Can we Avoid an an Automated Arms Race?

It is a profound irony that so much military innovation has been directed towards reprogramming young men to ignore their humanity when charging into battle, yet as we stand within reach of realizing the perfect warrior in the form of fully-automated killer drones we find ourselves scrambling to keep a last shred of humanity behind the trigger.

The war-chant, the war-drum, cultures of courage, symbols, flags, military regimentation, propaganda, and even sports can all be seen as a line of innovation specifically aimed at enhancing the ability of young men to act against their immediate interests, ignore emotions like fear or compassion, and become like killing machines. Innovations in weaponry towards both increased lethality and physical separation from enemies have also aided us in divorcing our actions from emotional response. It is far easier to shoot someone than to stab them with a sword, and it is a quantum leap in battlefield abstraction to drop a bomb from a plane rather than to shooting people individually.

And now we stand on what would be the ultimate culmination of this chain of increasing military abstraction with the advent of drone based weapons systems. In the very near future, it will be possible to make a warrior which truly lacks any humanity, a true killing machine.

The United States Military currently boasts a fleet of drones in the tens of thousands, and this number is sure to rise in the coming years. For now the US army has a policy which requires that a human be behind every kill decision made on the battlefield, but there is good reason to believe that this may not stay so for long. 

In his recent TED talk, Daniel Suarez brilliantly illustrates how the same kinds of forces that are pushing automation forward in the private sector are just as (if not more) relevant  for military applications. Specifically, the proliferation of cheap and high quality sensors and the resulting deluge of data which can be collected from drones means that the military is suffering the same big data problems you might imagine for Google. It will simply be impossible for humans to sift through the massive amount of data which can be produced by modern drones and it will be up to automation systems to help human operators identify targets and prioritize where the attention of operators should go. Once automated systems are prioritizing the limited attention capacity of operators, it seems almost a forgone conclusion that eventually drones will be deciding what targets they should be attacking in a fully-autonomous manner. 

In other words, the abilities of drones to monitor, assess, and act on the battlefield will soon outrun the ability of human operators to keep up.

Drones may also tend towards increased onboard automation in order to minimize data security concerns and lag time associated with communicating instructions back and forth between operator and machine. In a battle where seconds can make the difference between mission success and failure, the enhanced agility offered by fully-automating drones may be simply become irresistible. 

At a time when a conflict in Ukraine seems to have more potential to lead to a much larger and more modern conflict than the world has seen in a very long time, the prospect of automated war looms large. Against a modern, well-equipped enemy I don’t think that we would really be able to resist opening the pandora’s box that is fully-automated weapons. Dramatically lower casualty rates and significant efficiency gains offered by automated weapons may simply be too tempting. 

For a an illustration of the advantages offered by drones, imagine a dog fight between human pilots; both pulling high-G turns trying to outmaneuver each other and destroy their opponent. Bring into this fight a high speed drone capable of handling G-forces far exceeding what a human operator could bear and potentially even exceeding what a human is capable of tracking in real-time. Human pilots would stand little chance against such an automated opponent, and more than likely it would not be long before the battle advanced to a strictly drone on drone affair. We may already be in the early stages of an arms race towards fully-automated weapons.

If and when the advantages of automation lead us to remove the last threads of human control on the battlefield, the effect of unleashing killer drones on the world cannot be understated.  As this recent post pointed out, the emergence of drones as the dominant weapon of war threatens to topple what has been the principal weapon for 700 years, the gun. If it is true that the forces which led to birth of the modern world came at the end of the gun, what world will follow the rise of automated weapons?

While I take some issue with the idea that we are still living in the age of the gun (instead I believe we are in the age of the atomic bomb), it is absolutely clear that the advent of automated drones will have deep political implications. It strikes me that use of automated drones by the military is perhaps just the most alarming expression of much larger trend towards increasing technologically fueled power in the hands of the few.

We are living in a world where small groups of people with the necessary resources (be it a country, an insurgency group, or even a corporation) can leverage technology to gain immense power. Whether it is in the form of economic power through automated factories or military power through automated armies, technology may serve to amplify the power of the few. The trajectory of ever increasing wealth-inequality certainly supports a view that we are heading towards a scary world of centralized power.

In seeing this trend, Suarez suggests that we should lay the groundwork for a treaty banning the use of drones with the ability to make automated kill decisions. While such a treaty is a good idea in my opinion, I think that it would only delay the inevitable. As tensions are increasing between the United States and the modern army of Russia, I think we stand little chance of avoiding a new automated arms race.

We are living in a world where the real power comes out of silicon wafers, it is just a matter of time before we put a gun on the end of it. 


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