Thursday, September 29, 2011

The American Terminator

Tom Engelhardt has written a sobering yet terrifying article on the development and demand for UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) by the U.S. Defense Department.  Often called "Predator Drones" or "Reapers," these mammon machines are becoming all the rage for waging war from above.  Remotely controlled and increasingly networked with information-sharing technology to create a single "hive mind," these aptly-named drones will likely become the killing force of the future (source).  Engelhardt writes of their growing appeal: 
They are relatively cheap. When they “hunt,” no one dies (at least on our side).  They are capable of roaming the world.  Someday, they will land on the decks of aircraft carriers or, tiny as hummingbirds, drop onto a windowsill, maybe even yours, or in their hundreds, the size of bees, swarm to targets and, if all goes well, coordinate their actions using the artificial intelligence version of “hive minds.”
A "Hunter-Killer Drone" from the Terminator film series (L) and a U.S. military "Predator Drone" (R).

This is all wonderful news, of course, if you are a deeply indebted, crumbing empire with 1 in 4 children living in poverty (source).  Rather than conscripting or back-door drafting soldiers to face down gunfire and improvised explosive devices to take out insurgents in up to 80 countries (source), the Bush and Obama Administrations have increasingly outsourced their military force to machines.   No more military funerals, no more burning draft cards, no more public outcry over the human cost of war.  Well, at least not on the side of the "good guys."  But geopolitics and nationalism aside, Engelhardt understands the woeful ghost in the machine of mechanized warfare:
Just think about the last time you went to a Terminator film: Who did you identify with?  John and Sarah Connor, or the implacable Terminators chasing them?  And you don’t need artificial intelligence to grasp why in a nanosecond.
With their growing economy, particularly in the tech sector, it might be worth asking how U.S. citizens would react to China flying UAVs over the United States.  Or any country, for that matter.  While the doomsday scenario of Technological Singularity - in which machines gain self-awareness and promptly decide humans must be eradicated (source)- is still a few decades away, the grim realities of dehumanized warfare are already upon us.

Beneath the slick action sequences and Hollywood plot line, the Terminator film series is a cautionary tale of how much military might to entrust in machines; the main antagonist in the series is the faceless, calculated computer brain of Skynet - which controls a vast network of sophisticated, weaponized robots that patrol the ground, sea, and air.  Developed by Cyberdyne Systems for the U.S. Armed Forces, Skynet was hailed as the first "Global Digital Defense Network" (source).  This is not dissimilar from the terminology and tactics currently underway by the CIA.  Engelhardt reports:
As journalist Ron Suskind reported in his book The One Percent Doctrine, in a “Presidential Finding” on September 17, 2011, only six days after the World Trade Center towers went down, Bush granted the CIA an unprecedented license to wage war globally. By then, the CIA had presented him with a plan whose name was worthy of a sci-fi film: the “Worldwide Attack Matrix.”
On the moral spectrum of behavior, humans killing one another is bad enough.  But humans programming machines to remotely kill other humans seems to me far worse in terms of ethical approaches to problem-solving.  Simply, sending machines to kill on one's behalf is not something "the good guys" do.  Imagine any action or science fiction film in which the hero sits at a computer terminal and annihilates his enemies halfway around the world as they flee from a hovering drone's machine gun fire.  There is no nobility in warfare without sacrifice, without even a pretense of putting the courage of one's convictions on the line.  And yet, despite the obvious physical safety of piloting robots 7,000 miles away, the psychological cost of operating a Predator Drone may be far greater than conventional aerial warfare.  Written on the news website in 2008 (source):
In a fighter jet, "when you come in at 500-600 mph, drop a 500-pound bomb and then fly away, you don't see what happens," said Col. Albert K. Aimar, who is commander of the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing here and has a bachelor's degree in psychology.  But when a Predator fires a missile, "you watch it all the way to impact, and I mean it's very vivid, it's right there and personal. So it does stay in people's minds for a long time."  He said the stresses are "causing some family issues, some relationship issues."  He and other Predator officers would not elaborate. 
Often, the military also directs Predators to linger over a target after an attack so that the damage can be assessed.  "You do stick around and see the aftermath of what you did, and that does personalize the fight," said Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the active-duty 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.  "You have a pretty good optical picture of the individuals on the ground.  The images can be pretty graphic, pretty vivid, and those are the things we try to offset.  We know that some folks have, in some cases, problems."
The ethical dimensions of mechanized warfare are vast.  Can a machine be held legally responsible for the death of a civilian?  Who is put on trial - in military or civilian courts - when a UAV mistakenly identifies a  fruit stand in a bustling village as a terrorist munitions bunker and kills a dozen innocents?  The manufacturer of the weapon?  The programmer?  The drone operator?  The commanding officer who ordered the strike?  More importantly, would any machine hesitate - even for a second - to shoot down a mother clutching her baby if programmed to do so?  Can empathy and humanity be programmed into a machine?  If it is designed to kill, would that even be a useful design goal?

The American Terminator - coming to a battlefield near you.

Indeed, we must now add "remote mechanized warfare" to the list of reasons as to "Why They Hate Us."

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