The Future of Robotic Warfare

Peter Warren Singer is Senior Fellow and Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. He is the youngest scholar named Senior Fellow in Brookings' 90-year history. In 2005, CNN named him to their "New Guard" List of the Next Generation of Newsmakers. Singer has also been recognized by the Financial Times as "Guru of the Week" for the thinker that most influenced the world that week and by Slate Magazine for "Quote of the Day." In his personal capacity, Singer served as coordinator of the Obama-08 campaigns' defense policy task force.

His first book Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry pioneered the study of the new industry of private companies providing military services for hire, an issue that soon became important with the use and abuse of these companies in Iraq. His next book, Children at War explored the rise of another new force in modern warfare, child soldier groups. Dr. Singer's "fascinating" (New York Post) and "landmark" (Newsweek) work was the first book to comprehensively explore the compelling and tragic rise of child soldier groups and was recognized by the 2006 Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book of the Year Award.

His third book, Wired for War looks at the implications of robotics and other new technologies for war, politics, ethics, and law in the 21st century. Described as: "An exhaustively researched book, enlivened by examples from popular culture" by the Associated Press and "awesome" by Jon Stewart of the Daily Show,  Wired for War made the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list in its first week of release. It has already been featured in the video game Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriot, as well as in presentations to audiences as diverse as the Air Force Institute of Technology to the National Student Leadership Conference.

Prior to his current position, Dr. Singer was the founding Director of the Project on U.S. Policy Towards the Islamic World in the Saban Center at Brookings. He has also worked for the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, the Balkans Task Force in the U.S. Department of Defense, and the International Peace Academy. Singer received his Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University and a BA from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Big Think: How worried should we be about robots commanding themselves in war?

P.W. Singer:  I don’t think we’re yet to the point that you have to, you know, keep an eye on your [own back] for, you know, a sneak ambush or something like that.  You know, like, death by dust inhalation or something.  But, I do think there are some issues that we need to pay attention to.  And so I actually went around and interviewed all these various robotic scientists and said, you know, is this something that is a possibility?  Let’s take this seriously. 

And there are basically three answers.  One was, no, that’s silly.  It will not happen.  These are systems, for example, that don’t have a survival instinct, and in awe of science fiction the story is always that the machine gets scared and lashes out at the humans first.  Well, guess what, we’re building these machines specifically to die in war so why would they care. 

The second answer is don’t worry about it.  The software, you know, will probably crash right at the moment that they’re, you know, deciding to revolt.  You know, they’ll try and load an [S4] document and boom, just like what’s happening to all of us. 

The third answer, though, is a fascinating one is that there is a pretty substantial minority and it has a lot of distinguished people in it who do think it’s a possibility someday.  One Pentagon scientist, for example, said to me, “You know, I’m probably working on something that’s either going to kill or enslave my grandkids, but, you know, it’s really cool stuff, so why stop.” 

Right now, we have 5,000 of these drones in the air, 12,000 on the ground.  If we take the growth trajectory up, this one Air Force lieutenant general put it, we’re reaching into the tens of thousands.  This is the future of war.  But, there is another side of the future of war that is the enemy has a vote and so you have these continual global insurgencies.  And that’s these two trends coming together, both the unmanning of war but also the flattening of war that is it’s becoming a game in which not just stage play. 

And the challenge for all of us is that both robotics and insurgencies and terrorism are things that, one, we don’t understand very well, and two, we really haven’t yet figured it out how to deal with them, and you have these two trends coming together and that’s a challenge for us all.


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