Culture At Large

Here come the drones. Are our ethics ready?

Josie Brown

While P.W. Singer's Wired for War reads like science fiction, the expansion of American drone usage under President Barack Obama confirms that it is reality.

The book, first published in 2009, allows a broad variety of readers to understand the stakes and to consider the ethical challenge posed by the increasing presence of drones in the world's military arsenals and the future of robotic warfare.

Wired for War begins with the present state of robotics in war, revealing a surprisingly emotional aspect to their use. Stories of soldiers sending back boxes of shattered parts, asking for their same robot back, show that these machines are more than simple tools. We also hear about soldiers' aversion to the first-aid pods that could scuttle through battlefields to retrieve the wounded - they don't want the last face they see to be on a screen. We also see a heavy emotional toll on combatants on both sides of the robotic divide. For all our technology, war is still human.

As the book goes on, Singer reveals that war robots are not only emotionally but physically challenging. Technology has developed beyond the scope of the human body's ability to operate it, like nanobots which return surveillance that nauseates the human viewer, and drones so fast that the reaction time of their operators is not quick enough for effective targeting. This leads naturally to the question of automation and, indeed, Singer informs us of a push for autonomous robot infantry and artificial intelligence that would allow robots to direct their own actions. The legal, ethical and emotional methods for addressing war have failed to keep up with technological development, leaving each individual, group and nation to manage the ramifications of this new type of war.

The legal, ethical and emotional methods for addressing war have failed to keep up with technological development, leaving each individual, group and nation to manage the ramifications of this new type of war.

Wired for War also serves as a reminder that this incredibly fast, broad development in robotics is being driven by the military in a time of war. The impetus is not to develop machines for a better world, but to save lives now. This demand for speed means that certain ethical considerations are being shelved for the sake of temporary safety. The scant debate over the ethics of robotic warfare has been swept aside. It comes as little surprise that military leaders should use drone surveillance liberally and drone strikes freely. We can no longer afford to shunt the ethical debate to the side, and Singer does a magnificent job of highlighting the urgency of the matter.

War is a human enterprise, and it makes human frailty palpable and terrifying for those in the foxholes. This is precisely why societies have always revered soldiers, and why war is the option of last resort. We recognize that these warriors sacrifice their bodies for our most human impulses. This says nothing, of course, about whether or not those desires are noble or petty or worthwhile, only that they are. Robotics can remove us from this human element, yet leave our targets in the murk and fog of death that follows a war. There is no escaping politics, and no escaping our fundamental humanity.

And yet I am also reminded of the fundamental idea that informs my Quaker faith, that God is in each of us, and this demands that we treat each other with care and with the understanding that we are capable of great wrongs, and of righting them. This inspires Quakers to pacifism, and it is intertwined with an understanding of each person as being simultaneously flawed and divine.

The veneer of technology, the absence of immanence in battle, or in any relationship, too often expunges the spark of human divinity from the equation. Penance and reconciliation, and so justice, cannot be made by machines. War drives the fragility, and the dark impulses of human persons, home to us in ways little else does. We are robbed of that all-important revelation in robot wars, and it puts not only the justice of wars but the conscience and dignity of people at terrible risk. As operators of war are removed from their weapons and combatants from one another, we lose the reminders of our shared humanity.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Justice