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Unmanned War Systems and American Society
Jeremy Weissman   Dec 19, 2010   Ethical Technology  

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.

warbot 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.

drone 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 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.


Interesting and a little disturbing you mention 2025. On youtube there is a documentary ‘terminator robots by the year 2025’. Forget 2012, it looks like 2025 is the year the human race jumps over a cliff. The Singularity better come quick, Ray.

Jeremy, you are obviously well informed about the issue, but I can’t see it holding off until 2025.

Just remember that a government that uses such force on foreigners will sooner or later turn that same technology on its own citizens if it perceives them as a threat to their power.  Power is addictive to any government and once they get used to being unopposed due to overwhelming military power, they can be counted on to turn this technology loose on anyone who dares to question the morality, truth or ethics of such actions and that will always include the population it is supposed to be defending. That’s why the census bureau wants the GPS coordinates of every household in America.  They already have all the rest of the information on Americans it doesn’t like.

@ Frankie - your ideas about Leland Yee seem far-fetched and xenophobic.

Remember back in the 1950s a psychologist named Frederic Wertham almost destroyed the comic book industry. We must not allow the government to censor the industry. Video games are a mature artistic medium.

I believe that there should always be a military. Stephen Hawking says there might be hostile alien life. There also could be friendly alien life that we could develop relations with. I think our military should develop unmanned drones. But they should never develop drones with minds of their own. Humanity should put aside its differences and unite for a better future. Maybe all the militaries of the world should unite into one force to defend humanity from possible extraterrestrial threats. Like the Global Defense Initiative from command and conquer.

Either you stand with us gamers or you join the censors. Freedom or censorship! Choose!

2011: Only a matter of time until the govt controls what we eat and drink. America is not a free as it seems and it’s a shame.  We will take back America.

The grand irony here is that laws like this aren’t even supported by the poor quality parents who let their TVs do the teaching. They’re too busy posting videos on YouTube of their kids cussing out people on Xbox Live.

This time it’s quite different. IIRC, it’s making rounds US Supreme Court, with a ruling to be made next spring / summer or so. In other words, this time could be the last time. If the Justices rule that games are protected by the first amendment, it will set a precedent that would make such laws either entirely irrelevant, or produce a willingness of both sides to support constructive regulation as opposed to censorship in the future.

Video games are being used as a scapegoat and a way for politicians to get votes, not to protect anyone.

Censorship will not prevail!

An interesting book people might want to check out is “The Ten-Cent Plague” - a review of the cultural panic surrounding comic books in the 1950s. Most people have probably heard something about those times, but read up more on it to find out just how insane society got… over comics.

The same kind of outright and concerted persecution that happened to comics in the 50s is what is being arranged against video games now. When senate hearings happened, dozens of suspiciously timed and convenient studies were trotted out to prove that comic books where utter poison and destroying children’s lives. Even when the studies in and of themselves may have been scientific, they were often presented in a vacuum of context (as I am sure this study will be used very quickly.)

The other side of the coin with that persecution is that comic book makers of the 50s were legitimately outrageous. People have to understand that the content of those comics was like “outrageous” violent video games today - Manhunt, Mortal Kombat, Grand Theft Auto. Comics were full of murder, graphic violence and decapitated bodies, prostitutes, crime, and demonic horror. All this was shut down by the end of the 50s by self-imposed censorship of the comics industry.

Video games are in a similar state now, where, freedom of expression or not, game makers are hot on pushing the extreme for the sake of itself and helping critics and persecutors of video games build a strawman argument. (In the comics war, a famous scene involved the owner of EC Comics trying to justify to a Senate panel how a picture of an anti-hero holding a gory dripping severed head in a kid’s comic was art.)

The situation is somewhat different today, as the video game industry is bigger and more entwined with broad media companies than comic books ever were. There’s more money to throw around and to hire lawyers with, and less of mainstream culture is taken over by puritanical morality - despite the moral minority’s attempts to scream the loudest and dominate the discussion. Still, it’s going to be messy and interesting to see how this pans out for video games.

I’ll play devil’s advocate when I say that in essence having a law wouldn’t necessarily be all that bad in regards to mature content in the retail market. HOWEVER, there are flaws in the bill that prevent it from actually being an effective measure for there to be a sustainable law.

Keep in mind, we’ve had the ESRB for years. Yet, all those ratings have been guidelines. Only through our own sensibilities have we chosen to uphold them as a self-sustaining rule for gaming. It works, but we can’t admit that it’s flawless. There’s still a small percentage that ignores the efforts of the ESRB and game industry simply to make a few extra sales.

That’s where politics comes in and has a frenzy. With a law, the theory is that the whole retail procedure will become 100%; that no minor will ever from now on be lucky enough to get a mature game. That sounds good, but what ratings will they use? Is there any chance they’ll adopt the ESRB rating system?

Therein lies the problem: new ratings.

If we have new ratings, that’s a large shift in the American game industry. Will it destroy that region of the industry? No, and I don’t buy into the fear mongering that we’ll experience a crash or other claims of an apocalypse. The issue is that we may see a change in what is Mature and what would be Adult Only.

I can guarantee that stores will carry video games still as, come on, not every single video game on the market is violent. What’s the issue is how the government will handle games like Dead Space 2 and Killzone 3. Will we have a government equivalent of Mature and Adult? Would stores still carry popular titles if they were Adult?

I think I can answer that last one a bit. If, for say, we had a popular franchise that became Adult, I believe the profit would sway stores in their perception on such media. Yes, they’ll most likely have to have such games under the counter where the existence of such titles is only known by… well, people like us who are aware of a game’s existence months or years in advance before it hits store shelves. Still, stores would most likely be very on which Adult titles they stock under their own counters.

Overall, we see the main flaw in this ordeal: it’s too vague. What is violent? What about “cartoon violence” that we see in E10+ and Teen titles? Is Mario going to stop stomping on creatures now?

As I said, I’ve played devil’s advocate for this bill before, but only for the idea behind it. In truth, I’ve always seen this particular bill as a waste of effort and time that doesn’t effectively provide any kind of response to the shift it is asking for an entire regional industry to undertake.

Also, we’re safe here. We are talking about a ruling on business and not so much a culture. As I said, if this were to pass it would cause a large shift in industry standards. The Supreme Court will basically affirm what the lower courts have ruled for over a decade because I highly doubt they’ll be oblivious to the implications of approving what is a revision in widespread media.

Unfortunately, all the demonstrations in the world won’t make any difference. The US government has massive double standards and blind spots when it comes to video games, and will think nothing of coming up with incredibly convoluted excuses as to why games don’t deserve the same free speech protections awarded to other mediums.

Like every branch of the US government, the supreme court is staffed entirely with old people who don’t know and don’t WANT to know anything about video games. Like all the other branches, they will happily toss out all semblance of logic and reason in order to differentiate video games from every other medium.

So, this blatantly unconstitutional law will be upheld, and Wal-Mart will stop carrying any video game rated M, and probably even T. And since American game publishers won’t greenlight any game that Wal-Mart won’t carry, this will effectively demolish the American games industry, causing a mass exodus to Europe and Japan (and since Atkinson is finally retiring, Australia as well). Wave bye-bye to the Xbox 360, as well as the FPS genre in general (since they are an almost uniquely American genre).

Why is it constitutional to prohibit x-rated movies from being purchased by minors, but it is unconstitutional to prohibit children from partaking in near photo-realistic “kill frenzies” on civilians in Grand Theft Auto? 

Why should we allow this twisted American double-standard to remain?  If it is so to preserve free-speech, then why are the people advocating for the child’s right to violent video games not advocating for a child’s right to pornography or pornographic video games for that matter?

When we allow our children to grow up immersed in violence - it is no surprise that the army has now found a way to exploit this situation and start turning our children into professional killers through their own video games starting with their wildly popular game “America’s Army”.

@ Frankie - a war game is violent - it’s a violent video game bloody or not.  The main problem I have with the trend of the army adopting these games for recruitment/ training/ propaganda purposes is that they are targeted at teens.  There is something wrong about targeting minors for military recruitment through a fun game.  We wouldn’t allow this in “real” life so we shouldn’t allow it in the “virtual” world.

Nice scenario. The key question to answer is how to decouple the MIC from the civilian sector. Trickledown is no longer an issue, as civilian technology is much more powerful than mil spec stuff these days. For example, the predator and reaper UAVs use rotax engines, which are also used in snowmobiles. Easy enough for a terrorist to adapt a control system and build the frame (plain old aluminum). Plans for small aircraft are cheap on the internet.

You want to control video games? All you have to do is get the ISPs to charge for bandwidth like the cell providers are starting to do. That will severely limit play time without violating any constitutional laws. Good for ISPs, bad for gamers.

The history of where we are at with the militarization of America really starts with the Vietnam war and the revolution in military affairs. The military changed its image to gain public support shortly after the draft was abolished. Want to change it back? Reinstate the draft and fight another unpopular war. When soldiers aren’t considered heroes, war becomes difficult for a president to engage in.

Also, by 2025 physical terrorism may be much less of a problem than cyberterrorism. I recall that early predator drones could be hacked. Were I to try to fight the US, id try to do this with the more advanced models and try to get them to target each other. That way my “terrorists” wouldn’t have to die any more than the US soldiers, and we wouldn’t have to pay for equipment. The dropping cost of computers and the extension of broadband service to regions where terrorism is on the rise would give militant “others” the means to learn to hack a lot more than just drones. Want to destroy America? Hack Capitol One and frag the debt records.

Frankly im surprised that terrorists haven’t mounted an artillery shell on a $20 RC car yet. Im also waiting for the day that an american kid walks into his high school with a suicide vest. An event like that would make Columbine look like a pleasant memory. Something like that could serve as justification to ban war porn by changing the way the public precieves it. Banning it will not work.

I think you give technology a bit too much credit Jeremy. Check out Millennium Challenge 2002. It was a simulation where a former US commander played a rogue middle eastern dictator and sank half the US fleet using motorcycle couriers and fishing boats. After the US was beat, SECDEF raised the fleet and told the commander he could only use high technology. He lost, Rumsfeld proved our technology was better than “their” technology, and less than a year later we invaded Iraq.

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