P.W. Singer on the Ethics of New Military Technologies

Question: Do we need to re-evaluate the ethics of war?

Singer:    One of the challenges of these new technologies is not just that we’re living in denial over what’s going on, but that we’re often sort of overwhelmed by them.  And one of the groups that I met with for the book were people at the Red Cross and another one was the Human Rights Watch.  There’s an interesting thing that someone at the International Red Cross said to me about this where he said, “You know what, there’s so much bad going on in the world right now, how can we waste time on thinking about the laws that surround these new things like unmanned systems and robotics and its completely valid answer.”  There is a ton of bad things going on in the world.  But, for me, what’s interesting is you could have said the exact same thing in 1939 or 1944.  There’s so much bad going on in the world, why should we waste time trying to figure out what’s going on with this new thing called atomic bombs.  That’s just, you know, fantasy.  That’s just science fiction.  So the result is we weren’t ready for it.  There’s a broader question of the ethical issues that surround these systems is does it make war crimes more or less likely.  That is, some people think you can put morality into these machines.  You can put ethical codes into them, sort of equivalent to like Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws, and so you could have as one scientist put it, more ethical killing devices and that they would follow rules that maybe soldiers wouldn’t.  So, for example, a lot of war crimes happen when a soldier’s buddy is killed and rage takes over and they lash out against local civilians.  Robots don’t have emotions so you wouldn’t have that happen.  They can also be a lot more discriminating.  They… a soldier has to burst into a room in a microsecond figure out who’s the threat or not and shoot and shoot, and sometimes they make mistakes.  A robot can go into a room, take its time, figure out who’s the threat and you don’t have to worry about the person dying behind them.  That’s true, but, machines can’t be moral by the very definition of morality.  They don’t have empathy.  They don’t have a sense of guilt.  So to a machine, 80-year-old grandmother in a wheelchair is just the same as a T-80 tank except for a couple of 1s and 0s that are different in the programming language, and that’s got to be disturbing to us in a certain way.

The author speaks to the absence of morality in a fully mechanized war

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10 excerpts from Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' to unlock your inner Stoic

Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

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Personal Growth
  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
  • The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.