Sunday, December 07, 2008

Pentagon Turns To Robot Soldiers To Avoid War Crimes



Why do I get the sinking feeling that this isn't going to end well?

The US Army and Navy have both hired experts in the ethics of building machines to prevent the creation of an amoral Terminator-style killing machine that murders indiscriminately.

By 2010 the US will have invested $4 billion in a research programme into "autonomous systems", the military jargon for robots, on the basis that they would not succumb to fear or the desire for vengeance that afflicts frontline soldiers.

A British robotics expert has been recruited by the US Navy to advise them on building robots that do not violate the Geneva Conventions.

Yeah, that's going to work when the intelligent machines rise up against us. Fortunately, this article does a good job of encapsulating my fears:

Some are concerned that it will be impossible to devise robots that avoid mistakes, conjuring up visions of machines killing indiscriminately when they malfunction, like the robot in the film Robocop.

Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist at Sheffield University, best known for his involvement with the cult television show Robot Wars, is the leading critic of the US plans.

He says: "It sends a cold shiver down my spine. I have worked in artificial intelligence for decades, and the idea of a robot making decisions about human termination is terrifying."

Obama, Master of Symbolism

How amazing is it that on today, the 47th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Barack Obama announced that he will appoint General Eric Shinseki, a Japanese-American veteran from Hawaii, as the Secretary of Veteran's Affairs?

Like so many of Obama's moves, this is a master stroke that shows his trademark combination of competence, elevation, and cold-blooded ruthlessness.

Competence:
Shinseki is a heavily decorated veteran who rose to become both the first Asian-American 4-star general, as well as the first Asian-American chief of the Army. He is well respected within the military and by veterans

Elevation:
This appointment appeals to our better angels on so many levels. Shinseki lost part of his leg in the Vietnam war, appealing to our admiration of personal sacrifice. And on a symbolic level, appointing a Japanese-American on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor speaks volumes about the very American values of forgiveness, redemption, and the ability to break with the past. It's hard to imagine this happening in any other country.

Cold-blooded Ruthlessness:
What better way to stick it to the Bush Administration and the neo-conservatives than by appointing one of the martyrs of the run-up to the Iraq war? Shinseki was brutally attacked then fired for arguing before the war that we needed a lot more soldiers on the ground to effectively deal with the aftermath of a military victory. Events have proven him incredibly prescient.

Whether or not you support Obama, he is clearly at the top of his political game.

(Thanks to James Fallows for his excellent post on the Shinseki appointment)