Monday, January 26, 2009

Robots on the Battlefield

One of my favorite things to listen to on the radio is NPR (National Public Radio). Oh stop! I can hear your groans from here. If you are one of the ones who thinks that NPR is for nerds and old people, I suggest you give it another whirl. There really is something for everyone. If you don't have the patience to listen, check out the website-- You can even listen to the stories!

Browse your areas of interest. I always recommend it to my students, especially the AP ones. Great examples of educated discussions, articles, essays, music, history. You name it; they have it.

Okay, so Saturday I was listening to a very interesting discussion about the use of robots in Iraq. Apparently before the war, US had very few robot planes but now there are over 5000 patrolling the skies. At some point, the decision was made to arm the drones with weapons which has changed the culture of war significantly. There were little if any land robots in use but now there are over 12,000 on the ground in Iraq. They even have cool names like "Predator" and one type even looks like R2D2 of Star Wars fame, only bigger.

Some of these robots (drones) are used to find IEDs and to spy, etc. Now they are able to do what humans have traditionally done. This has led to some unique dilemmas, questions, concerns. What previously was only possible in the futuristic Sci-fi movie has now become a reality. Really makes one wonder how much of fiction is going to become fact!

It's not like there are soldiers hiding in a dugout with a joystick controlling these robotic devices either. Apparently they can be controlled from across the world--Nevada for example!! SO somewhere there is some military techno-geek sitting in front of his computer screen blowing up stuff in Iraq. Scary. Which brings me to the most pathos laden part of this story.

The young techno-warfare expert P.W. Singer who wrote a book entitled Wired for War, was apparently one of those sitting at a computer while a drone was being operated in Iraq. They had information that Chemical Ali was holed up in a particular residence and sent a drone in to bomb the house. The first attempt fell short and hit a house three houses away.

Once again, the device was locked, loaded and on its way when the men, via their computer monitor watched an old Iraqi walking by the targeted home, causing them to joke about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Seconds later, the screen went white with the explosion and when dust began to settle a flailing body was seen to bounce on the ground---once again causing the observers to joke around. A week or so later, Singer was face to face with an old Iraqi across the crater left by the bomb, listening as he described the horror of losing his family and the devastion from an earlier blast two houses down. All in all 17 civilians were killed but not the targeted Chemical Ali. He was captured later. It's one thing to effortlessly click a button, move a mouse seeking out and bombing a target half way around the world, but quite another to realize that what seemed almost a game resulted in real time traumatic devastation and loss of human life.

The young expert changed sides to become a proponent of human rights if I remember correctly. These robots are made by well known American companies. In fact, one producer of these drones is the one that makes those robotic vacuums. Interesting! The clincher is that ANYONE may purchase them!!!! Apparently, a private militia group patrolling the American-Mexican border uses them to assist in preventing illegal entry into this country.

The technology has limitless possibilities embedded with countless possible consequences. Sometimes, we seem so eager to develop new devices and technology that we don't take the time to fully survey the benefits and weigh them against the possible consequences. Think people, THINK!!! Listen to the full interview with P.W. Singer.

Read PCMag's article on technology and warfare.

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