Futurist Thomas Frey: A robot does not kill someone out of fear, anger, or desperation. They kill because someone told them to do it. At least that the way it works with our current generation of robots. What comes next may be a different story.
Normally, when we think about war, it has to do with countries using their armies to fight other countries, or in the case of a civil war, countries torn apart by internal rival factions.
But that line of thinking is far too narrow for the conflicts in our future as our choice of weaponry and choice of battlefront continues to expand.
From my perspective, the traditional country vs. country war tends to be far more about political theater, a theater that plays out on the world stage in full view of the public, than the subversive battles being fought over countless levels of minutia in the background.
In fact, very few wars are being waged between countries.
Consider an example of an industry war where the use of steel is threatened by a new synthetic material, and the entire industry decides to go to war.
Since this new material threatens the very livelihood of this lucrative and well-established industry, a black-ops steel team goes to work.
Using a multi-pronged approach, the team first launches an intellectual property war, filing a series of patents along with a series of patent infringement lawsuits, to delay production.
At the same time studies are commissioned to uncover any possible danger with the core ingredient including such things as potential danger to handlers, danger to children and pregnant women, environmental dangers, and more. Once the studies are in its only a matter of manipulating the results to sway public opinion.
Generally speaking, if a mature industry decides to declare war on an emerging technology, the new kid on the block generally doesn’t have a chance. Covert resources can be used to change public perception, alter tariffs, rewrite standards, plant damaging articles in blogs and industry press, and destroy the personal reputation of key players in the fledgling business.
If you think this scenario is a unique story, you’re not paying attention. And adding robots and automation to this type of war will be like pouring gasoline on a fire.
Calling for a Ban on Autonomous Robotic Systems
A number of influential people are now calling for a ban on autonomous robotic systems in war, but this will be impossible to implement in any effective way.
It’s impossible for two reasons. First, because it will not be possible to define autonomous and robotic systems in any meaningful way, and second, because it will not be possible to define war.
In many cases, the benefits of technology far outweigh the downside. Robots don’t need to take breaks, stop and eat lunch, or get scared of loud noises. They don’t need to wear eye protection when its dusty, put breathing masks on when there’s chemicals in the air, or spend time finding clean water to drink.
Defensive robotic systems are generally programmed differently than offensive ones, but even a rescue robot can be instructed to kill anything that impedes with a rescue.
Similarly, a troop transport can easily be coded to automatically kill or destroy anything that prevents it from getting to its destination. However, it will also be easy to leave the troops out and send an automated troop transport like this directly into the heart of an enemy camp and this vehicle that was intended to be an automated “defensive” system quickly becomes the most lethal “offensive” tool in the arsenal.
Rethinking Autonomous Robotic Systems
Whatever label we place on automation used in war, there will always be an exception or workaround.
An autonomous robotic system is generally one that “thinks” or makes some limited set of decisions for itself. The thinking part comes into play with a complex set of AI algorithms capable of simulating human decision-making. Couple this with a walking, talking machine and there is plenty of room for alarm.
But as frightening as the potential downside may be, we’re not there yet. Not even close. In fact, we’ve only taken the first step, in what may very well be a thousand step journey, and there are innumerable benefits that can be gained from taking the next few steps.
Autonomous robotic systems are what pilots a driverless car, boat, or tractor. They will be used to walk our dogs, fly drones, harvest apples, cook our food, pick up trash, and do all the things we don’t want to do.
When it comes to security, they will watch our homes, protect our children, guard our wealth, and keep us healthy.
For every negative scenario there are a thousand positive ones to offset it, at least for now. However, every new technology, created with all the best intentions, has the potential for getting coopted and turned into a tool for destruction.
Since all of this technology is still evolving, and evolving in ways none of us can understand, it is far too early to start placing limits on how it can be used.
Rethinking Battlefronts and the Concept of War
Just as our tools change so does our concept of war. The power and influence of an individual will grow exponentially as more tools and technology becomes available to everyone.
As a way of sparking your imagination, I’m listing a few of the emerging battlefronts as we go through this process of redefining war.
- Data wars
- NGO wars
- Religious wars
- Culture wars
- Language wars
- Reputation wars
- Standards wars
- Intellectual property wars
- Personal property wars
- Advertising wars
- Political wars
- Artificial intelligence wars
- Drug wars
- Legacy wars
- Lifestyle wars
- Automation wars
- Time & freedom wars
- Ownership wars
- Enforcement wars
- Nutrition wars
- Game wars
- Innovation wars
- Biotech pandemic wars
- Nanotech wars
- Heritage wars
- Network wars
- Emerging tech wars
- Wars of perception
- Isolation wars
- Economic wars
- Industry wars
- Autonomy wars
- Redistricting wars
- Tax wars
Yes, a war that involves guns, bombs, and killing people is vastly different than a nutrition war or a lifestyle war. But to some, destroying a person’s reputation, social network, and their legacy may be a fate far worse than dying on the battlefield.
In the past, wars have been based on intense emotions such as anger, hatred, and fear.
However, unmanned robotic systems can be designed without the same intense emotions that cloud judgment or result in anger and frustration with ongoing battlefield events.
Automated intelligent systems can integrate more information from more sources far faster before responding with lethal force than a human ever could in real-time.
We run an extreme risk of letting Hollywood influence our thinking in this area. Autonomous systems have the potential of creating a far safer world for us to live in, but that should in no way be construed as living in a world without struggle.
Whether they’re personal battles, corporate battles, or cultural and religious battles, we will all have more than enough challenges to go around, and robots are destine to play a big part in that future.