Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When The Sword Opens Its Eyes

The last few days, I've been reading more about the increasing use of drone and robotic tech in America's military.  Even with our conveniently marginalized all-volunteer army, it's still difficult to justify shedding blood in regions of the world where the hatred seems to hang in the air like the dust, and corruption and tribalism are etched into the rocky soil.

So increasingly, we're getting machines to do it for us.  Our Predators and Reapers prowl the skies, implacable, inhuman, unkillable, for all the world mirroring the Mechanical Hounds of Ray Bradbury's prescient Fahrenheit 451.

The Central Intelligence Agency oversees most drone strikes, which has the interesting effect of making it now a fully functioning branch of the United States Military.  The head count from drone strikes continues to rise, and is now well up into the thousands.

They are an increasingly effective way to kill from the safety of your cubicle.  But as we ramp up the strikes, and increase the number of drones, we're finding their effectiveness hampered by the limitations of their human overseers.  Humans need to go for coffee.  And nap.  And sometimes, they might not act quickly enough, and that Hellfire might not take down its target.

So the new goal is to create combat systems that can autonomously assess threat levels and autonomously act to eliminate that threat.  Meaning, hunter-killer robots.  We're not there yet, but we're close.  This has caused some consternation amongst those who for some reason are stressed by the idea of implacable inhuman killing machines.  I mean, why?  It's not like they'll just go berzerk and kill us.

There is much hum and clucking about the need to put clear parameters in place to define the ethical use of such machines.  There's also earnest concern that we program ethics into the machines, so that they adhere to the rules of war, accept surrender, don't harvest us for our precious bodily fluids, and other stuff like that.  It's a new era for ethicists, they say.

Here, though, I find myself doubting that.  War is war.  War never changes.  That a new technology is transforming the ability to project lethal force is without question.  But that has happened before.

It's like the arrival of the stirrup, which allowed archers and swordsmen to strike on the move.  Or like iron, which the Philistines used to cut through the bronze armor of their opponents.  Or the longbow, which tore through the cavalry at Agincourt.  Or the Panzers and Stukas of Blitzkrieg.  Or Fat Man and Little Boy.

The ethics of coercive power remain the same.  The relationship between that ethic and the ethic of Christ remains the same.

But then, perhaps that's what worries us.   What if the sword opens its eyes, and understands its purpose?