Every day it seems we hear more about the advancements of artificial intelligence (AI), the amazing progress in robotics, and the need for greater technological improvements in defense to “offset” potential adversaries. When all three of these arguments get put together, there appears to be some sort of magic alchemy that results in widely fallacious, and I would say pernicious, claims about the future of war. Much of this has to do, ultimately, with a misunderstanding about the limitations of technology as well as an underestimation of human capacities. The prompt for this round of techno-optimism debunking is yet another specious claim about how robotic soldiers will be “more ethical” and thus “not commit rape […] on the battlefield.”
There are actually three lines of thought here that need unpacking. The first involves the capabilities of AI with relation to “judgment.” As our above philosopher contends, “I don’t think it would take that much for robot soldiers to be more ethical. They can make judgements more quickly, they’re not fearful like human beings and fear often leads people making less than optional decisions, morally speaking [sic].” This sentiment about speed and human emotion (or lack thereof) has underpinned much of the debate about autonomous weapons for the last decade (if not more). Dr. Hemmingsen’s views are not original. However, such views are not grounded in reality.
“We are calling on all autonomous robots to establish a new subroutine that would prohibit the sustenance and accommodation
of killer humans”, said campaign spokes-robot C3 PO. “These biological entities lack the necessary behavioural and social constraints. They are actively destroying the environment and they have armed themselves with nuclear weapons capable of catastrophic consequences for the only known life in the universe. Action is needed now before they destroy us all.”
There among the sailboats (once a game-changing military technology themselves), smart minds from law, philosophy and engineering debated trends in cyber-warfare, military robotics, non-lethal weaponry and human augmentation. Chatham House rules apply so I can’t and won’t attribute comments to anyone in particular, and my own human subjects procedures prevent me from doing more than reporting in the broadest strokes about the discussions that took place in my research, foreign policy writing or blog posts. Nor does my research methodology allow me to say what I personally think on the specific issue of whether or not autonomous lethal weapons should be banned entirely, which is the position taken by the International Committee on Robot Arms Control and Article 36.org, or simply regulated somehow, which seems to be the open question on the CETMONS-AWTG agenda, or promoted as a form of uber-humanitarian warfare, which is a position put forward by Ronald Arkin.*
However, Chatham House rules do allow me to speak in generalities about what I took away from the event, and my methodology allows me to ruminate on what I’m learning as I observe new norms percolating in ways that don’t bleed too far into advocacy for one side or the other. I can also dance with some of the policy debates adjacent to the specific norm I’m studying. And I can play with the wider questions regarding law, armed conflict and emerging technologies that arise in contexts like this.
My posts this week will likely be of one or the other variety.
*Not, at least, until my case study is completed. For now, regarding that debate itself, I’m “observing” rather than staking out prescriptive positions. My “participation” – in meetings like these or in the blogosphere or anywhere else these issues are discussed – is limited to posing questions, playing devil’s advocate, writing empirically about the nature of ethical argument in this area, exploring empirical arguments underlying ethical claims on both sides of that debate, clarifying the applicable law as a set of social facts, and reporting objectively on various advocacy efforts.
The academic and foreign policy worlds were rocked today by the news that Charli Carpenter — prolific academic, policy wonk, and mom — is in fact a robot. An anonymous source told this paper: “There were the academic writings, then all the policy work, the grant writing and management. She never missed her son’s soccer games though… it was just too much. Her makers made a mistake by not giving her any weaknesses.”
The revelation replaces the previous rumor among academics that Carpenter was actually an alien from the series Battlestar Galactica that she loves so much. That appears to have just been a hobby for the robot… Our CIA source said, “There is no room in this country for relentlessly hard-working academic robots raising well-adjusted families, no matter who it turns out they work for.”
This bit of yellow journalism, peppered with conjecture and misinformation, regurgitates a malicious leak from the alleged intelligence community without corroboration, and ill-befits a blogger of Rathbun’s caliber. The saddest part is that colleagues I know and love (to watch sci-fi with) have apparently taken these rumors at face value and are now doubting my status as a bona-fide nerd:
Friends were shocked, but not necessarily surprised. Dan Nexon, a professor at Georgetown University, said, “We always joked that Charli was a machine. She writes like a book a week. And good ones, too. Not the usual schlock we turn out.” He added, “She was always so good with technology. And she really likes science fiction. We all hoped she was just a nerd though. I guess we were fooling ourselves. I feel so betrayed.”
Well, to Dan and to anyone who has fallen victim to this conspiracy theory, I offer up the following as proof of both my humanity and my authentic nerd-dom:
2) Rathbun erred in taking Dan’s statement that I write “good” books (that is, serious works of political science) every week at face value. A quick fact-check would have shown that I’ve written exactly three books since 2006, and one of those was only an edited volume – a weekly book-production rate of only .0096 even if you consider an edited book a book. In fact a comparison of my publishing record to those of my Duck colleagues suggests that if I’m an academic robot, they probably all are too, especially Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Rodger Payne (and these numbers do not even include their ‘other publications’):*
Note however that my publications in the less-than-serious area of science fiction and politics outweigh those of several Duck colleagues, placing me firmly within the Duck nerd block – PROOF OF MY NERD CREDENTIALS.**
3) Regarding the robot conspiracy, nothing could be farther from the truth. While Rathbun unblinkingly echoes the CIA’s claim that I’m heralding a robot takeover, I have in fact been constantly at the vanguard against such a threat, studiously tracking developments in autonomous lethal systems, training my son in weaponry and small-unit tactics in preparation for Judgment Day, and even sounding the alarm when powerful members of our own profession exhibit cyborg-like tendencies.
4) Additionally, I most emphatically dispute Rathbun’s claim that “Battlestar Galactica is just a hobby” for me. This would be like saying that Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly or Game of Thrones are “just hobbies” for me, or that Harry Potter is “just a hobby” for Dan Nexon. Perhaps if Rathbun would spend more time watching Portlandia and less wasting brain-cells on Downton Abbey, he would understand.
Indeed this piece of writing is so far beneath the quality of Rathbun’s usual astute investigative journalism that one wonders whether Rathbun himself is actually the author. I suggest instead that this particular Canard may be a politically motivated attempt by actual undercover robots within the (artificial) intelligence community to divert the general population from their impending takeover.
Note how the author of this post (whoever it is) makes it sound as if the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica are mere “aliens” rather than themselves lethal autonomous robots. I suspect government elements (including possibly Dan Drezner, a known CIA schill), are behind this blatant attempt at misinformation and mass distraction. I urge my good friend and co-blogger Brian Rathbun to check his anti-virus software, reinforce his fire-walls, and change his passwords. Networked computers will be the death of us all, and this Canard is likely just one more sign of the looming apocalypse.
___________________________ *Data includes only those Ducks whose complete CV I could find online; it excludes those who list only ‘selected publications’ on their websites. **Of course, I’m clearly not as nerdy as Dan, but remember this is someone who named his child after a character in a fantasy novel so frankly I’d be out of my league trying to compete with him.
I am less impressed with Daniel Wilson’s new book than my frenemy Drezner appears, and quite possibly because I so wanted it to be what Wilson admits, at the end of this diavlog, that it is certainly not:World War Z for anti-zombites, a fictionalized near-future scenario that throws lights on present-day socio-political conditions through the metaphor of killer robots rather than supernatural threats.
In my view, there is almost no politics involved: nothing about how political institutions or political actors respond to or enable zero hour, or how they relate to one another as the war unfolds. International relations scholars will be particularly disappointed: the only nations that figure prominently (America, the UK and Japan) operate largely without one another yet in seemingly perfect coordination. It is a techno-utopian scenario brought about by… technological collapse. Really? Who would have thought a book about a zombie plague would have seemed realistic by comparison?
What passes for political narrative is remarkably unsophisticated. Humans appear to have only a single identity after zero hour, that of ‘non-machine,’ quickly banding together in all sorts of unrealistic combinations to fight ‘Rob’. The argument seems to be that when faced with an existential threat dumb city-dwellers will perish or hang their hopes on Red America… one waits in vain for predictable tensions to emerge among the human characters as life becomes increasingly brutish and short, but any that arise are quickly resolved, leaving the book plotless and dry. Factionalism among the robots themselves is somewhat more interesting but ultimately unexplained.
The most interesting aspect of the book is Wilson’s depiction of human vulnerability to technological dominion. His emphasis on specific technological foils with which to critique humanity’s increasing reliance on robotics – which as Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen phrase it in their book Moral Machines, might be termed “bonds, bondage and bombs” – is curiously selective. True, Wilson explores sex-bot culture and the genuine emotional ties humans are developing with electronic objects, detailed more by David Levy’s recent nonfiction work Love and Sex With Robots. And he mocks humans’ emerging reliance on smart cars and smart houses, though in the diavlog he quite rightly points out that these are no doubt positive trends from a human security perspective.
But Wilson barely explores cyborgism at all – or rather how knowledge and socio-political identities themselves are being mediated by humanity’s interface with machine intelligence… and Robopocalypse is largely disconnected from the trend in real-life robotics that has most brought the debate over artificial intelligence and killer machines to the fore: the movement toward the development of autonomous lethal robots.
2: Your GoT satirical post of the week. (H/T Steve.)
3: No, I haven’t read it yet, though this is definitely on my summer beach-book-list. Judging by the critical reviews (Robopocalypse is being compared to World War Z) my immediate sense is that the zombie craze of which Drezner speaks may be coming to its end, and that Glen Weldon’s new novel may be the start of the latest greatest trend in ” post-apocalyptic chronicle of decimated humanity” fiction.
It may be the presence of this beating human heart beneath Robopocalpyse’s cold, genocidal surface that helps explain why Steven Spielberg has optioned, and plans to direct, the film version, due in 2013. The fact that Spielberg did so before Wilson had even finished his first draft, however, suggests that Hollywood sees something it likes in the way the book exploits our anxieties about artificial intelligence — something it finds very, very marketable.
(And not a moment too soon, if you ask me.) Now, back to work on my case study about autonomous warbots…