Search View Archive

Not Just Science Fiction

P.W. Singer, Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (Penguin, 2009)

Recently, my brother—fully aware of my adolescent predilection for science fiction—asked me why futuristic tales seemed to be so universally set in some sort of dystopia rather than a utopian society. My initial response was that it's much easier for an artist to create and craft a conflict in a dystopia than a utopia or, to borrow a maxim from David Byrne, “heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” This answer satisfied both of us at the time; but later, as I mulled over my hypothesis, I realized that my explanation had been perhaps too facile. I had missed something intrinsic to both the genre and humanity itself.

My epiphany became fully realized while reading Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, a new book by P.W. Singer which details the current state of autonomous machines in both the consumer and military markets and explores the possible societal ramifications of our growing use and reliance on robots. To some, this premise may already sound like science fiction. The vast majority of the populace has likely only encountered robots at the multiplex or on TV—and no one is expecting to see robots like C3PO or the liquid metal T-1000 (from Terminator 2) anytime soon; however, as Singer and the high-tech gurus he interviews amply demonstrate, a revolution in robotics is definitely underway.

Singer’s book is divided fairly neatly in two parts. The first half is more concrete, presenting the history of robotics from the first automaton—Jacques de Vaucanson’s defecating duck manufactured in France in 1739—to the Roomba (at 3,000,000 sold as of 2007, the most popular robot currently at market) to the wide panoply of robots and unmanned vehicles currently being used and developed by the modern military. The work’s second half is more philosophical in nature, examining the effect that robotics might have on the world, particularly on its battlefields.

A semi-speculative work such as this has the possibility to go off the rails a bit, extrapolating to reach wild conclusions and prognostications. But, by liberally peppering the text with lessons learned from military history, Singer keeps the book grounded in what is already real and what will probably be real very soon. Upon reading these accounts of invention and Singer’s interviews with many military and industry professionals, the prediction that robots, in some capacity and form, will be as common as personal computers around 2025 or 2030 did not seem farfetched or unlikely in the slightest.

Singer pinpoints two broad paths down which robotic development is currently occurring. The first involves retrofitting existing vehicles with equipment that essentially converts the modified vehicle into a robot. This method seems especially prevalent in the military, where trucks and boats and planes can be easily and quickly made robotic by attaching some sensors, cameras, and remote steering. However, the most famous (and exciting) of these retrofits is Stanley, a non-military robot and the winner in 2005 of DARPA’s Grand Challenge, a 142-mile race through the California desert. Stanley, a Volkswagen SUV outfitted with several sensors, a camera, GPS, and an onboard computer, completed the course completely autonomously in just under seven hours at an average speed of 20 mph.

The other main category of robots includes those that have been built from the ground up as robots. These bots are generally only found in industrial settings and in the military. Singer describes many types of these robots, everything from drone spy planes capable of remaining aloft and autonomous for weeks to nanomachines, robots built on the atomic scale to manipulate other atoms and molecules. However, he mainly focuses on one model: PackBot. Made by iRobot (also the manufacturers of Roomba) for the military and tested extensively in Iraq, PackBot was built as a robotic platform, a mobile droid with multiple USB inputs to configure the robot for whatever task is needed. PackBots have proven very effective at certain tasks, particularly the disposal of explosives, and have been lovingly embraced by soldiers as members of their companies.

Unfortunately, not all robotic efforts have been as successful as Stanley or the PackBot. Singer identifies many missteps, accidents, and downright tragedies that have occurred as robots have begun to take their place on the world’s stage. Events ranging from a worker being crushed by a malfunctioning bot on his assembly line to the accidental downing of an Iranian passenger plane inform the latter, ethically-focused half of the book, and it is here that Singer’s aims for the work become clear. As Singer notes, humanity has a poor track record of dealing with new technology, learning how to safely integrate it with the existing world, and, on some basic level, even acknowledging that our existent technology is changing. He believes, quite rightly, that in the face of such potentially lethal and powerful autonomous technology, a public discussion needs to be initiated as soon as possible.

It was in these latter sections of the book that my thoughts on dystopias in science fiction crystallized. Throughout human history, war has driven invention—and vice-versa. From metallurgy to flight to the Space Race, technology and the military have marched hand in hand, settling some conflicts and spurring on others. And, thus, science fiction, humanity’s only real venue for contemplating technology and the future, will always tend to dwell in the shadows of conflict and discord; that is the nature of technology and all the more reason to heed Singer’s suggestion of a serious dialogue before the robots walk among us.


James Arnett


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

All Issues