(dana) Mon 27 Apr 09 13:32
We're pleased to welcome P.W. Singer to the Inkwell. P.W. Singer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the director of the institution's 21st Century Defense Initiative. He is the author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century. For further information, see http://wiredforwar.pwsinger.com . Leading the discussion with Peter is Michael Berch. Michael is an attorney and IT strategist who spent the latter half of the 1980s at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as a consultant on a number of defense programs, including modernization of DOD's European networks and redesign of the NORAD air defense network, and was a proponent of the use and expansion of Internet technology in defense and non-defense government programs. He remains interested in national security and defense technology issues. He was also the founder of the Internet magazine INFOBAHN in 1995, served as an executive at several Silicon Valley technology companies including iPIX and Cataphora, and returned to consulting and law practice with an international focus in 2004. Welcome, Peter and Michael!
Michael C. Berch (mcb) Tue 28 Apr 09 18:28
Thank you for joining us, Peter, and for a thoughtful and absorbing book. For those who haven't read it yet, perhaps you could give a short summary of what it's about, and what led you to this particular subject?
Peter W Singer (peterwsinger) Wed 29 Apr 09 14:58
Many thanks! This is my first time jumping into the WELL, so am excited about it. Wired for War is about how something big is going on in war today, and maybe even in the history of humanity itself. The U.S. Military went into Iraq with a handful of drones in the air, we now have 7,000. We went in with zero unmanned ground systems, we now have 12,000. And the tech term "killer application" doesn't just describe what iPods did to the music industry. It takes on a whole new meaning when you are talking about robots armed with everything from machine guns to missiles. But we need to remember that the Packbots and Predator drones of today are the Model T Fords, the Wright Flyers, compared to what's coming soon. And, one of the people that I met with was an Air Force three star general, and he said we'll soon be at "tens of thousands of robots operating in our conflicts." So I thought that was a rather big deal, that something revolutionary was going on in war and technology, but yet no one was talking about it, mainly because it seemed too much like science fiction. Now, as an aside, I need to be clear here. I'm not talking about a revolution where you have to worry about the governor of California showing up at your door a la the Terminator. When historians look at this period they're going to conclude that we're at a different type of revolution, a revolution in war, like the invention of the atomic bomb. But it may be even bigger than that, because our unmanned systems don't just affect the "how" of war fighting, they affect the "who" of fighting at it's most fundamental level. That is, every previous revolution in war be it the machine gun, or be it the atomic bomb, was about a system that either shot faster, went further, or had a bigger boom. That's certainly the case with robotics. But they also change not just the how of war, but also the who of war, the experience of the warrior, and even the very identity of the warrior. Another way of putting this is that humankind's 5,000 year old monopoly on the fighting of war is breaking down in our very lifetime. So, I spent the last several years going around interviewing all the players in this field, from the robot scientists who build them, to the science fiction authors who inspired them, to the 19 year old drone pilots who are fighting from Nevada, to the four star generals who command them, the civilian politicians who decide when and where they are used, to the other side of the coin, the Iraqi insurgents to find out what they think of our robots, and us using them, news editors not just in the US, but in places like the Middle East and South Asia, people who have to wrestle with the ethics and laws at places like the International Red Cross and Human Rights Watch. And so, akin to a book like Fast Fodo Nation, which I admired greatly, Wired for War brings together their stories, which I almost always found amazing, but also sometimes funny, and sometimes scary. But it also looks at how their experiences point out these broader ripple effects that are going outwards from this technology onto our wars, our politics, our society, our law, our ethics, et cetera. So the book is less so much about the machines than about us.
Peter W Singer (peterwsinger) Wed 29 Apr 09 15:07
One other aspect that I have iften been asked about, which might be apt for this group is the very different style of writing for a book coming out of a pointy-headed scholar who works at a thinktank and at the time was coordinating defense policy for the Obama campaign. It was considered a major career risk to research and write a serious book on what many people insist is science-fiction. I was warned by many that it would scuttle my career. So I decided that if I was going to risk it, I may as well double down by writing it in a way I wanted to write it, to have it read like the books I liked to read. So while it is a book that tackles serious issues, I wanted it to be received by a broader audience. The result is a very pop-culture filled book, with lots of anecdotes, lots of stories and characters, but also hard data and some deep theory. That is, it blends in everything from battle stories out of Iraq to philosophers like Thomas Hobbes to chracters from Star Wars to revealing my own love for the Gilmore Girls. Hopefully, its a book that doesn't just make you think, but also scares people at some point, as well as makes people laugh out loud at some point.
descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Wed 29 Apr 09 15:50
You're getting some great reviews. One that caught my eye is one that is mostly laudatory but does have a couple of minor quibbles: http://www.amazon.com/review/R1B20UT518228A/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm So based on your statement your career risk and the reviews so far, are you feeling vindicated? Second question: "Issue-That-Must-Not-Be-Discussed." The reviewer I cited highlights how senior managment can be clueless at anything below the "50,000 foot level" where "the rubber meets the clouds". Could you say something about any feedback you've received from the upper military echelons from items brought out in your book?
John Payne (satyr) Wed 29 Apr 09 21:20
Thanks for coming to Inkwell, Peter. I'd like to add my voice to the chorus of those praising the readability of Wired For War, adding that it's all the more remarkable that it should be so considering how you at least touched on practically every conceivable angle. I grew up on the plains of southern Kansas, embedded in if not exactly part of the farming culture of the area, which mainly meant the cultivation of winter wheat. Two types of machines dominated the landscape, tractors and (during harvest season) combine harvesters, more usually simply called combines. While I never actually got to drive one, I was fascinated by combines, which perform several related operations simultaneously, mostly without intervention on the part of the operator. Even better, many farmers had examples of previous generations of equipment, collected together in little rusting museums, so gaining some sense for the evolution of farming equipment was almost a matter of osmosis. In high school, because I lacked the hands-on experience of my peers, I opted for auto mechanics and metals shop in preference to advanced algebra and trigonometry, else I might have ended up some sort of engineer. During this time I also consumed a great deal of science fiction. In college I eventually settled on a biology major, but was dissatisfied, and after graduation continued struggling toward something I only later learned to call a systems perspective, which didn't fall neatly within any single academic discipline. At about the same time that I discovered systems theory I also became deeply fascinated with computing. During the years that followed, an idea that draws on many of these experiences gradually took shape in my mind, an idea about the application of robotics to the detailed management of productive land, currently represented by <http://cultibotics.blogspot.com/>. I also host a tiny, until recently moribund corner of The WELL known as the augmentation & robotics conference <augbot.ind.>. At a guess, you might find the <attack.> conference interesting. It began as a response to 9/11, and has carried on through all of the subsequent turns of events. To turn back the clock again, one of the first books I ever read more than a single time was A.F. Casselberry's "Flying to victory"... <http://openlibrary.org/b/OL6455853M/Flying-to-victory> ...which could be said to have anticipated the unmanned aircraft of today by fifty years. Now for a question, which relates less to the new trend towards robotics than to the enthusiasm for networking which preceded it. Are you aware of any experimentation with giving every squad its own remotely-linked geek, sharing their voice channel and doing the keyboard entry for them, to act as a liaison to other aspects of the military, such as the drone pilots, a filter for information resources, passing along only the most relevant, a buffer between the troops on the ground and the many distractions that a networked environment can present, and an advocate when they need backup immediately?
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Thu 30 Apr 09 01:04
Just thought I'd point out that there's a video of Mr. Singer's excellent talk at the TED conference: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/pw_singer_on_robots_of_war.html
Peter W Singer (peterwsinger) Thu 30 Apr 09 08:37
The response from folks in the military has bene fantastic. I've been out on book tour (am typing from hotel computer lab in Pittsburgh right now) and so far have been to every single service academy (just back from west point on monday), as well as most of the military professional schools like Naval War College, Army War College, etc. Just great chance to engage with people who are wrestling with this in the day to day. As some intimated, there might have been an expectation of more pushback from senior generals for highlighting how disconnected things had become between the technology troops were using on the ground and those making decisions. But for the most part I have gotten very good feedback. Indeed, we've gotten formal plaudits (which are now on the WiredforWar website) from folks like Gen Schwartz, chief of staff of Air Force, and Gen Mattis, the Marine now in charge of Joint Forces command. Also got very nice leters from Gen Petraeus and Adm Staviridis. My sense is that senior leadership really does want to get this right, but is overwhelmed by the scope and pace of everything going on, and so was fairly welcoming to my findings. To the other question by John in #5: No, I havent yet heard of anything like this at the small unit level yet. You could almost imagine it as "Geek Squad" for the military. They do have it for the higher levels. Indeed, there is a story I was told by an officer about how the battle plans they were prepping for the first gulf war actually were on a computer that crashed, and so they call up the lead techie guy in the middle of the night to fly down to pentagon and fix it. He didnt want to and turned out was able to fix it over the phone . Its unconfirmed story, but still sorta amusing. Of course, now the techie helper/buffer you describe would likely be someone outsourced to work in a call center in south asia, which would create even more amusement.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 30 Apr 09 10:32
My college boyfriend -- whose dad worked for GE in the 1960s designing Gatling guns -- is now working for iRobot -- the same company that makes robot vacuums and floor cleaners -- designing robots to find land mines.
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Thu 30 Apr 09 11:55
Interesting book. I haven't gotten all the way through it yet but I'm greatly enjoying it so far. And, boy, it's a lot of material. I find it interesting that the fighter jocks (and the Air Force generally) were disdainful, at least initially, of piloting drones remotely. As the role of drones increases, are they changing their tune? It seems to me that before long manned aircraft will become the exception and not the rule. Do you think this is the way things are going?
John Payne (satyr) Fri 1 May 09 06:20
> Of course, now the techie helper/buffer you describe would likely > be someone outsourced to work in a call center in south asia, > which would create even more amusement. Heh! I really had in mind using soldiers, perhaps people who'd been wounded too badly to return to regular duty, with the idea that they would be able to bond with the people on the ground and become an integral part of the team, although I don't suppose a thick Indian accent would prevent that from happening. You'd just need to select for operators with the ability to individuate and care about their team, despite only becoming acquainted with them remotely. I don't think it would play well as a drama/sitcom in the U.S. market, but it might in the Indian market, where the subtle, frequently ironic humor among operators wouldn't go to waste. You could even drag in religion by having a muslim operator whose reliability was above question but who would nevertheless, inevitably be surrounded by trust issues. On to the next question: I don't have your book with me at the moment, and don't recall exactly what you said about the military working with game developers, but I do vaguely recall that in "Ender's Game" particular arcade games were networked into the recruiting system somehow. I'm curious whether some of that is going on now or planned for the near future, but even more curious whether the military is making use of gamers to test device designs that are still on the drawing board. Can you say anything about that?
Michael C. Berch (mcb) Fri 1 May 09 14:03
Just a reminder - anyone reading this via the Well's web site who is not a Well member can pose a question for Peter by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll post it here.
John Payne (satyr) Sat 2 May 09 08:28
Peter, another, more basic question: why robots?
John Payne (satyr) Sat 2 May 09 11:46
Sorry to load you up with questions, Peter, but here's another topic that I've been waiting to ask about... On page 87 you mention "triggered decay" of nuclear isomers* as a potential power source for "long-duration unmanned aircraft", referencing "Weapons Grade" by David Hambling (p152), which also describes bombs far more powerful than chemical explosives, based on the same effect. I initially misunderstood this, conflating "isomer" and "isotope", but have that part straight now. Given the destructive potential of weapons based on triggered nuclear isomers, and the fact that they would have an effect similar to neutron bombs, since the stored energy is released in the form of gamma radiation, killing without creating a great deal of physical destruction, could you get behind a move to ban such weapons? On the other hand, can you imagine any commercial application for triggered nuclear isomers that would be safe - in terms of both protection from the radiation produced and security to prevent the material from being diverted into weapons - and economically viable, given that creating the material in the first place is likely to be energetically inefficient? Powering unmanned, long-duration, high-value assets seems like the perfect match, since neither the radiation nor that fact that it might take 100KWh in to produce 1KWh out would be of much concern. * For the benefit of others reading this, note that "nuclear isomer" is not equivalent to "nuclear isotope", although particular isotopes would undoubtedly be involved in any instance of creating and triggering the decay of a nuclear isomer. Note also that this is essentially battery technology, not an energy source. If triggering could be used to accelerate the natural decay of one isotope into another, that might be an energy source.
Andrew Alden (alden) Sat 2 May 09 19:08
Is this the purported, bogus "hafnium bomb"?
John Payne (satyr) Sat 2 May 09 19:31
Hafnium 178 is one of the isotopes into which energy can be stored by the creation of an isomer, and from which that energy can be released, either in a controlled manner or all at once, yes. See http://tinyurl.com/coqfjn (Google Book Search link of Hambling ref)
Peter W Singer (peterwsinger) Sun 3 May 09 11:54
My gosh, just back from a friend's wedding and tons to reply to. Why Robots (#12)? Well because robots are, as I write in the opening to the book, Frakin cool (an homage to Battlestar Gallactica). the longer answer goes back to my initial posting, that we are living through this remarkable revolution, where these amazing technologies are starting to have great impact on our wars, our politics, etc. and yet no one was writing or talking about it. So, besides the incredible stories I could collect, this is what motivated me, to capture a historic moment in time, and maybe even offer a framework of understanding for moving forward. Ender's Game and recruiting via Video Games (#10): Yes, indeed, this is another one of those areas where sci fi is starting to play forward. I actually had a draft chapter entitled "Meet the Sims --And Kill Them," which looked at the growing connections between the video game industry and the military. This is not just the manner in which the military uses more and more video game technology, free riding off of the research work by companies like Sony and MSFT, as well as how they have already trained up a generation in their use. But moreso, it looked at the amazing story of "America's Army," which was a video game developed for the XBox to help with recruiting and has become a huge best seller. Alas, the book was already a bit long, so we had to chop that section out. Are USAF attitudes changing on drones (#9)? Somewhat but slowly. The senior leadership, which had replaced a previous set who were fired in part for not meeting Gates' push for more Predator flights, are doing better and ramping up buy rates and pilot training for these systems. But it still is somewhat begrudgingly and not well integrated with rest of the force. And indeed, there is talk of creating a new air wing that would focus just on counterinsurgency missions. But, of course, the only plane the leadership talked about buying for it was a light, manned, propellor plane (a back to the future mentality), never once exploring why it would be better than the unmanned systems. Within the force, its mixed as well. There is more and more experience being built up with these systems, so greater constituency, but you still see resistance. I was recently at US Air Force Academy and one of the young officers there was soon to join a Predator squadron. And he was sorely disappointed about it, describing how he wanted to fly and instead his new job was "going to be boring." So, while his unit will likely engage in more combat and critical missions to American national seucirty than almost any other in the force, it is still "boring" to him and he wasthe object of his mates jokes. I told him there was likely some young officer in 1919 at West Point who equally was probably disappointed to be joining a tank unit instead of the more exciting and prestigious horse cavalry units. Isomer question (13): I am going to dodge this one. Hambling really is a far better expert than I on it, so anything I give would be more speculation than fact based. I would say that as weapons move from theoretic to real, we have an important ethical responsibility to weigh their utility against the potential harms, intentional or unintentional. If we just push forward, without any consideration, we are simply repeating the mistakes of the scientists back in the 1940s, who built the atomic bomb and then afterwards regretted it.
John Payne (satyr) Sun 3 May 09 18:00
That warning would seem to apply even in the seemingly innocuous case of my own vision for a landscape in which tractors and tillage have been replaced with more intelligent, intricate machines performing gardening techniques. One page 247, you quote Qiao and Wang, authors of "Unrestricted Warfare" as saying "We believe that some morning people will awake to discover with surprise that quite a few gentle and kind things have begun to have offensive and lethal characteristics." That made me think. What would military planners and the technological wizards of DARPA and other such institutions see in the prospect of a landscape full of intelligent, networked machines? Ubiquitous surveillance, certainly, but would it stop there? Would they insist upon back-door access to systems sold into unfriendly markets? While a Skynet-gone-berserk scenario may be too improbable to bother seriously considering, malicious repurposing of commonplace technology by remote crackers is all too likely, including as part of coordinated attacks. Whatever is connected to the internet and somehow effects the physical world might be made an instrument for mischief, or worse.
Hugh Watkins (hughw1936uk) Sun 3 May 09 20:21
without the arrow and the bullet, fighting was a face to face affair shelling and bombing enabled killing at a distance "As Anthony Lewis once wrote, our military technology is so advanced that we kill at a distance and insulate our consciences by the remoteness of the killing." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gloria_Emerson
John Payne (satyr) Mon 4 May 09 06:51
For those viewing this topic from inside The WELL, I've started a topic in the Science conference for continuation of the Hafnium debate, and related subjects. <science.688> EM manipulation of atomic nuclei: Hafnium...
John Payne (satyr) Mon 4 May 09 08:06
Perhaps the best expression of the pastoral cybernetic aesthetic expressed in Richard Brautigan's poem "All watched over by machines of loving grace" is that found in Asimov's "The Naked Sun" on the planet Solaria. But taking the phrase "machines of loving grace" by itself, the robots found in the frozen conclusion of Spielberg's film "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" are the best. If we could build machines like those, maybe they could serve as peacekeepers.
Michael C. Berch (mcb) Mon 4 May 09 22:23
Peter, The most interesting chapters for me were on autonomy ("Always in the Loop?") and international law and human rights ("Digitzing the Laws of War"), which to me at least are closely related. While right now it appears that goals and rules are communicated to robotic devices at a pretty low level, or are teleoperated by humans, that clearly won't always be the case. Since it doesn't look like Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics -- which you're careful to point out are fictional -- are likely to be the the basis of high-level rules for robots, what might be instead? And who would decide? I can imagine a military officer thrilled with the idea of telling some unmanned weapons platforms, "take that ridge", but what he or she really means is, "take that ridge, but only engage obvious combatants, and destroy only the structures you have to, and make sure not to harm the nearby school or mosque." It's hard enough to do that with human soldiers, but it seem to be an order of magnitude harder with robots, even if they are able to comprehend the high-level orders.
Peter W Singer (peterwsinger) Tue 5 May 09 07:33
Michael, Yes, exactly, that is the challenge. Here is a thing I did for IO-9 on the issue of Asimov's Laws: http://io9.com/5187218/the-3-laws-may-not-be-enough-to-guide-robot-warriors In the book, I go into this is FAR more depth, but I think that we are going to have to turn back to the original pillars of the laws of war that are supposed to guide whether a system can be judged as legal or not, such as their ability to discriminate between lawful and unlawful targets, etc. We have been ignoring them with our latest generation of technology. But there is a last one of these pillars I sense we may soon hear more of, whether society finds them objectionable in some way. This is why blinding lasers for example are banned, and was also the driver behind ban of bioweapons, even though they might be militarily useful. But again, this is why we need to engage with the technology, rather wait until after the fact, akin to what happened with land mines. As well, it is critical under the law that we ensure accountability, that there is a clear chain of responsibility for who to turn to when things go awry. This is something that many roboticists don't want to talk about (and one recently got angry with me for even suggesting it in the book), but I think is imperative here. If we can't establish that clear accountability that I believe extends from the user in the field all the way back to the inventor, so that we can find out just exactly where things went wrong, rather than putting all the blame on the end user, then again, the system may not be one we ought to use.
Eric Mankin (stet) Tue 5 May 09 08:38
Just to bring in another piece of fiction - set for release May 21 is Terminator Salvation, the prequel, in which Skynet becomes self-aware and destroys most of humanity, starting a war between machine intelligence and the survivors. Are you working on an op-ed for the occasion? Perhaps you could start sharing some thoughts about the extremes here.
descend into a fractal hell of meta-truthiness (jmcarlin) Tue 5 May 09 10:19
It strikes me from that "3 laws" article that there significant boundry is where "robots" start being autonomous. Given my work background in computer software, I get really, really, REALLY nervous about bugs and design flaws. It's bad enough when we have "ordinary" bugs but at least a human can take action. But an autonomous robot with a bug is quite something else. Typically designers and developers are overly optimistic about the odds of their work being perfect, but I'd want a "paranoid" in charge of such projects because a paranoid would suspect that things are wrong and they most likely will be. The Roomba is a good example: 97,500 hits on "Roomba bug" and 55,300 on hacking Roomba. That's enough evidence for me.
pardon my amygdala (murffy) Tue 5 May 09 12:42
One thing that struck me with all this automation is that if going into battle starts to become only marginally more dangerous than, say, driving on the freeway, wouldn't that tend to make it easier to resort to force. Why bother with the complexities of non-violent solutions when force can be used so quickly, effectively and safely?
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