“Wired for War: the robotics revolution and conflict in the twenty-first century” review

“Wired for War: the robotics revolution and conflict in the twenty-first century” review

Wired for War

by P. W. Singer
Penguin (2009)

Science fiction warfare is already with us for better or more probably for worse. Where does it go from here?

We are in the cusp of a massive shift in military technology that threatens to make real the stuff of I Robot and the Terminator. More than twelve thousand robotic systems are now deployed in Iraq. Pilots sitting in Nevada are remotely killing terrorists in Afghanistan. Scientists are debating just how smart – and how lethal – to make their robotic creations. Military expert P. W. Singer describes how technology is changing not just how wars are fought, but also the politics, economics, laws and ethics that surround war itself. He sees clearly that technology has to be kept in context.

The book has a strong focus on military robotics. Dull, dirty and dangerous battlefield tasks once done by people could soon be done by machines. If this means that humans may be able to stay clear of harm’s way, it may have a significant impact on governments’ readiness to fight, as well as on the form of combat that results.

As these technologies develop and multiply, they will have profound effects on the front lines, as well as the politics back home. Moving humans off the battlefield makes wars easier to start but more complicated to fight. Paradoxically, these new technologies will also bring war to our doorstep. As other nations and even terrorists start to build or buy their own robotic weapons, this revolution could even undermine America’s military pre-eminence.

The book is in some ways a strange read. As Singer explores the issues raised by military robotics – meeting with entrepreneurs, engineers and operators, ethicists, and pundits – his enthusiasm becomes infectious and child-like and one forgets that the subject is not about video games and children’s toys but machines that kill and can do so with the controller a continent away. With its informal style and cultural references, and because of its topic, Wired for war is a book of its time; let us hope the Facebook generation has the sense to see the underlying reality on the killing grounds!