Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the U.S. has moved rapidly from activating only a handful of unarmed unmanned flying systems to currently deploying over 7,000 unmanned systems in the air and over 12,000 on the ground, many of these heavily armed. There is every reason to suspect this rapid incorporation of military robotics will only accelerate.
Popular systems today include flying drones to carry out air strikes (over 120 so far in Pakistan) and surveillance and pack-bots on the ground to help dismantle improvised explosive devices. Today with more than forty-three other countries developing military robots, the robot arms race is on and we are merely seeing the most primitive models of the war machines to come.
The main purpose of writing the following scenario is to raise awareness of several unsettling trends involving unmanned systems in the U.S. military (for more, see the work of Peter Singer, who has many articles available for free here), and to serve as a call to action for those concerned by them. At the end of the scenario I will present a few possible ideas as to how we could potentially avoid this outcome. I hope to spark debate that will generate more and perhaps better solutions to help Americans guide in a brighter future in the new age of military robots.
A Pessimistic Scenario
By the the year 2025, unmanned systems had largely come to replace live soldiers in the war on terror. Most of the systems were aerial drones, but unmanned ground and underwater systems (included here as -drones’) played a significant role as well. With American soldiers now mostly away from combat, other than high-level Special Forces, there was notably little public concern in the U.S. over the ongoing wars on terror or for entering new operations.
For over a decade it had become very easy for Presidents, with strong encouragement from the Pentagon, to unleash drone attacks in new countries through simple command. Congressional Declarations of War had been done away with for almost a century and following the model initiated with Pakistan and Yemen, additional drone campaigns had been initiated from the Executive with little public debate. This resulted in a series of ongoing Kosovo like campaigns from the Horn of Africa to the Philippines.
Wherever terrorist attacks or attempts were believed to have originated from, it was publicly expected that U.S. drones would hunt them down. The general lack of humans on the ground made the operations appear to be something other than true warfare in the public eye. Though the rest of the Western world still generally raised more concern over warfare than in the U.S., many drone campaigns were carried out in conjunction with European nations who, along with the U.S., were frequent targets for terrorism during the 2010s.
Providing the main fuel for these drone campaigns was a young cadre of remote controlled drone operators stationed throughout the United States. Recognizing early on that video games were the best recruiting tool they had come up with by a wide margin, the U.S. military focused most of their recruitment energy into developing new video games that both enticed children and adolescents and trained them for careers in the military. They made their publicly financed games available for free downloads on the internet and partnered directly with popular commercial war video game franchises such as Medal of Honor and Call of Duty to develop the most realistic war scenarios and controlling devices for nearly all of the war games on the market.
The military’s stated goal was to make the war video game experience resemble as closely as possible controlling unmanned war systems. Real military command stations were designed to reflect the video game experience adapting popular video game controlling devices and other gaming applications into the control consoles. In the end, the majority of children for their main source of entertainment spent countless hours readying themselves, most unwittingly, for military operations every day throughout their youth. The transition from couch to war console was largely seamless for those who entered the military as drone controllers. For everyone else the video games served as a powerful tool for military indoctrination helping to keep up a general level of support for war within the public.
Initially there had been substantial protest within the military, particularly against drone piloting, from real fighter pilots who had trained extensively for the job. One by one they were out of luck. Real pilots simply could not physically handle the gravitational forces of the high-speed maneuvers that the drones were capable of. Some of the highest ranking “droners” were now 19 year-old high school dropouts who had never known an America not at war. There was serious talk from several southern Senators about lowering the age for drone piloting to 16 (keeping the relatively rare actual combat entry to 18) since teenagers by that age were readied for the command station from their war-game-playing youth. Many families sorely welcomed the idea badly needing the extra income their teens would bring in with 8% unemployment having become the new normal for nearly a decade. Parents would never have to worry about losing their sons and daughters in combat.
Remotely fighting enemies overseas became a regular and decently paying nine to five job for many young adults. They often talked openly about how cool it was getting paid to do what they always did for fun - playing video games. Yet, some “soldiers” spoke of a gnawing pain that hung with them when they went home, knowing that somewhere they were responsible for real killing, even though the images on the screen looked just like those in their games. Most drone controllers were still able to function in life, but there was the occasional “freak-out.”
Americans were viewed by populations under fire as being extreme cowards for sending machines to fight instead of humans and collateral damage was frequent as drone controllers often mistook identities over their video screens. The outrage generated by the bombings and attacks provided a steady stream of new terrorist recruits in enemy territories. Yet terrorism was largely seen by Americans to be inevitable, based on an irrational hatred stemming almost entirely from religious doctrine and not as a consequence of any actions Americans were concretely engaged in. Americans saw little choice but to resort to unmanned war to fight the continual flow of terrorism. War was understood as simply a regular government function much like a fire department putting out the blazes that will always flare up somehow.
Over time, leaked footage from drone attacks became a relatively popular new source of underground entertainment as tens of thousands of video clips from unmanned attacks slipped into the public domain. Charges against military personnel for leaking video were extremely rare as it was believed that otherwise too many personnel would be indicted. Some controllers were daring enough to hack into their consoles and stream their feeds live over the internet. Videos had evolved from primitive grainy black and white surveillance footage to super high definition video. Sites like gotwarporn.com and “war porn” searches on YouTube tallied millions of unique hits per month. Many of the most popular clips inspired series of “re-mixes” where users mixed music and comical computer animations in with the macabre scenes.
Overseas, families of collateral damage victims could sometimes find videos of their loved ones being blown to bits in slow motion set to American heavy metal soundtracks. War porn helped magnify outrage abroad over U.S. drone campaigns and further inspired a new generation of terrorists. It also made a noticeable dent in the traditional American reality show market. Older adults generally did not say what many of the droning youth generation spoke amongst themselves - they loved war.
In 2025, fully automated killing was still taboo in Western governments as controversy brewed that artificial intelligence was not yet advanced enough to adequately distinguish between civilians and combatants in all circumstances. No American unmanned systems were programmed to kill without final human authorization.
In 2029, however, China and Russia announced they had produced, in technological partnership, the first divisions of fully automated killing machines. American strategists argued that if we were ever attacked by automated lethal machines, we would have no choice but to counter-attack with our own, as unmanned enemy maneuvers likely would be operating at speeds beyond effective human operational capabilities. Thus, the U.S. military was given the green light to act upon DARPA’s years of research and quickly readied the first U.S. fleet of automated lethal robot soldiers just to be safe.
Although many of today’s unmanned military system trends are distressing, several of which were magnified in the above scenario, the future is not predetermined. There are ways we could avoid bleak scenarios like the one above.
First, I will present two broad ideas that involve changes in the way we conduct the war on terror:
1) Terrorist groups are not regular armies with normal volunteering or the ability to draft; they rely strongly on propaganda and ideology against the West to draw in recruits (more so than we do in the fight against them). Therefore, winning hearts and minds is more important than ever in order to undercut the strength of their propaganda. Nothing gets people on our side like life-saving and other aid missions. Yet aid operations are too limited in war situations partly because of the security threat posed to aid workers. With robotics, we could switch our military focus significantly towards aid operations without risking lives. If drones are configured to deliver aid, and with advances in robotics this could mean anything from food to an automated health clinic, we will effectively undercut terrorist ideology and finally dry the pool of potential terrorists.
2) We could potentially fight terrorism without resorting to lethal means. Perhaps drones could be equipped to deliver a temporarily paralyzing nerve gas, an incapacitating sonic weapon, or some other hi-tech means to momentarily immobilize the enemy and capture him alive. Without soldiers being at risk in combat, it would seem that the need for live fire is unnecessary if we can effectively capture terrorists alive. I believe this possibility is within the reach of our coming technological means. If achieved, it would eliminate collateral damage, probably the main source fueling continual terrorist recruits, and it would help promote a culture of non-violence in America.
There also are citizen-led political movements that could be effective in undercutting some of the negative developing trends. Currently the Supreme Court is hearing a case involving several states, notably California, that want to ban the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. This legislation, if deemed Constitutional, could result in undercutting the military’s increasing turn towards video games for recruitment, training, and indoctrination of young Americans. War porn sites also could be shut down, as some already have been, through obscenity laws (as long as the operator of the site is in the U.S.). Neither of these are perfect solutions and both raise significant First Amendment slippery slope issues, but they are perhaps worth the risk. They are merely a couple of many possibilities that could allow Americans to take action.
Another developing movement that has the potential to make an impact is a robot arms control movement. In recent years, the International Committee for Robot Arms Control was launched by a group of university professors worldwide to tackle many of the issues presented in this article. One of the main parts of their mission is to prevent the development of fully autonomous killing machines. The existence of a group like this is at least a hopeful sign that awareness over these issues could be spread enough to make a political impact.
Jeremy Weissman holds a masterâ€™s degree from the Philosophy and Social Policy Program at George Washington University.
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