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The peaceniks at Amnesty International have been worried about killer robots for a while, so as the international community convenes in Geneva to talk about weapons of the future, they once again launched a media blitz about what they see as an urgent need to ban killer robots. In the future they envision, merciless killer bots mow down soldiers and civilians alike with virtually no human intervention, kind of like in the opening scene of the Robocop remake. In an age of vast global trade empires with far too much to lose by fighting with each other use their soldiers and war machines to tackle far-flung low intensity conflicts, in military wonk parlance, where telling a civilian apart from a combatant is no easy feat, Amnesty International raises an important issue to consider. If we build robots to kill, there’s bound to be a time when they’ll make a decision in error and end someone’s life when they shouldn’t have. Who will be held responsible? Was it a bug or a feature that it killed who it did? Could we prevent similar incidents in the future?

Having seen machines take on the role of perfect bad guys in countless sci-fi tales, I can’t help but shake the feeling that a big part of the objections to autonomous armed robots comes from the innate anxiety at the idea of being killed because some lines of code ruled you a target. It’s an uneasy feeling even for someone who works with computers every day. Algorithms are way too often buggy and screw up edge cases way too easily. Programmers rushing to meet a hard deadline will sometimes cut corners to make something work, then never go back to fix it. They mean to, but as new projects start and time gets away from them, an update breaks their code and bugs emerge seemingly out of nowhere. If you ask a roomful of programmers who did this at least a few times in their careers to raise their hands, almost all of them will. And the few who did not are lying. When this is a bug in a game or a mobile app, it’s seldom a big deal. When it’s code deployed in an active war zone, it’s going to become a major problem very quickly.

Even worse, imagine bugs in the robots’ security systems. Shoddy encryption, or lack of it, was once exploited to capture live video feeds from drones on patrol. Poorly secured APIs meant to talk to the robot mid-action could be hijacked and turn the killer bot against its handlers, and as seen in pretty much every movie ever, this turn of events never has a good ending. Even good, secure APIs might not stay that way because cybersecurity is a very lopsided game in which all the cards are heavily stacked the hackers’ favor. Security experts need to execute perfectly for every patch, update, and code change to keep their machines safe. Hackers only need to take advantage of a single slip-up or bug to gain access and do their dirty work. This is why security for killer robots’ systems could never be perfect and the only thing its creators could do is make the machine extremely hard to hack with strict code, constantly updated secure connections to its base station, and include a way to quickly reset or destroy it when it does get hacked.

Still, all of this isn’t necessarily an argument against killer robots. It’s a reminder of how serious the challenges of making them are, and they better be heeded because no matter how much it may pain pacifist groups and think tanks, these weapons are coming. While they’ll inevitably kill civilians in war zones, in the mind of a general, so do flesh and blood soldiers, and if those well trained humans with all the empathy and complex reasoning skills being human entails cannot get it right all the time, what hope do robots have? Plus, to paraphrase the late General Patton, you don’t win wars by dying for your country but by making someone does for theirs’ and what better way to do that than by substituting your live troops with machinery you don’t mind losing nearly as much in combat? I’ve covered the “ideal” scenario for how all this would work back in the early days of this blog and in subsequent years, the technology to make it all possible isn’t just growing ever more advanced, it’s practically already here. It would make little sense to just throw it all away to continue to risk human lives in war zones from a military standpoint.

And here’s another thing to think about when envisioning a world where killer robots making life or death decisions dominate the battlefield. Only advanced countries could afford to build robot armies and deploy them instead of humans in conflict. Third World states would have no choice but to rely on flesh and blood soldiers, meaning that one side loses thousands of lives fighting a vast, expendable metal swarm armed with high tech weaponry able to outflank any human-held position before its defenders even have time to react. How easy would it be to start wars when soldiers no longer need to be put at risk and the other side either would not have good enough robots or must put humans on the front lines? If today all it takes to send thousand into combat saying that they volunteered and their sacrifice won’t be in vain, how quickly will future chicken hawks vote to send the killer bots to settle disputes, often in nations where only humans will be capable of fighting back, all but assuring the robots’ swift tactical victory?

Yes, Pacific Rim is a loud popcorn movie best viewed with your brain operating at half capacity, just enjoying the show without asking any questions. And that’s exactly what makes it fun. This may shock film snobs and critics who review Oscar bait, but not every movie in theaters needs to be an epic character drama that explores the fundamental issues with existence and the human condition, or brutally cataloging a bloody genocide while repeatedly beating its viewers over the head with heavy-handed questions about morals, ethics, free will, and what lurks within us all. At the same time though, big budget Hollywood spectacles with thin plots are usually outsourced to Michael Bay, or directors who emulate his style, who latch on to formulas that even the writers of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller movies would find too flimsy and groan-inducing, then proceed to viciously drill them into your eyes to a soundtrack of explosions. Pacific Rim was thankfully made by Guillermo del Toro and easily avoids this trap by being a simple and very straightforward little tribute to giant robot vs. giant monster anime many twenty-somethings watched as kids.

But that said, there’s something just not right about humanoid robots brawling with giant beasts sent from another world through an undersea portal called The Breach. Jaegers might deliver a knockout punch to a 30 story Kaiju or pound one over the head with a container ship to give the monster a hell of a concussion, but the mechanics just don’t quite work. Kaijus are fleshy, which means they’re more flexible and heal minor cuts and scrapes quickly. By comparison, a Jaeger would be made of comparatively brittle metal alloys and have to be refurbished after every fight, making it extremely expensive and labor-intensive to operate. When the Kaijus appear every six months or so as they did at the beginning of the war, the cost can be managed. But as the giant brutes keep getting bigger and bigger, and start appearing as often as once a week, resources are quickly going to start running dry, so building ever more Jaegers would quickly become very difficult. No wonder that the bureaucrats who run the world in Pacific Rim want to shut down this once promising program for a wall to keep the Kaijus out. They can’t afford it anymore.

Of course one also wonders how they got the Jaegers to be bipedal at such a scale. Walking on two legs is very computationally expensive for a machine that’s as big as a high rise, and even a small bump in the road could send these robots falling, and falling badly. Not only that, but they give the Kaijus excellent points of attack: the ankles and the knees. To truly make their punches count, the Jaeger pilots have to get their robots to behave just like a human fighter and put the core and hips into the blow. Punching in a basic one-two sequence, the weight would swing from leg to leg, so a counter-attack from a Kaiju aimed at the thigh or the side of the knee could send a million tons of robot down hard with its head lined up for a finishing blow from above. You can see the same idea in mixed martial art disciplines which use stomps and side-knees in a clinch to shift an opponent’s weight so you can topple him and get full mount for a well placed elbow, or a swift hammer fist to the side of the head. Jaegers would simply not be flexible enough to survive this sort of assault in the real world. Many much less brittle and more coordinated humans aren’t without at least a little training or a whole lot of mass to counteract the impacts.

For better fight mechanics, I would have designed Jaegers to look more like sumo wrestlers. An extremely wide base either on tracks or hovering with the aid of nuclear powered jet engines, no legs, and stuffed with ranged weaponry to soften up the Kaiju as it charges. Large, thick, heavy arms with huge claws would pummel the monsters at close range and its barrel-like core would spin naturally, so tipping it over or even getting it off-balance would be a Herculean task, even for the fat Category 4 Kaiju which attacks Hong Kong in the movie’s second act. Its hull could be made of something flexible like kevlar to make it tougher for a Kaiju to bite through and diffuse a good deal of the force that would be generated by a direct hit. One could even imagine it pulling off a complicated sequence just by rotating around its axis. For example, it could hit a Kaiju with an enormous left hook starting about 30 degrees left off center, keep spinning until it can follow the punch with a right elbow at between 60 and 120 degrees right off center, and returning back with a left hammer fist and a right hook, using the hits on the Kaiju to redirect its momentum.

And while we’re redesigning the Jaegers, we should ask why they can’t be piloted remotely. We can control drones halfway across the world in real time and all of the infrastructure to pull off a similar feat with a giant robot seems to be in place in the film. To minimize lag, the pilots should be in the base from which their Jaegers would be launched, but they wouldn’t have to be in their robot. Their brain-machine interfaces with their co-pilots and with their machine are going to be implemented as an abstraction over the kernel of the Jaeger’s operating system anyway so the pilots could fight, lose, and be ready to fight again as soon as a new machine is ready to go. It’s actually kind of a no-brainer that allows them to switch tactics, pushing the Jaegers further and taking risks that could kill them if they were in the actual robot but win the day in the end. There would be a huge psychological boost from seeing a Kaiju on a big screen in a bunker instead of up close and personal, its fangs tearing through the cockpit and rattling the robot around. Yes, it’s not as heroic or dangerous, but much more militarily effective and politically beneficial.

But then again, all of this is based on the idea that Jaegers make for the best front-line defense when a Kaiju attacks. That’s not necessarily true. We know they can be killed by nukes, but the proposition of turning the world’s most populated coastlines into radioactive deserts is a tough sell and actually doing that will kill food production and give the Kaijus a beachhead from which they can mount assaults further and further inland. However, launching a very large kinetic kill vehicle from orbit, basically a huge spike dropped from a satellite, could hit a Kaiju with roughly the same yield as a 300 kiloton nuclear warhead without all the radiation. Currenly we can’t build and launch wepaons like this because they violate the Outer Space Treaty, but when there’s an angry horde of aliens that can flatten a city block with each step rampaging on Earth and all of the nations unite in building and deploying Jaegers, I’m sure exceptions could be made and the current space faring powers can launch a system of satellites ready to drive a super-heated alloy slug into a Kaiju at hypersonic speeds at a moment’s notice. Should that somehow fail and some time needs to be bought for another shot, Jaegers can coral the beast into the kill zone.

This is how you would fight a Kaiju in the real world. Orbiting KKV launchers that can fire off an exceptionally engineered slug at the planet below at a moment’s notice, drone bomber swarms, and giant mobile weapon platforms known as Jaegers, remotely piloted as a last line of defense against the nightmarish beasts. Pacific Rim’s spectacle is great for a live action anime movie, a solid tribute to the genre, and it creates tension by putting the main characters in real danger in the maws of the Kaiju, but if we were to translate any of it to the real world, it would be a militarily unsustainable strategy with little chance of actually working. The only worse strategy would be a giant wall to keep the monsters out, i.e. the Wall of Life being built in the movie, but it seems like the competent commanders in the Pacific Rim universe were all on leave throughout the war and this is why the world has been stuck with worse and worse ideas for fighting the alien titans. But hey, how mad can you be at a movie’s plot holes if it lets you mentally design giant robots and a swarm of global space-based defenses to fight aliens the size of an office block?

jason mask

Here’s a fun fact for you. If you zap someone with a powerful enough magnetic field, you could change this person’s behavior and not always for the best. In fact, you could even zap someone into a state of cold, callous sociopathy if you know where to aim, at least for a short while. Yes, the effects do wear off, but it does seem perfectly plausible that the same effect could be easily harnessed and prolonged by a chemical cocktail and we’ve known that behavior can be altered with the right tools. So of course conspiracy theorists around the world were wondering if sinister military officers or politicians with little concern for their fellow humans would start injecting some people with a psychopath-killer-in-a-syringe serum and setting them loose on a battlefield to do unspeakable evil, acting as shock troops before or during an invasion. The answer is twofold. In theory, yes, they could. In practice, the results would vary widely and can easily backfire and we already have plenty of sociopaths available for building a small army of shock troops. Just ask the Pakistani ISI if you’re curious, and while you’re at it, ask how well it’s worked for them…

Basically, the issue here is that there are limits to which you can change someone’s behavior as well as for how long. In the article above, the subject feels less empathetic and inhibited, but his psychopathy only extends to taking more risks in a video game and pocketing an uncollected tip which he promptly pays back after returning to normal. His comparison point is a special forces soldier who had extensive training and whose skills were honed in real wars. This doesn’t tell us much because military training is a major variable that’s overlooked in such stories. How likely is our non-military test subject to injure or kill someone in a real fight? Probably not very, and here is why. If you ever take a martial arts class, you’ll spend the first few weeks apologizing if you do manage to land a punch on your sparring partner and the instructors will yell at you for going far too easy on your blows and tackles. You’ll shy away from jabs and your natural instinct will be to flinch or fall back when attacked, not to calmly stand your ground. Humans are social creatures and they tend to be averse to hurting each other in the vast majority of cases.

True, we can be induced into hurting others with money or threats, and we do know how to train someone not to shy away from fights and to overcome the natural aversion to real violence. But the experimental subject in question appears to have never had any combat training or martial arts background. He may be less averse to getting into a fight because his impulse control was radically lowered, but chances are that he’ll run for it if he picks a fight with someone who’s able to hold his own or when he realizes that he’s about to get hurt. Likewise, he’s unlikely to punch as hard or as accurately as someone who’s had some real training. All in all, he may be a major menace to unwatched tips in a bar and in Grand Theft Auto, but he’s most probably not a threat to flesh and blood humans. His former special forces friend? Absolutely, but he seems to have no need to be zapped into an emotionally detached state and has his impulses pretty well under control. On top of that, were we to just zap or drag a random person into a psychopathic malice, there’s simply no telling whether he would turn on his friends and handlers or not, a chance no evil, self-respecting mastermind of the New World Order would want to take.

And that brings us back to the very real problem of an abundance of psychopaths to do a dirty job for someone willing to pay. Just look at what happened in Afghanistan during and soon after the Soviet occupation. The mujahedeen trained to fight a guerilla war against the Red Army as well as become proxy shock troops for the ISI in a potential war with India, were not given drugs or magnetic bursts to the brain. They were recruited based on their religious convictions, trained to channel their loathing for the occupying infidels into violence, and let loose on Soviet troops. No artificial inducement or neural intervention was even needed. Today they quire regularly turn on their former handlers, kill people who displease them with near impunity and absolutely zero question or moral qualms, and have generally proved to be a far bigger threat and liability than an asymmetric military asset. Considering that real psychopaths are so dangerous, why create an entire army of them with experimental chemicals or magnetic beams? If indiscriminate murder is your goal, fully automated robots are the easiest way to go, not average people or soldiers just out of basic with their impulse control drugged and zapped out of existence…

When XKCD managed to outdo itself yet again with an article about what would happen if you tried to play a very simple game of baseball at relativistic velocities, I remembered about an interesting weapon from sci- fi novels, a relativistic impactor. Basically, it’s the same thing as a kinetic kill vehicle, or KKV, a weapon which would be a necessity for any combat operation in deep space due to the laws of physics, but traveling at a terrifying 99% of the speed of light. Not only would a mere 100 kilogram metal slug level an entire metropolis, it would do it in an instant. Fired from geosynchronous orbit, it would take less than 160 milliseconds to slam into the surface, faster than any alert about the incoming round can be received and understood by a human, even a very highly trained one. As soon as you know it’s coming, it already arrived, and as detailed by XKCD, it would actually trigger nuclear fusion as it compresses air molecules around it as it plows through the air. Add the output of that to its already immense kinetic energy and we’re talking about a genuine doomsday weapon, one that could strike at any time and kill tens of millions of people in an instant. Good thing that it’s not really a good option for any commander of a space armada and it couldn’t actually strike a planet even if it tried.

If you’ve read enough popular physics posts, you probably know what the first problem with relativistic KKVs is getting them up to speed. Going from zero to 663,910,830 miles per hour would take a lot of fuel. In fact, you’d need to burn through the equivalent of over 7.3 billion barrels of oil to make it happen, or if you’re a member of one extremely advanced species, the equivalent of 455 kilograms of antimatter. Now, this is not a completely insurmountable challenge if you’re ready to fire your RKV and wait for years until it gets to its target, just attach it to a mobile black hole reactor, or a slowly burning antimatter engine and let years of slow and steady acceleration do the job for you. Considering that any war requiring you to fire off relativistic KKVs using space stations would drag for years on end due to the sheer distances involved in space travel and hence the amount of time it takes to actually get to the battlefield, this may even be a decent way to deal a blow to enemy forces before you arrive. Think of it as an interplanetary or even interstellar ICBM with a warhead that’s a solid piece of something heavy and dense. But how are you going to guide it? How will you make that the tiniest of rounding error in your calculations magnified by trillions of miles causes it to miss the target?

But this may actually be a secondary concern since there’s no way your RKV will even reach the target without some sort of anti-friction force field. True, the interstellar medium is sparse, but flying through it at 0.99c is no easy task and ordinarily insignificant impacts with a stray particle here or there come very quick and add up to some very significant friction that can push the relativistic KKV off course. When it actually approaches a target in a solar system, friction with the much denser planetary medium would vaporize anything traveling over 0.1c so your KKV would be sandblasted away in an instant. It would be like firing a bullet only to watch it vanish into thin air with a bright flash, never hitting your opponent. If you’re perched somewhere in the Oort Cloud and set your sights on Earth, the relativistic round would vaporize around on the outer reaches of the Kupier Belt. You would need to open a wormhole between the space-time coordinate when your RKV would reach its intended velocity and the atmosphere of your target planet, but the physics of that are daunting, and the energy such a feat would require is more than enough to destroy a small solar system, making the payoff seem dinky by comparison. After all, if you can destroy a solar system in one blast, why even bother with an RKV?

All that said, however, there is a loophole. If instead of taking the relativistic impactor literally, we just say that any kinetic vehicle traveling at a distinguishable percentage of the speed of light fits the bill. This way, we can launch a much more controllable, manageable, and slower KKV at say, 0.05c. It will still be devastating when smashing into a target, generating over 2.1 gigatons of energy, but how relativistic it is will be open to debate, since even at 0.05c it can still be fairly accurately described using Newtonian laws of motion and the standard formula for calculating kinetic energy rather than the equations modified with a Lorenz factor to capture its relativistic properties. Regardless since it would be moving at 32.4 million miles per hour and arrive within 8 seconds or so after being fired from Earth’s geosynchronous orbit, it would still retain some element of surprise. Having a window of just 8 seconds from detection to impact doesn’t leave much time to do anything to counter it and by the time a laser intended to hit this pseudo-RKV can even be aimed, the target would be long-gone. Even if a special anti-RKV laser just so happened to be right in the middle of the target zone, aiming right at the kinetic round coming down from above, and was perfectly linked with a detector so it could fire in 300 milliseconds of detection, by the time the beam is intense enough to have a measurable effect on the KKV, it’s far too close to the target to be stopped. And when you have something this effective, do you really need a true RKV?

One rather popular theory among foreign relations pundits about American attitudes towards war is that we’re ready and willing to fight because more than 99% of us don’t have any skin in the game. Since the draft ended and the military became an all volunteer force, they continue, the burdens of conducting warfare switched to a small group of people who are increasingly growing detached from the rest of the country and are being used by chicken hawks as a threat to other nations. What’s the solution to the problem? To abandon the AVF and to reinstate the draft so more Americans share the burdens of war and have a real appreciation for what the military goes through every time their leaders vote in favor of combat. Surely, if millions of Americans went to fight in Iraq and went through the extremes of deployment and the angst of having a family member risking his or her life in a war zone, they would take a lot more time to think about military interventions and focus a lot more on the problems at home than on being the world’s policeman. Hey, all those draftees could go to work as well, updating infrastructure, doing research and participating in various swords to ploughshares projects, constantly reinvesting billions into the economic fabric of the U.S. But will anyone really want to try this idea?

First off, it’s important to point out that no one is saying that the AVF is doing a bad job because despite all the flaws you can find in any large bureaucracy, it proved itself to be highly resilient and extremely potent. The kind of long, drawn out, low intensity, precision, high-stakes wars with shadowy components it fights could only be fought by a small handful of other militaries though probably not as effectively. When political expediency said it should take a back seat in Libya, it couldn’t because it was the only military capable of supporting bombers, drones, and precision weapons needed for the mission. Decades of investment went into creating it and the long years of the Cold War enabled it to defend a long stretch of Europe and Asia, which is part of the reason why the U.S. spends more than all the countries in Europe and Southeast Asia combined. But all that buildup with few enemies to fight has turned it into a bludgeon to be used by lawmakers and activists with a very itchy trigger finger who know that the public at large won’t mind a war in which the only necessary support is vocal, usually made in the form of a magnet on the back of their car. Sure, the public wasn’t happy with the Iraq War, and it has deeply soured on Afghanistan because both became tedious and expensive quagmires. But, says a chorus of pundits, the war in Afghanistan could have ended much, much sooner, and the Iraq War may have never started if millions of Americans had some skin in the game and would have to go and fight.

While I can see their point, this seems like a case of Monday morning quarterbacking. We know today that the vague allusions to WMDs made by Saddam Hussein were a bluff, and while we knew fairly well that evidence for their existence was extremely shaky and came from questionable sources, the fury over the events of 9/11 was still very much in the air. Thousands were signing up for the AVF to fight as a result, and it’s likely that the people who would’ve supposedly stopped the war from starting would’ve reported to the local MEPS ready for basic training or officer school. A more pervasive argument might have been that much more attention would have been paid to the war effort and mismanagement would be met with far louder and swifter howls from all the families whose sons and daughters were drafted, a climate which would’ve pressured the administration to actually listen to sound advice and discredited Dick Cheney’s seething because so many would be quick to point out his deferments and his eagerness to advocate sending drafted soldiers into battle after dodging his call to do his duty. So perhaps the war wouldn’t have been stopped but it would’ve been ran better, with quick changes in strategy and heeding expert advice. Would the draft have been extremely unpopular? Yes. But this is the point. Wars aren’t supposed to be like a game you’d watch on TV. They’re serious business and they’re to be treated as such, and it’s unfair when those who refuse to fight wars, promote them.

So would reinstating the draft stop wars? Very unlikely. Will it be tough to institute? Absolutely. But at the same time, the diagnosis that the military is drifting away from the civilians and the AVF has been shouldering much of the burden for wars of whim and unfairly so, seems to make a lot of sense and has been echoed by Robert Gates when he was the Secretary of Defense during his speeches urging college students and graduates to consider military service. It’s understood that those who volunteer to do so make a choice and can endure the stress placed on them. But at the same time, it’s one thing to volunteer to defend one’s country and protect its allies and interests abroad, and end up fighting for a decade because the government feels free to send you to war and the public more or less tunes out the fact that you and your fellow soldiers are fighting wars started because they could be, with vague plans that don’t define when your mission is over, and largely ignored by a disturbing majority of the public you volunteered to protect. And maybe that public should contribute their time and effort to the defense of its own nation, seeing firsthand what war is, and thinking very carefully about what will happen when another one is declared and whether it’s really a good idea to fight that particular war…

Just about every sci-fi movie featuring a battle in the depths of space generally shows large ships engaged in pitched combat sending out a swarm of fighters to deliver surgical blows to their enemies. Big battle ships do make perfect sense. After all, if you’re out to invade other worlds or conducting military patrols in deep space, you need to have enough room to house your crew and store enough supplies to keep said crew healthy and well fed. But when it comes time to actually engage an enemy, what about the fighters? The physics of space flight mean that you can’t simply send something like a plane to dogfight its way to bomb your targets, they will be going far too fast for that. The best they could do is repeated hit and run raids, whizzing past enemy craft to then reverse course back towards their mothership, hoping to pass by the enemy one more time on return. So there have been murmurings by those who want more science in their science fiction that if we ever have any real wars in space, we can forget about the fighters. Instead, we’ll just use small, powerful kinetic missiles.

But before we start redesigning our plans for fleets of battleships meant to project power on an interplanetary scale and nixing research into space-based fighters and bombers, we should consider that the same issues have been encountered on Earth. For decades now, the U.S. had extremely accurate long range missiles that can be launched by a submarine or an aircraft carrier in the rough geographical vicinity of a target. If it weren’t for the treaties and a real risk of nuclear war should someone overreact, ICBMs could be armed with more or less conventional warheads and sent to deliver precise strikes to enemy installations more than half a world away. Why do we even need planes anymore if a missile can get there faster and do about as much damage without any risk to real live pilots, not to mention saving us the cost of building and maintaining new jets and bombers? Well, according to Air Forces around the world, it’s actually more expensive and logistically difficult to simply fire a whole lot of missiles into enemy territory than to send in bombers with a fighter escort during a full blown military campaign, and the reasons why could apply quite well to combat in space.

You see, guided missiles don’t just obliterate their targets and then come back, and the missiles in question here cost millions and millions of dollars to build and maintain. And what if you need to recall a missile in the middle of a mission? You’ll have to blow it up or divert it, losing it in the process. Planes can simply be called back, or rerouted to multiple targets to deliver multiple bombs in a single sortie. Here, missiles are useful for taking out air defenses and radar installations, soften up extremely hard targets, and lay the general paths for bombing raids. After this initial volley, bombers and fighters can rush in to further dismantle enemy targets by dropping ordinance like bunker busters, extremely useful against a hardened installation, but far too heavy to load onto a missile and lob at an opponent. Likewise, in space, small but heavily armed craft which can whizz by enemy battlecruisers, delivering bomb after bomb after bomb after a volley of lasers and KKVs impairs the target’s ability to defend itself from the incoming swarm, can do a lot more damage at a smaller cost than just missiles all by themselves. And when you’re fighting an enemy millions if not billions of miles from home, you really need to try and get the most bang for your buck since a trip to your planet to reload is no trivial task.

So really, far from being a waste of resources, fighters for battleships would actually be a cost-effective way to deliver lots of damage to enemy craft very quickly, and given their small size and high velocity, they wouldn’t be easy to shoot down as they fly back and forth, emptying their weapons bays as soon as their targets are close enough to ensure a direct hit. And nothing says that they would have to be flown by humans, so there wouldn’t have to be any risk associated with being a space fighter pilot. It would be more like flying a drone, if there will even be a need for human drone operators that far in the future. As odd as it sounds because the situation is usually reversed, it’s the movies that have it right about space fighters rather than the scientific skeptics here, at least as far as the rationale for having them is involved. The actual mechanics of their use on the battlefield as they’re portrayed on the silver screen however, well… let’s just say that entire chapters of books have been devoted to explaining just how wrong directors have them, but that’s a different topic.

[ illustration by Kaimiirah ]

If you listen to the perpetual End Times crowd that’s so persistent in Western culture, every major event in the news involving unrest, natural disasters, or disease is a sign that the world as we know it is about to end and any minute now, the war between angles and demons will descend on Meggido after they’ve been sent upwards to Heaven. And really, at first, their claims that we’re living in an ever more violent, tumultuous world seem hard to dispute. I mean after all, according to foreign policy wonks, there are about forty armed conflicts of various intensity going on around the world right now and three of them are constantly making international headlines. Though war is formally over in Iraq, tensions are still high, the country is still unstable, and there’s still a contingent of troops there. Afghanistan has been engulfed in wars for decades now and shows no sign of calming down, even as American involvement there nears its ten year anniversary. Libya plunged into a civil war, now with international involvement, as unrest sweeps the Middle East. And while all this is going on, the developing world is still ravaged by rampant poverty, ethnic strife, disease, and hunger, at the same time as a second enormous quake in two years rocked Japan and triggered a major nuclear crisis. Bad omens, huh?

Well, that’s actually all relative, especially when it comes to disease and war. What sends us into shock may have bored our ancestors who usually lived half as long as we do in conditions we would consider unfit for a human, and grappling with lethal diseases for which we have a wide arsenal of treatments. Today, having an infection won’t lead to death from septic shock nearly as often as it did even a few hundred years ago, and a case of tuberculosis is terribly unlikely to kill you if you have access to halfway decent medical care. And that’s not to mention the fact that the greatest infectious killer in human history responsible for snuffing out millions of lives over thousands of years, smallpox, has been driven to extinction, and polio seems to be slowly but oh so surely heading the same way. We’re living longer, healthier, and safer lives thanks to modern technology, science, and education, and we can see how well they work when we compare developed countries where a newborn is now expected to live into his or her 80s and spend nearly a decade and a half on formal learning, to nations where the same kind of educational, medical, and logistical infrastructures don’t exist. We do have much of the technology we need to extend the lives of the world’s poor and help lift them out of poverty, it’s just that the scale of the task and the political complications involved means that it will take many more decades to reach those in dire need and this technology will not be a panacea. But it would help quite a bit.

So what about all the wars and armed conflicts raging across the world? Well, believe it or not, in the days of the ancients, war was a pretty regular event. Emperors filled coffers with the spoils of war from the conquered territories they inherited and acquired, and often, the measure of a ruler was his success in the many military campaigns he would launch. You doubtlessly know Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and you’ve probably at least heard of Hannibal. Why? Because they were accomplished conquerors and lead the kinds of military campaigns that history books were invented to record. But I’m sure you know what that must mean for those they conquered. How many people as a percentage of the total global population died when a couple of empires brutally expanded their territory and demonstratively butchered thousands just to show the newly conquered populace who’s boss? I’m willing to bet that it was far more than when we’ve built weapons that allowed us to efficiently murder millions of people, since major wars occurred on a nearly constant basis and the conquerors were expected to rape, pillage, and exterminate much of the populace when they’d finally broken through enemy lines. The Mongols built entire pyramids out of human remains and marched armies of enslaved prisoners into their targets’ line of fire during an initial advance. Today, brutality on this scale is an international war crime which will immediately trigger nearly all of the world’s advanced militaries to descend on your head. Back then, it was the modus operandi, recorded in almost apathetic footnotes.

Still, why does it seem that we’re living in such a brutal and tumultuous world besieged by war, famine, death, and natural disasters while our ancestors lived in what many of us today would consider a world in which the unrelenting and horrific war crimes were set against entire city-sized cesspools of disease and desperately unsanitary conditions that couldn’t possibly exist outside the gates of Hell itself? Because we have the kind of communication tools that the ancients couldn’t even envision. When a massacre happened in 350 AD, all the people heard were news that someone just conquered someone else and that all those caught in the conflict were probably either dead or enslaved. Today, the death of a protester at the hands of an authoritarian thug is uploaded to the web and sent viral within minutes after it happened in shocking detail. Genghis Khan did not exactly sit on his horse and use his smartphone to Tweet: “sacking Beijing. guards fired all their arrows in my prisoner army, lol!” before uploading fresh pictures from the slaughter and his soldiers posing alongside the mutilated cadavers of those they indiscriminately butchered on his Flickr account and Facebook. Today, one soldier just posing with captured enemies in pictures available to the public causes a global PR uproar, and pictures of soldiers actually abusing prisoners triggers a media firestorm that lasts for months. Our access to instant information has given us unprecedented glimpses at the mechanics of war and drastically lowered our tolerance and acceptance of civilian casualties and violence, a very positive change for the world.

And the same information technology which lets us get up close and personal with the victims of war is also letting us communicate the scale and magnitude of disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the 2010 quake in Chile, and the recent tremor which severely wounded Japan. Even fifty years ago, we would’ve heard only a few statistics and a brief mention of a tsunami. Today, we’re almost immediately presented with a live feed to the unfolding disasters and kept up to date on what’s going on across the world in real time. We know more about the disasters and we know about them faster, which is why it seems like there are more of them. It’s easier to remember a video of a tsunami surging miles inland, carrying houses on fire and pictures of one, huge, crippled nuclear power plant on the verge of meltdown than it is the brief headline that a magnitude 9.0 quake killed 10,000 people and generated a 30 foot tsunami which is left at that for about a week. Nature will continue to function as it usually does and there’s nothing we can do about it but to be prepared. And while it seems like we’re living in constant decline thanks to how much misery we can now transmit through the net, the reality is that we’re actually much wealthier, much more peaceful, far healthier, and live much longer than we did in the past. Far from getting worse and more chaotic, the world is actually a better place to live now in the grand scheme of things, and I don’t remember the Tribulations implying a better world before the end…

Here are some good news on the tech skepticism front. Popular science writers are no longer taking the idea of human-level AI going rogue and wiping out humans in an indeterminate future. Now the bad news. They’re still hyping the threats from military machines, which while real, aren’t quite as severe as they’re being made out to be and are pretty much always the result of bugs in the code. We’re starting to turn to robots for more and more on the battlefield and those robots can and will get smarter, reacting to threats faster than humans, attacking their targets with greater efficiency than even computer-aided pilots. Being expendable, they’re a lot less emotionally and politically expensive to lose than humans, so the more robots we build, the less we will have to get involved in the actual fighting, and the more damage we can do remotely. However, machines are indiscriminate and even the best programmers will make mistakes. There will be accidents and civilians can still be harmed during a shootout between enemy forces and a squad of robots. And that worries tech writers and experts in AI, especially because so far, there’s no plan for coordinating current and future killer bots.

Today, there are few places where we can get a better glimpse of the future than in military aviation, where the rumor is that the last fighter pilot has already been born. In less than half a century, most fighter and bomber operators will be replaced by smaller, stealthy jets which fly themselves to their targets much faster than they could with a human on board, and carrying a greater payload since they’re not weighed down with redundant, space-consuming, and heavy life support systems. In experimental flights or simulations, this sounds great, but in the real world, how will they operate in groups? How will they communicate without human handlers or decide how to allocate targets among each other? When they’re screaming towards a target at Mach 2.5 and readying to drop a bomb, how long of a time should humans have to intervene? There’s no guideline for this, and considering that the military usually seems to have a 30 page manual spelling out every step for, oh just about everything, that may seem a little disconcerting. However, all this technology is still brand new and not exactly ready to deploy en masse. This is why in the Popular Science article linked above, the anecdote of the engaged Pentagon official who’s wondering about the protocols for mass deployment of robot soldiers gives the very misleading impression that no one’s really worried about how to control military AI.

Of course that’s not really true. Runaway, armed robots who seem to go rogue when they either loose targets or have a lapse in communication, assuming a default behavior to "fail gracefully" as programmers say, are a very real concern, and so is the need to coordinate entire squads of them and be able to intervene when they start taking the wrong course of action mid-combat. But by focusing on all the things that could go wrong and ignoring the fact that these are all just prototypes being tested and fine-tuned, tech writers trying to find a new, more plausible robot insurrection story amp up the existing concerns while making it seem like no one takes them seriously. What policy on wartime AI can we expect from the Pentagon when the AI in question is still an experiment taking its baby steps into the real world? Now, when we have a real, working weapon ready to be assigned to an actual mission completely on its own, with humans only in the role of supervisors who’ll take control during an emergency, then we can start thinking of meaningful ways to coordinate robotic armies and fleets. Without the finished product in place and a detailed knowledge of how it works and what it could do, a far-reaching policy on cybernetic warfare would be putting the cart before the horse. Knowing the capabilities of an unmanned fighter, bomber, or tank would let you create new requirements for the vendors and specify a communications package that will let all the different units communicate their positions and actions.

And there’s another interesting twist here. Deploying individual robots that talk to one another would require a supercomputer to issue commands across the battlefield, controlling these AIs with even more AI logic. Our somewhat inefficient method of communication which requires us to actually write or say something, simply couldn’t keep up with the milliseconds it takes for compatible computer systems to exchange vital data. This means that at some level, there’s always a computer making a crucial decision, even if the humans issue all the important strategic orders. We just wouldn’t be fast enough to assign every target and every motion when the battle is underway to prevent a robot from straying off target or getting a bit too close to an ally position. No matter how many layers of computers will be involved, however, we all know that all it takes is an override or a proper command to freeze machines in their tracks. All we need is to program enough fail-safe mechanisms, and any potential SkyNet would be disabled just by switching the power switch to off. Unless there’s a virus in the system planted there by a human, but that’s a whole other, and probably very complicated, story…

It’s not often that a magazine like Foreign Policy devotes a column to video games, and yet soundbytes about the new Medal of Honor game set in modern Afghanistan prompted Matthew Shaer to ruminate on the role of video games in social commentary and vaguely question the validity of the cries about violent and realistic video games somehow turning their players into emotionally sterile psychopaths, an idea I argued against in a post for Discovery Tech based on the simple premise that human can usually tell reality from fiction. Since this topic has really been done to death, there’s very little new material Shaer could offer here, but some of the commenters on the article did bring up an interesting point that’s not often discussed even though it deserves some coverage. One of the key weapons used in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) today is a robotic drone armed with missiles, steered and fired from a remote location, with mechanics similar to video games. And it seems like this is the future of war as ever more robots are being equipped with guns, tracks, and remote controls.

As mentioned previously on this blog, using robots to fight wars is a politically attractive proposition. Should a robot get blown up or disabled, it’s not a human being. While the public is appalled at hearing that thousands of troops died in combat operations, piles of scrap metal hit by missiles or IEDs don’t exactly cause a stir and to grab another one off the assembly line when you need more guns firing at an enemy position during future battles is relatively easy and straightforward. And with robotic guards, scouts, and plans for heavier and better armed machines and unmanned bombers that could clear a path for a human army, the military seems to be very interested in killer robots on the battlefield. In several decades, a few pundits have argued, wars may be fought by remote control and boots on the ground would be needed to secure an area rather than engage in a direct assault on an enemy position. The actual attack would take place from the air by nimble bombers, and by mechanical tanks which could carry much more ammo without their human occupants. Today’s obsessive gamers, the concept usually proceeds to state, would be tomorrow’s top generals.

This is where a number of books and articles raise the concern about emotional detachment from actual war because a significant portion of the fighting would be done remotely, from a faraway bunker. Would the pilot of an unmanned bomber be able to remember that when he or she pushes the button, a real bomb drops on an enemy position and kills real people? Would the operators of robotic siege machines get a little overzealous, as per their gaming experience, and let loose with indiscriminate bursts that kill combatant and civilian alike, something that already happens in the real world in the middle of a battle with today’s soldiers? Being aware and very precise in your attacks is a very important skill that needs to be taught to those who will be operating remote controlled machines of malice, especially since for the foreseeable future, conflict will overwhelmingly likely involve unconventional warfare, in which enemy troops will blend into civilian populations rather than set up huge bases and arm themselves with tanks, planes, and naval destroyers. But against nation-states with conventional militaries, an army which uses vast fleets of robots for its first strikes would have the advantage, maximizing impact, minimizing its own casualties, and attacking well defined enemy targets.

It’s quite possible that training future robot pilots would take the form of video games, or at least something a lot like it, and hopefully reinforced with war games in which they’ll get to see the damage their commands can cause up close. But it’s not going to be done with games like Medal of Honor, or a first person shooter. I’d bet the training games in question would be more like StarCraft, and a modified version of first person shooters may be used to help hone soldiers’ reflexes, while having them wear gear that simulates pain when they’ve been shot by an enemy. I’d be surprised if casual gamers with a taste for first person shooters would want to actually try that level of immersion themselves while playing on their living room couch because to them, the whole point is to briefly escape reality, not to continuously subject themselves to the real world pains of being shot or stabbed. After all, there is a very fine line between simulation and entertainment, and that’s a line that very few commercial games would really want to cross for legal and financial reasons.

There are few things more bizarre than watching academics trying to decipher military policies though a lens of philosophy and sociology, where rather than focusing on a chain of events and trying to walk through all the possible conclusions along that chain, they try to put entire ideologies on the couch. The result, as seen in a pair of essays on American ideas about the military and its use, comes off as convoluted to someone who isn’t interested in obtuse philosophical ruminations, and patronizing to the ideologies they try to analyze. In an effort to play therapist and throw around trendy geopolitical terms with which far too many pundits like to lard a particularly vague piece on foreign policy, they tend to miss some very obvious issues and flail in search of an answer they find satisfactory. Same goes for those who take their treatises and use them to weave elaborate webs of conspiracy theories which too often culminate in New World Orders ran by the Illuminati, or alien and human hybrids who secretly ruled the world for eons, or the vast, amorphous military-industrial complex.

Actually, I’ve lost count as to how many times Eisenhower’s warning about the power of the defense industry has been trotted out in the last six months, and consider it somewhat ironic when used by bloggers who will quote unnamed experts suggesting that the military could cut a trillion dollars from its budget, despite the fact that this proposed cut is about twice what the military actually spends in a given year, because under his reign, military spending in America was over half the national budget. Today, it’s about a quarter, and yet we’re being told that the United States has constantly growing military budgets and numerous alternative estimates inflate the numbers by rolling any agency which deals with law enforcement, aviation, space, and research of any kind under the military umbrella, in effect cooking the books to stick to the narrative. But then again, if you were to go by people’s budgetary estimates, you’d think NASA’s budget was $500 billion even though it’s not even in the same order of magnitude with $18 billion a year. Still, all that said, American military expenses are thought to account for anywhere between a third and half of all global defense spending, depending who does the number crunching, and no matter how you look at it, that’s an awful lot. But how did that happen?

Well, let’s go back to the often cited turning point in American military policy, the end of World War II, when the fate of entire nations lay in the hands of two superpowers which knew very little about each other and spent a few decades demonizing one another in their newspapers and radio shows. All they really knew with certainty was that their military might was nothing to be taken lightly, that both had found Nazi V2 rocket factories, that it was a near certainty that one side would use them to launch its newly developed nuclear arsenal at the other with its future long range missiles, and that the other side was building its own nukes and working on its own stockpile of future ICBMs. This is why they set about trying to carve out buffer zones and secure alliances and treaties that sought to extend their reach and put missiles and turrets closer to their enemies to make crucial, possibly deciding nuclear blows easier. The vast military build-up during the Cold War was the conclusion a pair of superpowers deeply suspicious and fearful of each other made. The bigger the military, and the more nukes, the greater the deterrent to direct warfare. Instead, the superpowers warred by proxy, requiring a new wave of military expansion during each conflict to warn the other not to take the proxy wars global.

Of course if we knew then what we know now, history may have been very different. But the real world doesn’t work in hindsight, and at the time, the only thing the superpowers could really do was to arm themselves for a potential World War III and hope it would never happen. Than, as the Cold War ended when the USSR finally imploded after decades of corruption, ineptitude, and terrible decisions by its paranoid gerontocracy, the U.S. found itself with a huge military, a booming voice in global affairs built by its investments and alliances, and a lack of an enemy against which to use all this clout. Or in other words, it was all dressed up but had nowhere to go. So, ask critics of military spending, why not just draw down the armed forces? Well, it’s not that easy to do that because once you set up a giant organization with hundreds of thousands of people on its payroll, it’ll take decades just to unwind it. Its weapons have to be fueled, maintained, and supported. Its veterans and all its employees must be paid. Its current apocalyptic stockpiles of horrifying nukes have to be watched. To use an IT term here, the American military is a legacy system and one that can’t be scaled down or phased out as easily as it seems on paper or in a blog post. Just cutting its costs is an expensive process in itself because someone will have to pay all those transitional expenses. Until another war comes along that is…

And that’s really the core of the issue. Over half a century of constant sparring and military buildup, the U.S. is now left in command of a vast military that its politicians have gotten used to presenting as a deterrent in the best of times, and sending off to unleash its firepower in the worst. And while we all too often assume that an immense war machine designed to level entire nations in weeks could easily handle insurgencies in a Third World country, that’s really not true. In fact, politicians and many commanders are finding out that you have to fight against superpowers and guerillas with very different militaries, and are now in the process of taking the existing structure of the armed forces and retooling them for different wars while creating another big wave of military buildup in the process. And this is when we start hearing the cries of imperialism, conspiracy theories about New World Order sponsored warfare, and academic over-analysis to fully explain why Americans keep maintaining its armed forces at such expense by pundits who for some reason think that once the Cold War’s end was finally here, we could’ve just dismissed half the military and thanked the soldiers for their service. In the post-Cold War world, as the political landscape was still uncertain and potentially threatening, Americans wanted to keep a vast military to safeguard themselves. And today, as the mistakes of the Cold War’s twilight days have returned as a new global menace, that military, originally intended to fight nation-states, is fighting new and different wars, and trying to retool itself for what it never really prepared.

Certainly, there’s something to be said about what sixty years of military-centric policies shaped by an always near-violent, or violence-by-proxy political turmoil does to a nation’s culture. But to squeeze the latest chapters of American history through the prisms of 19th century philosophers and not even mention the Cold War and its enormous influence on shaping the United States’ foreign policy and national identity, or discounting it for another exciting conspiracy theory, or elaborate sophistry that glosses over it, assuming that dismantling half a century of work and complex political entanglements can be done in just a few years, is just sloppy at best, and alarmingly inept at worst. And certainly not something that should be considered an academic thesis.