Killer robots and a revolution in warfare

By Bernd Debusmann
April 22, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

They have no fear, they never tire, they are not upset when the soldier next to them gets blown to pieces. Their morale doesn’t suffer by having to do, again and again, the jobs known in the military as the Three Ds – dull, dirty and dangerous.

They are military robots and their rapidly increasing numbers and growing sophistication may herald the end of thousands of years of human monopoly on fighting war. “Science fiction is moving to the battlefield. The future is upon us,” as Brookings scholar Peter Singer put it to a conference of experts at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania this month.

Singer just published Wired For War – the Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, a book that traces the rise of the machines and predicts that in future wars they will not only play greater roles in executing missions but also in planning them.

Numbers reflect the explosive growth of robotic systems. The U.S. forces that stormed into Iraq in 2003 had no robots on the ground. There were none in Afghanistan either. Now those two wars are fought with the help of an estimated 12,000 ground-based robots and 7,000 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the technical term for drone, or robotic aircraft.

Ground-based robots in Iraq have saved hundreds of lives in Iraq, defusing improvised explosive devices, which account for more than 40 percent of U.S. casualties. The first armed robot was deployed in Iraq in 2007 and it is as lethal as its acronym is long: Special Weapons Observation Remote Reconnaissance Direct Action System (SWORDS). Its mounted M249 machinegun can hit a target more than 3,000 feet away with pin-point precision.

From the air, the best-known UAV, the Predator, has killed dozens of insurgent leaders – as well as scores of civilians whose death has prompted protests both from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Predators are flown by operators sitting in front of television monitors in cubicles at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, 8,000 miles from Afghanistan and Taliban sanctuaries on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan. The cubicle pilots in Nevada run no physical risks whatever, a novelty for men engaged in war.


Reducing risk, and casualties, is at the heart of the drive for more and better robots. Ultimately, that means “fully autonomous engagement without human intervention,” according to an Army communication to robot designers. In other words, computer programs, not a remote human operator, would decide when to open fire. What worries some experts is that technology is running ahead of deliberations of ethical and legal questions.

Robotics research and development in the U.S. received a big push from Congress in 2001, when it set two ambitious goals: by 2010, a third of the country’s long-range attack aircraft should be unmanned; and by 2015 one third of America’s ground combat vehicles. Neither goal is likely to be met but the deadline pushed non-technological considerations to the sidelines.

A recent study prepared for the Office of Naval Research by a team from the California Polytechnic State University said that robot ethics had not received the attention it deserved because of a “rush to market” mentality and the “common misconception” that robots will do only what they have been programmed to do.

“Unfortunately, such a belief is sorely outdated, harking back to the time when computers were simpler and their programs could be written and understood by a single person,” the study says. “Now programs with millions of lines of code are written by teams of programmers, none of whom knows the entire program; hence, no individual can predict the effect of a given command with absolute certainty since portions of programs may interact in unexpected, untested ways.”

That’s what might have happened during an exercise in South Africa in 2007, when a robot anti-aircraft gun sprayed hundreds of rounds of cannon shell around its position, killing nine soldiers and injuring 14.

Beyond isolated accidents, there are deeper problems that have yet to be solved. How do you get a robot to tell an insurgent from an innocent? Can you program the Laws of War and the Rules of Engagement into a robot? Can you imbue a robot with his country’s culture? If something goes wrong, resulting in the death of civilians, who will be held responsible?

The robot’s manufacturer? The designers? Software programmers? The commanding officer in whose unit the robot operates? Or the U.S. president who in some cases authorizes attacks? (Barack Obama has given the green light to a string of Predator strikes into Pakistan).

While the United States has deployed more military robots – on land, in the air and at sea – than any other country, it is not alone in building them. More than 40 countries, including potential adversaries such as China, are working on robotics technology. Which leaves one to wonder how the ability to send large numbers of robots, and fewer soldiers, to war will affect political decisions on force versus diplomacy.

You need to be an optimist to think that political leaders will opt for negotiation over war once combat casualties come home not in flag-decked coffins but in packing crates destined for the robot repair shop.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Having recently watched the final episode of Battlestar Galatica, this article make me pause and think if a Cylon could actually be in our future. The beauty (or anxiety) of Hard Science Fiction is the concept that if a mind can conceive it, eventually it can achieve it. Most likely it will be a different generation of humans that build a Cylon clone but I suspect it will happen. The other question to ask would be can a Battlestar space craft be long behind a Cylon clone, but that would be a different story altogether.

You did fail to mention the PTSD type of mental health issues of the folks that have to pull the trigger of the drones, that in video game style are killing and destroying life and property of the targets the drones are sent to destroy. A Cylon might be better suited to pull these triggers to avoid the damage now inflicted on these remote drone pilots of today. Just another issue to deal with to avoid the damage of seeing the destruction of the drones up close.

Personally I would like to scrap a UAV or an UMAV than someone’s son or daughter and i think that is the whole point of robotics. I believe that human evolution is reaching a stage where we question why should we fight and kill over arguments that are petty?

Posted by Adam | Report as abusive

Note so many seem to kind of recommend this “robot war machines”. Just have them cruise about on land or sea or air and use some hit tech killing ammo to do the job.
But most seem to forget one tiny little detail.. Remember when OBL posted way back, “I want the USA to get into war in Mideast, it will get bogged down and financially ruined. etc”
So far OBL seems to have only plan on Iraq, Afg that has worked. For the younger folks (under 45 or so) that skipped that “Boring ole history stuff as I am a techie and do not need it”, well you may be about to pay the price for such slovenly educations. During NAM the Sec Defense got all hot about “hi tech electronic wall across NAM etc etc is the way to win”. Well we know the results of that one, and for the less then informed, raq and more so Afg, are not to much more then another NAM, except no draft and no taxes to pay for them. Kind of entered USA into “wars of convenience to USA population and only few, mostly lower incomes end attend such things now days.
Now if all think “robots do it better” best ask the cost.. how much for one “Hellfire” or such rocket from a drone? How much for the robots, how much for the hi tech ammo and while sounds a bit cold, how much is it costing to kill one of the bad guys? I would guess we could probably drop the cost of one “hi tech bomb” on the bad guys and tell them “more on the way if you stop fighting” then the cost we pay for killing one and the additional “moral costs to USA” when the robot does an “oops got the wrong family” or such?
Seems like we cannot really afford, morally or financially, the “let the robot do it” killing machines. Know it sounds so clean, saves “USA lives-Troops etc”, but when we get to that point of “cost effective clean killing” we have lost. That one little guy out there in the bush with the AK47 or RPG, costs us how much to kill? And we must then ask, how many of them are there? Sorry while DOD and Pentagon so love the dollars for such toys, the financial, moral and autonomous “clean” of the killing machines will end up as another step down the slippery slope of failure the USA seems already going down. Lots of guys out there with the AK’s. and every time we “go hi tech”, we have lost, even Germany had “out tech’d the allies” and so far it seems OBL was right.
Want to win wars morally and physically and financially, bring back the draft and have the nation go to war, only then will we “win”, morally, financially and physically?

Posted by Chuck | Report as abusive

I am a fairly right-wing, hawkish individual, but I foresee several possible problems with autonomous robot warriors. In the best case, they may muck up and waste a bunch of civilians, and who then is to blame? Do you sue the company that built the robot? Do you sue the President? These are important questions.

Imagine that Osama bin Laden were located in Waziristan. Imagine that we sent a robot in to kill him, and imagine that it succeeds. Who killed bin Laden? Was it the remote pilot operating the drone? Was it the US Army?

In the gravest extreme, an army of autonomous, superintelligent warriors may well decide their own course of action. If they do, we can’t escape from them. We are mere bugs, trees to them.

What needs to be asked and answered is, “Is it wise to produce an army of indestructible warriors who can target an enemy in a millisecond?” Ww dM

I’d much rather have a nice .308 rifle around than one of these things. I don’t trust them. They have Windows problems.

Posted by David | Report as abusive

“Of all the endeavors of mankind, war is by far the greatest of follies. The injured parties losses are always multiplied and never indemnified.” (Thomas Jefferson) So why do we continue to fight wars? The reasons are many. Reducing the risk of the warrior to become a casualty is not the answer. A society with the ability to wage war with out casualty will become an agent of terror bringing death and destruction to those who are unable to defend themselves and possess something the aggressor wants or needs.

A war of machine against machine has no purpose. Ultimately all wars are fought over control of resources. Mineral, agricultural, industrial and human resources are some of the underlying causes of war. If the human cost of war is virtually eliminated it will become all to easy to resort to it’s use as a solution for needs other than self defense. Will we simply close our borders and send robots to take what we need from other lands and bring it all back to us? Will we ever live up to the concepts of the “Rights of Man” and the self determination of indigenous peoples?

In the end Sun Tzu prevails. If a society does not bend to the will of an overwhelming aggressor that society will be destroyed raising the risk of genocide as does atomic and other weapons of mass destruction. In the face of such destruction recruitment for violent resistance will escalate as well as terrorist responses. Sun Tzu councils this is the weapon of choice for those oppressed by overwhelming force.

At this late stage in the development of civilization war should be obsolete. How is it we except the necessity of war and simply argue how to wage it? The conflicts of this century can be traced to the wars of the last century. If humans do not find a better way to coexist on this planet, then our technology and war will make the human race and much of life on Earth obsolete.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

I have a few problems with these stupid ideas. Robots need controllers which happen to be humans and so the usefulness of the robots are the function of the controllers. The robots can only follow orders. In the battle field, the situation is so fluid that contingency plan and to perform extempore depend on gut feeling and intuition which would be impossible for the controllers miles away without the real time nuanced knowledge to posses these intuitive reactions. In short, it will be the blind leading the blind. Am exercise in futility and failure to start with.
Another problem is the cost. Remember the smart bombs, how cost effective are they in combat. Raining 1000 smart bombs to a city could cost millions if not billion.
The US war in Iraq and Afganistan was labeled by Joseph Stiglitz as a 3 Trillions war. The US just can afford this.
So let have a collective cold shower: it is better to jaw jaw than to war war, stupid!
Trust me, as one of the translator of Sun Zi’s the war of war, my advice is peace not war.

Posted by superglue | Report as abusive

doesn’t anyone remember Terminator?

Posted by Barbara | Report as abusive

I think it kinda backfired in that movie…

Posted by Barbara | Report as abusive

I’m looking forward to the day when people of the world start doing to the US what it is doing around the world.
Realy can not blame anyone for any action against a US citizen found outside of the US. You can not trust them.

Posted by michael | Report as abusive

After reading this article, I would recommend anyone who hasn’t already, to check out Bill Joy’s(co-founder of Sun Microsystems) article for ‘Wired’ in April 2000 titled,
“Why the future doesn’t need us”
Bill Joy has quite a different take on the future of technology than Mr Debusmann.

Posted by Barry | Report as abusive

The automation of warfare will be the next breakthrough since the creation of the guided missile.

A soldier requires a fortune of time and resources, just to become the commanding component in various war machinery. Whether that machine is a jet, vehicle, or assault rifle.

Soon we will reach a point when the equipment itself can be automated. So that instead of the cost of a soldiers, you can spend the money on more automated weapons.

The automated army will no longer be subject to morale, fear or exhaustion. Conventional warfare will be transformed into a cold, surgical process.

Where the enemy is systematically hunted down, at all times of the day, no matter where they choose to hide.

Knowing that the enemy that hunts them can never be frightened or cowed. And that no matter how hard they may fight, no enemy soldiers will ever die.

The threat of conventional warfare, as we know it, will cease to be.

From that point on, we will then need to shift attention to preventing further nations from gaining nuclear weapons in breach the NPT, and the rise of unconventional terrorism activities.

And who knows? Automated weaponry may prove effective for those issues too. Only time will tell.

Posted by Skynet | Report as abusive

Let’s get some Strategy 101 stuff straight – wars are not fought over resources. That is a highly simplified synthesis that fails to explain the majority of wars and campaigns of human history. Consider this: why are we in Afghanistan? Is there an international shortage of carpets and exotic nuts? Yep, apart from opium, that is their official national products (there is no oil… no, really – there is no oil). Why did Germany invade Greece during WWII? Not enough olives and feta cheese to go around for everybody? And why the current conflict in Gaza? Is sand and rubble now a vital commodity?

No… war is the continuation of foreign policy by other means. Wars are fought because the alternative avenues of foreign policy execution (e.g. diplomacy) are no longer considered viable to bring about a desirable political outcome.

And what will those “other means” be? The sacrifice of human lives? Is it a matter of “We’ve killed more of you than what you have killed of us, therefore we win and we’re going home now?” Once again, this is an over-simplification. Did the US win the war in Vietnam? Did the Imperial Japanese forces win the battle of Iwo Jima? No… on both accounts (and there are thousands more examples), the side that had lost the most lives, was the side that had ‘won’ (however you wish to define that).

So why is that? You need two things to conduct a war successfully. The Military Means, and the Political Will. You need both… having just one will not cut it.

Let’s consider the easy one, Military Means. Simply put, this is the ability to put a force of appropriate composition and size, with the right training and the right equipment, at the right place, at the right time, ready for the tactical challenges it may face. There are a number of key words here, so let’s deal with them quickly –

Composition: send a pure infantry force into open rolling terrain with no armour support, and you’d better increase your body bag budget.
Size: send 100 men to do the work of 1000, and you’d better start composing those letters of condolences.
Training: send those specialist Tundra Mountain troops into Libya, but don’t expect too many to come back home.
Equipment: send your troops, armed only with knives into a gunfight and lose the next election. But send your troops, armed with guns, into a knife fight?

Ok, since we know that the Western Allies have all of the above, and we clearly have the Military Means, why aren’t we finding these wars a walk in the park?

On to the tough one then… Political Will. And that is “you”. The politicians you vote for, the papers you read, the news channels you watch, the comments you make by the water cooler, the rallies you attend, the blog contributions you write. That is “you”, stating in 2003: “I will no longer drink French wines because when we asked them to join us in purging Iraq of WMD, they described it as a folly…” And in 2009? Do you now “know” what the French “knew” in 2003? And those flag-covered coffins… don’t you just hate the sight of them?

Now how can I put this politely… The problem with modern warfare is… lack of Political Will, therefore – you. You are the problem. You want the President to wear boots, but you do not want flag-covered coffins. You want a nice stand-off war, the type of thing you can watch while having your TV dinner, quick resolution, no own casualties. You want “Rambo VI: Johnny does Teheran.” And all of that “want” floats up to the top… and then showers down on the Military Planners. So back to Military Means.

Those key concepts of above? They relate to one another… they interact. As a simple example: we have two stretches of the front, each 10 km wide that needs to be patrolled. Put in men on foot, and it will take two patrols (let’s say of 10 men each) 3 hours of hard marching to execute. And then 3 hours to get back. That is 6 hours that these twenty men are unavailable for any other task. So let’s replace that 20 men with 10 men on mountain bikes. Now 10 men can do the job of a force twice their size… they can patrol both stretches in the same time. We can now use the other 10 men for another task, or even send them home. In this example, the mountain bike is referred to as a “force multiplier”: which is what it does… it allows a force of 10 men to do the work of 20 men. And there are many examples of “force multipliers” in warfare and military equipment. We accelerate mobility and boost fire power, enabling one man to do the work of many. But in the end, a mountain bike on its own will not patrol the front. It is only a multiplier… not a force.

Don’t think of “robots” in terms of Terminator-styled AI enabled cyborgs only… that is once again too simplified (and still very much Sci-Fi anyway). A practical example, auto-loaders have allowed the Russians to reduce their tank crews by one member – they only need three crew members per main battle tank, whereas Western MBT’s need four crew members. For an Armoured Division (with circa 350 tanks), that is 350 less people needed to operate the equipment – enough to create another battalion. And so, UAV’s replace the 10 men on mountain bikes, future tanks could have auto-loaders and remote drivers (but perhaps still have gunners and commanders), pilotless planes will criss-cross over the theatre. Will we be assured of winning wars? Errrm, there is still that little issue of Political Will – and all of this automation does not include a replacement of you. So… no, probably not.

Two things are for certain though: as much as nuclear weapons did not pan out to be the “final weapon” of warfare in the previous century – but served a vital role in the determination of force composition, equipment and training, so too will battlefield automation shape (and even dominate) future warfare… but never as the “final weapon” – only ever as a force multiplier.

And finally, the harder you holler for quick, clean, easy warfare, the more battlefield automation will increase… and the cost. We will get the same outcome though – in the same way as modern PC’s are as slow as their 1990′s predecessors.,, just more capable.

Posted by Quintin | Report as abusive

Opium is a pretty big reason to fight wars. It has happened before, you know? Too bad the countries that consume the most and have invested most heavily in its production and export are claiming to be the most righteous and civilized, such as the UK and the USA.

As a small reminder let me say that Afghanistan has more than carpets to sell; it is the major supplier of lapis lazuli in the world and also is potentially one of the greatest suppliers of both semi and precious gems in Asia. The mountains of this country hold a great wealth in marble and granite alone and certain precious stones can only be found in Afhganistan, as certain colors of marble and granite too. The quality of its turquoise has been recognized for centuries. Lapis and turquoise have been one of the most prized exports to the Middle East and Europe – both for jewelry and for artwork.
In fact, poppy growing for drugs is but one way to make money. The mountains are ideal for thrill seekers from around the world who simply wish to climb them – tourism is a golden opportunity that will not allow itself to be denied for much longer.
There are some beautiful forests there that would be making more money if tourists were brought in rather than if pakistani lumber companies clear-cut them. But still, good quality timber is a well sought after product.
Perhaps it’s the overall lack of information about Afghanistan that has us imagining it as an ugly place with nothing but warlords, opium and poverty to give to the world.
Certainly, the Soviets thought it was worth burying a few of their comrades over it and remain at war for a while.

To say that all wars are about resources is absolutely correct. It’s all the junk like religion or other media garbage that is used to hide that fact. Afghanistan has perhaps more to offer than Gaza ever will and I agree that occupation of Gaza territories should end because there are no resources for Israel to exploit…right?

Posted by Wave that Dan | Report as abusive

About the USA morality of the Hi tech weapons. Care to measure the USA morality on use of hi tech weapon systems? Remember Iraq War 1, when “USA is victorious” which was about 200% assured ahead of time.
Iraq was in truth a zero rated power. Unfortunately for them, a Bush and “the old R guard” was looking for a bit of “Pay back” to Iraq-SH, our FORMER MID EAST ALLIE, AKA SH. Set up was our Ambassador kind of shrugged shoulders when SH asked about our intentions in region verse his intentions in region.
USA officially, as world watched, know of gave a “not our concern” response, Kissinger Inc and ole Henry dropped by, picked up check for %600K for “services”. Rumsfield had been photographed shaking hands with SH,(hmmmm, now the R’s howl about Obama and Venezuela Pres shaking hands???)
Since appeared none really cared,SH moved Iraq on Kuwaitt, suddenly Exxon, Mobile, Saud’s et al, called their “former employees now employed in DC-big campaign money recipients, and tossed a few million to bobby and PR folks. Congress did it thing, had a little girl lie on floor of congress about “they took babies from incubators etc”, sob/tears. Great theater but nearly entire press and congress knew she was the Kuwaiti’s Ambassador’s daughter in USA entire time, was never there, but it played well on spin cycles in media’s.
Ole USA, needed to show world how tough we were, after all DOD was spending billions of billions, for what” Pols’ pontificated, media spun, DOD-DC-oil all beating war drums, pushing. “Green light” went on, DOD shoving to get media as to how great they were, shot everything they could find, even sub launched missiles at Irag. DOD contractors saw billions for this one. The spin, patriotic music and all the 30 sec bits of our hi tech killing was kind of a war version of “American Idol” as to which systems we liked best. That stealth fighter won as was “really hi tech” but have competition from the errie glow of missiles launched, and tanks lined up at border. And.. of course we had all sorts of stuff on “Patriots knock down Iraq scuds, which never happened but made great press and Raytheon stock went up. We watched the tapes on TV and waved our little USA flags imported from China, with great vigor.
It seems we blamed SH when we “Oops”, dropped “smart bomb” down building and killed a few hundred innocents, prior to that, same “opps” was “look how that neat ole bomb went right down the elevator shaft”.
Our military whom must have a Division of two just to do such things, never one to miss a new phrase, gave us “collateral damage”. No doubt, some General looking for one more star felt “Oops we killed some (more) civilians by mistake” had solution! The world was introduced to the “USA world of hi tech killing machine’s Oops” as “Collateral damages”. Much cleaner and vague, as if “we lent them something and they did not pay it back, so we bombed our “Collateral” etc or some such twisted thing.
Had any studied history the might remember Spain’s civil war when Hitler’s Germany “helped out with then “hi tech”. Reader might find many felt it was more a test of Hitler’s, for his day, new hi tech weapons and related as did USA in Iraq 1. NOTE WW2 Germany out tech’d the allies by any measurement, but lost? So one might almost compare the testing in Spain to the first Iraq shooter”s when all the data is laid out and looked at. We note the similiarity between USSR and USA in AFG, only reason USSR got hit was we furnished hi tech SAM’s etc to our then buds, the Taliban, which we created and supported.
We also established “collaterial damage” as buzz word for innocents killed, which stunned the civilized world. But the REAL MORAL evaluation of our “hi tech” was when General S, in really happy mood for “kicking their butts” ran his little tape showing a $3K army truck on a bridge in Iraq getting taken out by our $500K (plus) “smart bomb” dropped by our multi-million dollar fighter.
He pointed at it being blown up with some poor private or such in it, as he and staff, and probably most of USA laughed as ole USA, now victorious over SH etc etc. We told world,laughed at and admired the hi tech kill, explained “Looks like he (driver) had a bad day”.. laugh, laugh laugh”.
There was some bits of morality, later in “The War” it was reported some pilots refused to attack Iraq’s headed home in trucks, cars etc from Kuwait in massive traffic jam. called a “turkey shoot” as they did not consider them dangerous to anyone. A few moral warriors left, and for those that never served, quite often the combat people whom respect the other side, not the desk warrior. “Mr. Charles” was a respectful term for VC and such during NAM, used by the “grunts”.. who often said “they are good”.. admittedly not like in the movies or DC or “briefings” but it was the reality of combat.
So we again, as in NAM’s “hi tech electronic wall”, which kileed lots of water buffs’, USA AGAIN introduced to the “new hi tech warrior machines”. The Pentagon and DC remembered what truth did to the NAM, no more “Reality stuff”, instead “USA laughed along with hi tech war”.
Now days in this neat new “clean war” we are show IR photos from drones of folks being taken out by rockets, bombs etc”, This now kind of “newsy” and fun to see like some PC game, about as clean as we can make war. There is ofo course that nasty, the occasional “oops” which morally explained away as “price they (oopsr’s) pay for being around the bad guys. So the justifications and morality of using the “killing robots etc” by us is well established.
War is not attended nor even paid for by most now days in USA. Rather to most here a laugh or admiration of how “good we have got” here in USA. War is just “ultimate fun reality show”, despite “oop’s and all” which we can then morally vote off the show?

Posted by Chuck | Report as abusive

Ah Wave that Dan, you are of course referring to the Opium Wars (or the Anglo-Chinese Wars) fought from 1839 to 1842 because China did *not* want the British to smuggle opium into China. So that is kind of a negative resource war… the Chinese didn’t want it. But still, I grant you that there had been a war fought over opium in the past.

So tell me… do you really believe that we are waging a war in Afghanistan over opium? As a resource? Really?

You must have heard of the Taliban? By the way, from 2001, under Taliban rule, Afghanistan hardly produced any opium. So why are we in Afghanistan? Is it because we want opium? Or don’t we? I’m confused now. If this war is about us not wanting opium, we should just let the Taliban take control again – war over. If the war is about us wanting opium… now there is a conspiracy theory for you. Why would the Western governments spend so much money and effort in keeping opium and its derivatives off the streets?

So maybe it is the lapis lazuli then. “We’re going in boys… gotta keep that lapis lazuli flowing.”

Or perhaps Wave that Dan… you will recognise that this conflict (and the vast majority of others) are not fought purely over resources. Life is really a lot more complex than that.

Finally, I was not attempting to belittle the country (or any country for that matter). I was making a point regarding the prevalent view that all wars are fought over resources. A point which, by the way, you lent a lot of credibility to with your references to coloured granite, marble and tourism. So there is no need to jump to Afghanistan’s defence. The discussion is about battlefield automation – not tourism and coloured granite.

Posted by Quintin | Report as abusive

There is one very important detail regarding the resources of the mining industry in Afghanistan. According to the Afghanistan’s Geological Survey – nfo.htm
from which I take the liberty of cuting and pasting the following:

“There are two main areas prospective for uranium in Afghanistan that warrant further exploration. Arguably the more interesting is the Khanneshin carbonatite volcanic complex in Helmand Province. This is a Lower Quaternary domal structure with an intrusive carbonatite core 4 km across. Preliminary exploration has identified zones with rare earth enrichment and veinlets with bright yellow uraninite. Although this is the only carbonatite to be explored so far, other carbonatites are believed to exist in the area and a regional exploration programme is warranted. Airborne surveys in the 1970s also identified an area in Farah province, characterised by anomalous radioactivity.”

Again, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with robotics in the field of war, but Afghanistan also holds other vast resources like Tin-Tungsten, Mercury and Copper, that may be used to build parts for those futuristic military robots; and to power them Afghanistan also has lithium-rich deposits to be exploited.

Lithium has gained popularity as a battery component that can store a lot more power and last a lot longer than regular batteries, especially in the automotive world (Lithium-ion are rechargeable batteries; I would buy stock from the companies that manufacture them, especially since the US government is giving incentives to purchase hybrid vehicles). Lithium is also used in the pharmaceutical industry to control mood disorders (in the style of those early military attempts to create little human robots in the 1950′s, 60′s and 70′s)

How can robotics in the military be worth anything if the robots are not cordless and their batteries are not strong enough to enable long hours of performance? NASA’s robots on Mars use solar power but they were built for reconnaissance of an unhabited planet out in the open, not to kill martians hiding in caves.

The sci-fi in the military is mostly a PR stunt and good business for very high ranking officials. But the real deal going on is the one that is not mentioned in the news – even purposefully hidden from the general public. Who bothers to look for mineral information on Afghanistan when the Taliban seem to get the spotlight?

The majority of resources for the current level of consumption in the USA come from somewhere else. Mining in the USA is considered exhausted, not profitable or highly polluting and so it makes exploring and exploiting another country’s resources all the more urgent, not just for petroleum but for other minerals and metals as well.
So currently the USA is strongly defending its interests in Iraq (by ensuring control of 11% of the world’s oil reserves, second to Saudi Arabia only, according to the Britannica Online Encyclopedia, and by attempting to control Afghanistan’s mineral resources used in current hi-tech machinery and nuclear energy/weapons manufacturing. Of course other political considerations exist since Afghanistan is stuck between Iran and Pakistan. I feel sorry for the fine people of Tajikistan, stuck in the middle of all the crazies out there.

Please explore Home.htm

Posted by Wave that Dan | Report as abusive

Quintin, I rather justify an invasion of a country as a grab for necessary resources than to use faulty intelligence and never getting the guy the troops were “supposed” to apprehend. The public humiliation of never having captured all suspects and the leader is a sign of defeat in the face of overwhelming force, not victory.

If trained personnel and expensive gear haven’t done it by now, that can only mean they never will and they’re simply ensuring mining exploration or heroin cultivation continues to make a profit to some general or major with an interest in the region, perhaps as far back as when the soviets were around, who knows?

Some very expensive robotics, satellite imagery and computerized technology is being used to fully evaluate just how much wealth there is in gemstones alone, let alone rare metals and uranium. Robotics are better used and with better results to exploit the wealth under the ground than warfare. If you have the resources in hand you win. No resources, no victory.

Even Darth Vader had to build his Death Star out of something.

Posted by Wave that Dan | Report as abusive

I think that the observations made in this article are a reminder that we are facing a rapidly changing world where we are seeing great benefits of technology, but also high risk implications in using them. Military robots are a technology that will definitely help make our efforts more precise and improve control over our objectives. Nevertheless, such technologies are another step forward into a grey zone which places Life and Earth at more and more risk for a number of reasons. For example, are robotics in the military just another step toward more powerful and precise weapons, not so much different than the hydrogen bomb when it was created. We must keep focussed on the real problem which is why we have conflicts in the first place and how we can negotiate our way through them. We cannot forget that technology, the robots, are just a tool, but in making them available and pursuing them do we really become pawns of our own technology.

Every day our capacity to influence our environment (global warming) or each other (nuclear conflicts/robot weapons) gets more and more significant as we pursue our technologies. Over the last 200 years we have experienced a technological revolution and in so we have become a race of super beings. As we pursue these technologies we have to remember not to be so sure of our selves that we can always turn back the clock and fix the repercussions of them. For example, as we have populated the world and increased our CO2 emmissions we find this product called global warming that may affect all Life and Earth in significant ways.

I think it is important we take from such valuable articles as this, a reminder that we are the ones responsible for the technologies that affect Life and our Planet for better and worse, and in so, we must remember that in moving forward with them we are accepting responsibility for the consequences of our actions. We are on a small fragile Earth that is becoming smaller every day as our technologies continue to advance. As important as it may be that we continue to expand our technologies, it is even more important that we recognize we are in a world changing in ways that have never occurred before. We need to focus on educating the world on working together, minimizing conflict, and moving forward with our technologies with extreme caution. This is new territory for us and we must reconsider how we behave as a species in order to deal with our new technological capabilities that are unfolding before us.

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

I spent > 15 yrs in IT/R&D/Technology.

Sorry guys, Mr. Bernd Debusmann story based on ‘Terminator’ movies rather than on real facts.

1. For the begging all computer systems are created by many many teams not single person. 100′s teams are involved with CPU/storage/display etc. Software at least involves operation system (huge number of people) and actual application software. Why does he focus only on one team that write the actual program???

2. No field weapon system makes firing decision without human interaction. Nothing even comes close to such system. Even the most complex targeting systems can ‘keep eye on the ball’ but cannot pick a ball. All robots are nothing more as remote controlled toys with autopilot capabilities at best. Ballistic/cruise missiles have much high level of automation. The most dangerous systems are US/Russia ‘Ballistic shields’ that fielded for last 30 yrs. They have record of issued false alerts. Yet they escape Debusmann attention.

3. Debusmann story robotic of ‘rebellions’ in S.Africa is nothing more than misfiring. It has nothing to do implied machine conscious decision to harm human.

4. Current CPUs can crunch 1,000,000,000,000 arithmetic ops per second… but don’t suited well for fussy pattern recognition. That what humans do the best. Modern CPUs are at the level of insect/fish.

May be we will come to the point when machines recognize real life objects and make ethical decisions. But on this way world changes so dramatically that I would consult Asimov rather than Debusmann.

Posted by SKV | Report as abusive


“Why does he focus only on one team that write the actual program???”

Where in the column is there a mention of one team that writes the actual program? Here’s the quote. Note “teams” (plural).

“Unfortunately, such a belief is sorely outdated, harking back to the time when computers were simpler and their programs could be written and understood by a single person,” the study says. “Now programs with millions of lines of code are written by teams of programmers, none of whom knows the entire program; hence, no individual can predict the effect of a given command with absolute certainty since portions of programs may interact in unexpected, untested ways.”

Posted by BDebusmann | Report as abusive

My apology Bernd,
I lack your talent to put complex thoughts in simple form :).
My aim was at common perception:
“harking back to the time when computers were simpler and their programs could be written and understood by a single person”.
- There is always single person.
- This single person never fully understands what is going on.
Now and then all programs stay on ‘shoulders of giants’ make use of components written by others. Programmers usually rely on components descriptions rather than go into implementation details. Despite common scene this approach makes systems more robust and single person today handles times more than 10 yrs ago. That brings us complexity of scale… Well, While I explain my point I understood yours :).

I hope my 3 main points stay:

1. Today combat robots just overblown RC toys… But they kill for real. No immediate danger to US public. I cannot escape that sound very unethical even to my non-liberal taste.

2. We stay hostages of technology for at least 30 yrs. Complex automatic/semi automatic system controlling factories/plants/ballistic shields/ballistic missiles.

3. Any progress in technology to the scale that machine would be able recognize/identify/object and make conscious decision would change society to the point that we cannot foresee now.

Let me offer my favorite example on far reaching prognoses:
Back in 1890’s in booming Tzar’s Moscow. Somebody ran time series of growing number of horses vs. lagging number of street cleaners. In report, he extrapolated that by 1930 Moscow would be under 3ft of horse apples. I still cannot find any errors in his math…

Posted by SKV | Report as abusive

My apology Bernd,
I lack your talent to put complex thoughts in simple form :).
My aim was at common perception:”harking back to the time when computers were simpler and their programs could be written and understood by a single person”.
- There is always single person.
- This single person never fully understands what is going on because he/she reuses components/technologies/devices created by may other people/teams.
Now and then all programs stay on ’shoulders of giants’ makes use of components written by others. Programmers usually rely on components descriptions rather than go into implementation details. Despite common scene this approach makes systems more robust and single person today handles times more than 10 yrs ago. That brings us complexity of scale… Well, While I explain my point I understood yours :).
I hope my 3 main points stay:
1. Today combat robots just overblown RC toys… But they kill for real. No immediate danger to US public. I cannot escape that sound very unethical even to my non-liberal taste.
2. We stay hostages of technology for at least 30 yrs. Complex automatic/semi automatic system controlling factories/plants/ballistic shields/ballistic missiles.
3. Any progress in technology to the scale that machine would be able recognize/identify/object and make conscious decision would change society to the point that we cannot foresee now.
Let me offer my favorite example on far reaching prognoses:
Back in 1890’s in booming Tzar’s Moscow. Somebody ran time series of growing number of horses vs. lagging number of street cleaners. In report, he extrapolated that by 1930 Moscow would be under 3ft of horse apples. I still cannot find any errors in his math…

Sorry for multiple post.

Posted by SKV | Report as abusive

SKV: Moscow streets buried under three feet of horse manure is a very funny image. It obviously would have required robots to clean that up!

Posted by BDebusmann | Report as abusive

A very thought provoking article.
AI is near impossible ? when one considers that even a lower lifeform than man in nature can be dangerous. AI is possible and the discussions about this need to commence ahead of the curve.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

More robots will mean more wars. No lives will be saved.

In Afghanistan Karzai is implementing some odious laws. That does not really matter. The point is that in a few years the war will be completely robotic. The US will be able to carry on indefinitely with zero casualties. Casualties among the Afghan population will however NOT be non zero.

This is what people do not seem to realise.

Posted by Ian Parker | Report as abusive

Ethic… What is it?

Is it set of values that we apply every day to say good from bad?

I got feeling that in humans it varies greatly. We can give new robot new strong universal values. Well, may be we should we stick with old values?

Here is Bernd test:
“How do you get a robot to tell an insurgent from an innocent”. So far nobody can. 16 yrs old dead Taliban becomes dead kid because… he is 16 yrs old. But young fighter’s ruthless eclipse adults.
I can justify and support this war. But emotionally I cannot accept 100’s dead. Just sound: 100’s ethically killed.

My ethic just fails here. Lets step on ‘shoulders of giants’ and reuse somebody else ideas. Geneva Convention is the pinnacle of War Ethic.

After first read Geneva Conventions sound like naive pipe dream. Long “to do” list including cases when POW are eligible for salary. That salary is to match of your arm force.

Read Geneva Conventions again. They meaningless. They imply such level of interaction between adversaries that you cannot expect even between allies. Establish safe zone for civilians recognized by both sides.

Read once more… They make any military action against non conventional arm force next to imposable. Who are Taliban/Tamil Tigers/HAMAS and most Africans liberation armies? According to Geneva Conventions they ar either combatants or civilians. Practically they are bands of mercenaries ‘living from land’. They tax/racket local population while don’t pledge allegiance to any recognized state.

BTW West/US ethical values are not universal. Back to Afghanistan. I saw General Dustum spoke about Human Right Record of US Army. He is the guy who literally baked 10′s Taliban prisoners in Sea Containers under Sun once his prison run out of capacity.

Now I am back on 1930’s Moscow streets and prophesy about 3 ft of horse apples came true. Bernd please send me good ethical robot :). Or you no please send non-ethical one.

Posted by SKV | Report as abusive

Another weapon system…?
Big Deal.
It’s really advanced…
Big Deal.
It has really scary potential…
Big Deal.
Just a small matter of history, a hundred years ago Dreadnought fleets were being launched in numbers. A huge change in military force levels, a massive revolution in sea power technology.
Result: a large reduction in naval fleet engagements in wars for the next century.
50 years ago, The Bomb. ‘We’re all gonna DIE!’ is a rather widespread reaction amongst the more excitable. What happens? The longest period of peace in Europe since the Romans.
Certainly didn’t see those coming at the time, now did they.
We’ll need a proper war where both sides have these systems to see how they’ll pan out. One thing’s for certain, no ‘expert’ or doomsayer currently has the faintest idea what that’ll be. Not because people are stupid, but because the predictive information necessary is way too complex to deal with.

Posted by Rhoops | Report as abusive

Geneva Convention or not the terrible truth is we’ve never been able to fully agree what the rules of war are and we’ve certainly never really practiced them so the programs that run our increasingly sophisticated and lethal autonomous military robots are likely to be just as ethically flawed as we are as history shows that our belief in our cause and perceived proximity to victory or defeat generally dictates how our armies or ‘freedom fighters’ conduct themselves on the battlefield. Human beings are violent animals and if we ever manage to program intelligent autonomous robots to conduct our wars for us more ethically than we do they’d probably end up disarming and pacifying us. I suspect we’ll just see the most powerful sections of humanity merging with more powerful and lethal technology to lord it over the rest of us.