scientist singled out BigDog, a robot capable of walking on four legs on rough terrain, carrying cargo like a pack mule.

"But who's paying for BigDog?" Singer said. "It's not being built for the betterment of humanity; it's being built for the betterment of humanity's ability to kill."

Robots will change the definition of what it means to go to war. "My grandfather went to war in World War II in the Pacific, and that meant he went far away, to a dangerous place, and his family didn't know where he was and if he was coming back," Singer said. By contrast, Predator drone pilots work in trailers in Nevada, and they commute to work in Toyotas. They deal death for a 12-hour shift in a battlefield in Iraq, and then they get in the car and go home and 30 minutes later they're having dinner with their families.

Robot operators have higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder than many units in Iraq have, Singer said. That's counter-intuitive -- you might expect that a soldier who's been ripped from his family, taken thousands of miles away, and put in a dangerous situation, would have more stress than a soldier who gets to stay home with his family and is never in physical danger himself. However, the drone operators suffer from a disconnect. Like bomber pilots, they deal death at a distance, but unlike bomber pilots they stay around and witness the consequences. They see the enemy dying at close range -- they sometimes see fellow Americans dying and are unable to do anything about it. And, on top of that, they have to deal with the stresses of home and family life.

"When you're deployed, everyone is focused on the mission, your wife doesn't get mad at 7 p.m. because you were late for Timmy's soccer practice," Singer said.

To help reduce stress and improve effectiveness, some squadron commanders are requiring operators to take measures to separate their combat experience from normal life. The operators wear their flight suits into the facility, they cut off personal communications, and, on longer missions, the squadron stays together around the clock, like a Super Bowl team staying in a hotel before the game even if they're playing the game at home.

The upside of fighting war with robots is that it can reduce the cost of war, both in lives and societal disruption at home. But that's also its downside. Even conservatives, including a former senior adviser to President Reagan, worry that the cost of war will become too cheap, making wars too easy to start, Singer said.

The relationship between the public and military is changing, war is becoming costless to civilians, with no draft, no declarations of war, and nobody even buying war bonds, Singer said. War still has an enormous impact on war-fighters and their families and friends, but as human war-fighters get replaced by robots, that cost will diminish further.

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