Monday, April 20, 2009

Wired for War by P.W. Singer

Wired for War is a truly outstanding book that exemplifies the notion of comprehensive topic coverage without an overburdening of details. Nearly every page has an interesting fact, information about an astounding technology or a useful perspective presented by various actors in the fields of robotics, computation, military or business – all with accessible writing and pop-cultural references along the way.

The subtitle is a decent descriptor of the content: The robotics revolution and conflict in the 21st century; and I highly recommend this to anyone interested in technology, conflict or even just understanding coming trends in the world. Aside from climate change and potential economic collapse, military action and technological developments will be the issues of this century.

The reader gets a basic introduction to numerous issues and is then presented with mind-blowing information about what is already happening in conflict situations or is in the plans. Some examples that stand out: Robotic aircraft operating in Iraq and Afghanistan are being piloted by people in Nevada; these systems engage targets and coordinate strikes; a gun already developed that shoots a million rounds in a minute; using machine guns as single-shot weapons because the machines are that fast; crowd control devices that make you feel like your skin is on fire, or make you defecate, or give you a fever and knock you unconscious, or make you feel like you were hit by lightening; that people are actually trying to create a Holodeck and the ‘air-screen’ from Minority Report; the Army’s FCS strategy where it plans to invest $230 billion over the next 10 years to move towards unmanned and automated systems; the prediction of robotic infantry by approximately 2030; the hope that people will shoot at machine systems because then they will be able to know who to kill and use devices to hone in on the target; a ship/plane that comes out of submarine, makes a strike in the air and then returns to the submarine; engaging haptic (touch) processes more (i.e., when the machine gun rounds are low, you might feel a slight pinch on your bicep); insect sized drones that can hover and gather surveillance… and it just keeps going!

Singer did his homework, that much is obvious, but here and there he does come off as a bit too pro-war (but that could be my anti-war bias). That is not to say he does not mention some of the failings (past, present and likely future) or that all opinions presented are rosy: some commentators have great fears about military dominance, increased inequality, self-replicating accidents that destroy part of the Earth or even robotic uprising. In general it is quite descriptive and balanced, but there could have been more regarding the problem of war itself and how civilians always seem to suffer.

A non-exhaustive list of the fascinating content:
- A primer on robotics and technology and why there are likely going to be major advances in the next 20-30 years.
- Information on the various types of the (over 12 000) robotic systems that are currently operational in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- The supposed importance of keeping humans in the loop, but in reality the shift towards autonomy is increasing
- The influence of science fiction upon creativity and development of technologies.
- The moral conflict among roboticist regarding whether to take military funding (the majority of A.I. research is funded by DARPA)
- How different military cultures clash and how emerging technologies will shake up hierarchies and the likely increased desire to micromanage from higher-ups.
- The U.S versus other countries and the race to dominate military robotics; as well as how insurgencies will be using the technologies as well.
- How autonomous weapons and the law interact; there is currently nothing in place to deal with the issues being created.
- Ethical issues about using robots and how we might come to treat them as they become an increasing part of our lives.

This book was exceptionally enjoyable because it combined the generally very important issue of military activities with the personally interesting issue of technological and robotic development. It’s like having both rhythm AND music – who could ask for anything more?

Extra: The book also ended up commenting on a recent intellectual question – will there be conscious robots – I asked Dan Dennett when he was in town. Dennett said “it would be possible to build a mechanical bird to fly around and land on a twig in a lab, but why would you?” Considering that there are already contracts for similarly size devices being put out by the military, I have an answer: to better able to protect friends and harm foes. Adding that fact with the huge influence of the sex market on adopting and developing new technologies (the Web is only the most recent example), I now think I have a useful short answer that explains much of why many technologies are developed: to kill something or have sex with it.
What else would you expect from a bunch of apes?


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