Singer: Sci-Fi Is Not So Far Away

P.W. Singer speaks “about a revolution in warfare.” (Photo by Matt Molek)
P.W. Singer speaks “about a revolution in warfare.” (Photo by Matt Molek)

P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War, delivered a talk to a packed St. Mary’s Hall explaining how the increase of robotics in warfare may bring war closer and closer to our doorsteps.

The talk, which took place on Wednesday, Feb. 25, was presented by the Center for the Study of Democracy, the Patuxent Partnership, and the Natural Science and Mathematics Colloquium. It combined an examination of the robotics used in warfare today with the implications that the use of those robotics bring.

Singer discussed the use of robots in every area from Explosive Ordinance Disposal teams in Iraq to unmanned drones that fly over foreign airspace but that are controlled by pilots in the United States or other countries.

Michael Cain, a political science professor and the director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, said that the importance of the topic of robotics and warfare was evident in the talk. “It was one of the most interesting [lectures] I’ve heard here,” he said. “The topic is one that we haven’t really thought about…[and] he forced us all to think about it.”

Senior Barry Adkins agreed. “Yeah, I found the topic very interesting. I found an interest in sci-fi technological innovations, and this showed the real-life play-out of all of those things.” Adkins’ Sociology of War and Peace class was cancelled for the day so that students could attend the lecture.

Singer likened the changes in robotics developing now to other major advances in warfare such as the machine gun or the atomic bomb. “I’m not talking about a robots’ revolution,” he said. “I’m talking about a revolution in warfare.”

According to Singer, “The very meaning of the term ‘going to war’ is changing within our lifetime.” He said that unmanned technology such as planes can eliminate the culling power of suicide attacks, leading to the development of “al-Qaeda 2.0” or possibly a next-generation version of terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh or the Unabomber. According to Singer, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) levels are higher in drone pilots who go to war for 12 hours and return to their families than the levels are for other pilots because of the chilling distance between the pilots and their targets and weaponry.

“It’s like a video game,” Singer said of the mechanism for killing used by drone pilots.

This point struck first-year Eleanor Sullivan as especially unnerving. “It’s kind of scary removing soldiers from the immediacy of war, from the visceral aspect, because it makes killing so much easier,” said Sullivan.

But as the human aspect is removed from war, war is also becoming more and more a part of our everyday lives. Singer mentioned the effects of sites such as YouTube that can bring war into our homes via our computers. According to Singer, there are over 7,000 video clips of war online right now, which can be a positive thing in that it connects the public to the gruesome reality of the war sites to which soldiers are sent, but it can be a negative thing in that it can also be viewed as a form of entertainment by others. “These clips are just the highlight reel of war,” he said.

According to Singer, the robotics revolution will also raise a series of legal and ethical questions that society will have to handle. Will a new legal crime of “unmanned slaughter” arise for the drone killing of the wrong person? Also, “robots don’t get upset when their buddy gets killed,” Singer said. “They don’t commit crimes of rage and revenge.” However, he continued, robots by themselves are unable to distinguish between an elderly woman and a tank.

“It made me wonder how robots are going to be used in the future,” said Sullivan. “You win a war by terrorizing a population, so it’s not like robots are going to be fighting each other, they’ll be fighting humans.”

As science-fiction becomes reality, as it did when the atomic bomb came into existence after inspiration from H.G. Wells, these questions and more will have to be answered, and Singer said that “we don’t have the excuse that [society at the onset of the atomic age] have…it’s happening in labs all around us.”

Overall, response to the lecture was positive, both from audience members and from Singer himself. “I think it went great, [with] a nice mix of students and people from the community,” Singer said. He also liked the variety of subjects raised in the questions asked, ranging from ethics to the details of the technology to the degree to which science fiction influenced modern technologies.

Physics professor and Natural Science and Mathematics Colloquium Director Charles Adler was also pleased with the way the lecture went. “I did not know most of the things he was talking about,” he said. “The lecture was scary and thought-provoking, and…he was a good speaker.” All in all, said Adler, “what I envision as an ideal colloquium.”

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