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October 20, 2014

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Six Questions:

Author talks about military robotics and the changing face of war

Chances are you’ve seen videos of unmanned aerial Predators hitting military targets or tiny robots on wheels disarming roadside bombs. Or maybe you’ve heard about the servicemen at Creech Air Force Base at Indian Springs who control unarmed drones in missions over Afghanistan. Chances are, though, you haven’t thought about the consequences of their use. Warfare expert Peter Singer has, which is one reason he coordinated defense policy for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

As a senior fellow and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, Singer examined the military use of robotics in his book “Wired for War.” He’ll share his knowledge at a public lecture on the “Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century” at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at UNLV’s Greenspun Hall Auditorium.

The use of ground and air robotics by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq has been publicized as a way to save the lives of American soldiers. What are potential military drawbacks?

Literally thousands of Americans are alive today because of these new technologies. They offer precision on the battlefield never imagined before, as well as remove many dangers to our forces. But like any other new technology, they are not a silver bullet. From questions of how to best deploy and command and control them to new challenges in the laws of war, they present all sorts of new political, military, moral and legal issues.

Can you rank, in descending order, what you believe are the most effective uses of military robotics today?

I can’t do exact order, but robots are best used for the three D’s: roles that are either dull, dirty or dangerous. Can we send you out to war without worrying about later sending a condolence letter to your wife if you are killed? We can send the robot out and not have to worry about that letter — and the political consequences.

If robotics are designed to make war easier to wage, how fearful are you that politicians will put up less resistance in the future in supporting a decision to go to war?

We may be seeing this now in our not-so-covert operations in Pakistan, where the bar to conflict has been lowered. We’ve carried out over 200 airstrikes there, but without a congressional authorization or public debate.

With the instant video robotics provide, including images of explosions that are then distributed on TV and the Internet, how concerned are you that robotics may distort the true effect of war?

I think this is a concern, more with the public than the military itself. I call this the “rise of YouTube” war. On one hand they could provide a greater knowledge of the war front to those on the home front. But just because you see it, doesn’t mean you understand it, as we saw with some of the bad reporting related to the WikiLeaks videos.

How prepared is the United States to fend off a robotics attack from a rogue nation or terrorist group?

It’s something we have to contemplate for the sole reason that besides the U.S., there are 43 other nations that are also building, buying and using military robotics today, nations that range from allies like Great Britain to potential foes like Russia, China, Iran, etc. A range of nonstate actors have also explored these technologies.

Do you envision a day when the U.S. will have to sign international robotics treaties much in the way it has dealt with nuclear weapons?

I don’t see it very soon, but we are seeing movement in this front. Much as the nuclear scientists banded together in the 1950s to create the modern-day nuclear arms treaties, a group of robotics scientists recently organized a few meetings to do the same. We shouldn’t expect to have the answers yet, but we have to start asking the questions, as otherwise we’ll fall further and further behind the pace of our own technology.

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  1. Chunky says:

    He'd much rather see remote robotics fighting wars and dealing with conflict in harms way rather than our young men and women.

    The playing field with other modernized countries may eventually be leveled but for now this technology can still give us an edge over terrorists. Chunky suspects our robotics operators and battlefield decision makers still have to rely on human eyes and ears intelligence on the ground.

    Make it happen!

    That's what Chunky thinks!