sponsored links
TED2009

P.W. Singer: Military robots and the future of war

February 4, 2009

In this powerful talk, P.W. Singer shows how the widespread use of robots in war is changing the realities of combat. He shows us scenarios straight out of science fiction -- that now may not be so fictitious.

P.W. Singer - Military analyst
In P.W. Singer's most recent book, "Wired for War," he studies robotic and drone warfighters -- and explores how these new war machines are changing the very nature of human conflict. He has also written on other facets of modern war, including private armies and child soldiers. Full bio

sponsored links
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I thought I'd begin with a scene of war.
00:16
There was little to warn of the danger ahead.
00:18
The Iraqi insurgent had placed the IED,
00:20
an Improvised Explosive Device,
00:22
along the side of the road with great care.
00:25
By 2006, there were more than 2,500
00:27
of these attacks every single month,
00:31
and they were the leading cause of
00:34
casualties among American soldiers
00:36
and Iraqi civilians.
00:38
The team that was hunting for this IED
00:40
is called an EOD team—
00:42
Explosives Ordinance Disposal—and
00:44
they're the pointy end of the spear in the
00:46
American effort to suppress these roadside bombs.
00:48
Each EOD team goes out on about
00:51
600 of these bomb calls every year,
00:53
defusing about two bombs a day.
00:55
Perhaps the best sign of how valuable they
00:58
are to the war effort, is that
01:00
the Iraqi insurgents put a $50,000 bounty
01:02
on the head of a single EOD soldier.
01:04
Unfortunately, this particular call
01:07
would not end well.
01:09
By the time the soldier advanced close
01:11
enough to see the telltale wires
01:13
of the bomb, it exploded in a wave of flame.
01:15
Now, depending how close you are
01:18
and how much explosive has been packed
01:20
into that bomb, it can cause death
01:22
or injury. You have to be as far as
01:24
50 yards away to escape that.
01:26
The blast is so strong it can even break
01:28
your limbs, even if you're not hit.
01:30
That soldier had been on top of the bomb.
01:32
And so when the rest of the team advanced
01:34
they found little left. And that night the unit's
01:37
commander did a sad duty, and he wrote
01:39
a condolence letter back to the United
01:41
States, and he talked about how hard the
01:43
loss had been on his unit, about the fact
01:45
that they had lost their bravest soldier,
01:47
a soldier who had saved their lives
01:49
many a time.
01:51
And he apologized
01:53
for not being able to bring them home.
01:55
But then he talked up the silver lining
01:57
that he took away from the loss.
01:59
"At least," as he wrote, "when a robot dies,
02:01
you don't have to write a letter
02:03
to its mother."
02:05
That scene sounds like science fiction,
02:07
but is battlefield reality already.
02:09
The soldier in that case
02:11
was a 42-pound robot called a PackBot.
02:14
The chief's letter went, not to some
02:17
farmhouse in Iowa like you see
02:20
in the old war movies, but went to
02:22
the iRobot Company, which is
02:25
named after the Asimov novel
02:27
and the not-so-great Will Smith movie,
02:30
and... um... (Laughter)...
02:32
if you remember that
02:34
in that fictional world, robots started out
02:36
carrying out mundane chores, and then
02:38
they started taking on life-and-death decisions.
02:40
That's a reality we face today.
02:42
What we're going to do is actually just
02:44
flash a series of photos behind me that
02:46
show you the reality of robots used in war
02:48
right now or already at the prototype stage.
02:51
It's just to give you a taste.
02:53
Another way of putting it is you're not
02:56
going to see anything that's powered
02:58
by Vulcan technology, or teenage
03:00
wizard hormones or anything like that.
03:02
This is all real. So why don't we
03:04
go ahead and start those pictures.
03:06
Something big is going on in war today,
03:08
and maybe even the history of humanity
03:10
itself. The U.S. military went into Iraq with
03:12
a handful of drones in the air.
03:15
We now have 5,300.
03:17
We went in with zero unmanned ground
03:20
systems. We now have 12,000.
03:22
And the tech term "killer application"
03:26
takes on new meaning in this space.
03:28
And we need to remember that we're
03:31
talking about the Model T Fords,
03:33
the Wright Flyers, compared
03:35
to what's coming soon.
03:37
That's where we're at right now.
03:39
One of the people that I recently met with
03:41
was an Air Force three-star general, and he
03:43
said basically, where we're headed very
03:45
soon is tens of thousands of robots
03:47
operating in our conflicts, and these
03:49
numbers matter, because we're not just
03:51
talking about tens of thousands of today's
03:53
robots, but tens of thousands of these
03:55
prototypes and tomorrow's robots, because
03:57
of course, one of the things that's operating
03:59
in technology is Moore's Law,
04:02
that you can pack in more and more
04:04
computing power into those robots, and so
04:06
flash forward around 25 years,
04:08
if Moore's Law holds true,
04:10
those robots will be close to a billion times
04:12
more powerful in their computing than today.
04:15
And so what that means is the kind of
04:18
things that we used to only talk about at
04:20
science fiction conventions like Comic-Con
04:22
have to be talked about in the halls
04:24
of power and places like the Pentagon.
04:26
A robots revolution is upon us.
04:28
Now, I need to be clear here.
04:31
I'm not talking about a revolution where you
04:33
have to worry about the Governor of
04:35
California showing up at your door,
04:37
a la the Terminator. (Laughter)
04:39
When historians look at this period, they're
04:41
going to conclude that we're in a different
04:43
type of revolution: a revolution in war,
04:45
like the invention of the atomic bomb.
04:47
But it may be even bigger than that,
04:49
because our unmanned systems don't just
04:51
affect the "how" of war-fighting,
04:53
they affect the "who" of fighting
04:55
at its most fundamental level.
04:57
That is, every previous revolution in war, be
04:59
it the machine gun, be it the atomic bomb,
05:01
was about a system that either shot faster,
05:03
went further, had a bigger boom.
05:06
That's certainly the case with robotics, but
05:09
they also change the experience of the warrior
05:12
and even the very identity of the warrior.
05:15
Another way of putting this is that
05:18
mankind's 5,000-year-old monopoly
05:21
on the fighting of war is breaking down
05:23
in our very lifetime. I've spent
05:26
the last several years going around
05:28
meeting with all the players in this field,
05:30
from the robot scientists to the science
05:32
fiction authors who inspired them to the
05:34
19-year-old drone pilots who are fighting
05:36
from Nevada, to the four-star generals
05:38
who command them, to even the Iraqi
05:40
insurgents who they are targeting and what
05:42
they think about our systems, and
05:44
what I found interesting is not just
05:46
their stories, but how their experiences
05:48
point to these ripple effects that are going
05:50
outwards in our society, in our law
05:52
and our ethics, etc. And so what I'd like
05:54
to do with my remaining time is basically
05:56
flesh out a couple of these.
05:58
So the first is that the future of war,
06:00
even a robotics one, is not going to be
06:02
purely an American one.
06:04
The U.S. is currently ahead in military
06:06
robotics right now, but we know that in
06:08
technology there's no such thing as
06:10
a permanent first move or advantage.
06:12
In a quick show of hands, how many
06:15
people in this room still use
06:17
Wang Computers? (Laughter)
06:19
It's the same thing in war. The British and
06:21
the French invented the tank.
06:23
The Germans figured out how
06:26
to use it right, and so what we have to
06:28
think about for the U.S. is that we are
06:30
ahead right now, but you have
06:32
43 other countries out there
06:34
working on military robotics, and they
06:36
include all the interesting countries like
06:38
Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran.
06:40
And this raises a bigger worry for me.
06:43
How do we move forward in this revolution
06:46
given the state of our manufacturing
06:48
and the state of our science and
06:50
mathematics training in our schools?
06:52
Or another way of thinking about this is,
06:54
what does it mean to go to war increasingly
06:56
with soldiers whose hardware is made
06:58
in China and software is written in India?
07:01
But just as software has gone open-source,
07:06
so has warfare.
07:09
Unlike an aircraft carrier or an atomic bomb,
07:11
you don't need a massive manufacturing
07:14
system to build robotics. A lot of it is
07:16
off the shelf. A lot of it's even do-it-yourself.
07:18
One of those things you just saw flashed
07:20
before you was a raven drone, the handheld
07:22
tossed one. For about a thousand dollars,
07:24
you can build one yourself, equivalent to
07:26
what the soldiers use in Iraq.
07:28
That raises another wrinkle when it comes
07:30
to war and conflict. Good guys might play
07:32
around and work on these as hobby kits,
07:34
but so might bad guys.
07:36
This cross between robotics and things like
07:38
terrorism is going to be fascinating
07:40
and even disturbing,
07:42
and we've already seen it start.
07:44
During the war between Israel, a state,
07:46
and Hezbollah, a non-state actor,
07:48
the non-state actor flew
07:51
four different drones against Israel.
07:53
There's already a jihadi website
07:55
that you can go on and remotely
07:57
detonate an IED in Iraq while sitting
07:59
at your home computer.
08:01
And so I think what we're going to see is
08:03
two trends take place with this.
08:05
First is, you're going to reinforce the power
08:07
of individuals against governments,
08:09
but then the second is that
08:13
we are going to see an expansion
08:15
in the realm of terrorism.
08:17
The future of it may be a cross between
08:19
al Qaeda 2.0 and the
08:21
next generation of the Unabomber.
08:23
And another way of thinking about this
08:25
is the fact that, remember, you don't have
08:27
to convince a robot that they're gonna
08:29
receive 72 virgins after they die
08:31
to convince them to blow themselves up.
08:34
But the ripple effects of this are going to go
08:37
out into our politics. One of the people that
08:39
I met with was a former Assistant Secretary of
08:41
Defense for Ronald Reagan, and he put it
08:43
this way: "I like these systems because
08:45
they save American lives, but I worry about
08:47
more marketization of wars,
08:49
more shock-and-awe talk,
08:51
to defray discussion of the costs.
08:54
People are more likely to support the use
08:56
of force if they view it as costless."
08:58
Robots for me take certain trends
09:01
that are already in play in our body politic,
09:03
and maybe take them to
09:06
their logical ending point.
09:08
We don't have a draft. We don't
09:10
have declarations of war anymore.
09:12
We don't buy war bonds anymore.
09:15
And now we have the fact that we're
09:17
converting more and more of our American
09:19
soldiers that we would send into harm's
09:21
way into machines, and so we may take
09:23
those already lowering bars to war
09:26
and drop them to the ground.
09:29
But the future of war is also going to be
09:32
a YouTube war.
09:34
That is, our new technologies don't merely
09:36
remove humans from risk.
09:38
They also record everything that they see.
09:40
So they don't just delink the public:
09:43
they reshape its relationship with war.
09:46
There's already several thousand
09:49
video clips of combat footage from Iraq
09:51
on YouTube right now,
09:53
most of it gathered by drones.
09:55
Now, this could be a good thing.
09:57
It could be building connections between
09:59
the home front and the war front
10:01
as never before.
10:03
But remember, this is taking place
10:05
in our strange, weird world, and so
10:07
inevitably the ability to download these
10:10
video clips to, you know, your iPod
10:12
or your Zune gives you
10:14
the ability to turn it into entertainment.
10:17
Soldiers have a name for these clips.
10:21
They call it war porn.
10:23
The typical one that I was sent was
10:25
an email that had an attachment of
10:27
video of a Predator strike taking out
10:29
an enemy site. Missile hits,
10:31
bodies burst into the air with the explosion.
10:33
It was set to music.
10:36
It was set to the pop song
10:38
"I Just Want To Fly" by Sugar Ray.
10:40
This ability to watch more
10:43
but experience less creates a wrinkle
10:46
in the public's relationship with war.
10:49
I think about this with a sports parallel.
10:51
It's like the difference between
10:53
watching an NBA game, a professional
10:56
basketball game on TV, where the athletes
10:59
are tiny figures on the screen, and
11:02
being at that basketball game in person
11:04
and realizing what someone seven feet
11:07
really does look like.
11:09
But we have to remember,
11:11
these are just the clips.
11:13
These are just the ESPN SportsCenter
11:15
version of the game. They lose the context.
11:17
They lose the strategy.
11:19
They lose the humanity. War just
11:21
becomes slam dunks and smart bombs.
11:23
Now the irony of all this is that
11:26
while the future of war may involve
11:29
more and more machines,
11:31
it's our human psychology that's driving
11:33
all of this, it's our human failings
11:35
that are leading to these wars.
11:37
So one example of this that has
11:39
big resonance in the policy realm is
11:41
how this plays out on our very real
11:43
war of ideas that we're fighting
11:45
against radical groups.
11:47
What is the message that we think we are
11:49
sending with these machines versus what
11:51
is being received in terms of the message.
11:53
So one of the people that I met was
11:56
a senior Bush Administration official,
11:58
who had this to say about
12:00
our unmanning of war:
12:02
"It plays to our strength. The thing that
12:04
scares people is our technology."
12:06
But when you go out and meet with people,
12:08
for example in Lebanon, it's a very
12:10
different story. One of the people
12:12
I met with there was a news editor, and
12:14
we're talking as a drone is flying above him,
12:16
and this is what he had to say.
12:18
"This is just another sign of the coldhearted
12:20
cruel Israelis and Americans,
12:22
who are cowards because
12:25
they send out machines to fight us.
12:27
They don't want to fight us like real men,
12:29
but they're afraid to fight,
12:31
so we just have to kill a few of their soldiers
12:33
to defeat them."
12:35
The future of war also is featuring
12:38
a new type of warrior,
12:40
and it's actually redefining the experience
12:42
of going to war.
12:45
You can call this a cubicle warrior.
12:47
This is what one Predator drone pilot
12:49
described of his experience fighting
12:51
in the Iraq War while never leaving Nevada.
12:53
"You're going to war for 12 hours,
12:56
shooting weapons at targets,
12:58
directing kills on enemy combatants,
13:00
and then you get in the car
13:03
and you drive home and within 20 minutes,
13:05
you're sitting at the dinner table
13:07
talking to your kids about their homework."
13:09
Now, the psychological balancing
13:11
of those experiences is incredibly tough,
13:13
and in fact those drone pilots have
13:15
higher rates of PTSD than many
13:18
of the units physically in Iraq.
13:20
But some have worries that this
13:23
disconnection will lead to something else,
13:25
that it might make the contemplation of war
13:27
crimes a lot easier when you have
13:29
this distance. "It's like a video game,"
13:31
is what one young pilot described to me
13:33
of taking out enemy troops from afar.
13:35
As anyone who's played Grand Theft Auto
13:37
knows, we do things in the video world
13:40
that we wouldn't do face to face.
13:43
So much of what you're hearing from me
13:46
is that there's another side
13:48
to technologic revolutions,
13:50
and that it's shaping our present
13:52
and maybe will shape our future of war.
13:54
Moore's Law is operative,
13:57
but so's Murphy's Law.
13:59
The fog of war isn't being lifted.
14:01
The enemy has a vote.
14:03
We're gaining incredible new capabilities,
14:05
but we're also seeing and experiencing
14:07
new human dilemmas. Now,
14:09
sometimes these are just "oops" moments,
14:11
which is what the head of a robotics
14:13
company described it, you just have
14:15
"oops" moments. Well, what are
14:17
"oops" moments with robots in war?
14:19
Well, sometimes they're funny. Sometimes,
14:21
they're like that scene from the
14:23
Eddie Murphy movie "Best Defense,"
14:25
playing out in reality, where they tested out
14:27
a machine gun-armed robot, and during
14:29
the demonstration it started spinning
14:31
in a circle and pointed its machine gun
14:33
at the reviewing stand of VIPs.
14:36
Fortunately the weapon wasn't loaded
14:39
and no one was hurt, but other times
14:41
"oops" moments are tragic,
14:43
such as last year in South Africa, where
14:45
an anti-aircraft cannon had a
14:47
"software glitch," and actually did turn on
14:50
and fired, and nine soldiers were killed.
14:53
We have new wrinkles in the laws of war
14:56
and accountability. What do we do
14:59
with things like unmanned slaughter?
15:01
What is unmanned slaughter?
15:03
We've already had three instances of
15:05
Predator drone strikes where we thought
15:07
we got bin Laden, and it turned out
15:09
not to be the case.
15:11
And this is where we're at right now.
15:13
This is not even talking about armed,
15:15
autonomous systems
15:17
with full authority to use force.
15:19
And do not believe that that isn't coming.
15:21
During my research I came across
15:23
four different Pentagon projects
15:25
on different aspects of that.
15:27
And so you have this question:
15:29
what does this lead to issues like
15:31
war crimes? Robots are emotionless, so
15:33
they don't get upset if their buddy is killed.
15:35
They don't commit crimes of rage
15:38
and revenge.
15:40
But robots are emotionless.
15:42
They see an 80-year-old grandmother
15:45
in a wheelchair the same way they see
15:47
a T-80 tank: they're both
15:49
just a series of zeroes and ones.
15:52
And so we have this question to figure out:
15:55
How do we catch up our 20th century
15:58
laws of war, that are so old right now
16:00
that they could qualify for Medicare,
16:02
to these 21st century technologies?
16:05
And so, in conclusion, I've talked about
16:08
what seems the future of war,
16:11
but notice that I've only used
16:14
real world examples and you've only seen
16:16
real world pictures and videos.
16:18
And so this sets a great challenge for
16:20
all of us that we have to worry about well
16:22
before you have to worry about your
16:24
Roomba sucking the life away from you.
16:26
Are we going to let the fact that what's
16:28
unveiling itself right now in war
16:30
sounds like science fiction and therefore
16:33
keeps us in denial?
16:36
Are we going to face the reality
16:38
of 21st century war?
16:40
Is our generation going to make the same
16:42
mistake that a past generation did
16:44
with atomic weaponry, and not deal with
16:46
the issues that surround it until
16:48
Pandora's box is already opened up?
16:50
Now, I could be wrong on this, and
16:52
one Pentagon robot scientist told me
16:54
that I was. He said, "There's no real
16:56
social, ethical, moral issues when it comes
16:58
to robots.
17:00
That is," he added, "unless the machine
17:02
kills the wrong people repeatedly.
17:04
Then it's just a product recall issue."
17:07
And so the ending point for this is
17:10
that actually, we can turn to Hollywood.
17:13
A few years ago, Hollywood gathered
17:18
all the top characters and created
17:20
a list of the top 100 heroes and
17:23
top 100 villains of all of Hollywood history,
17:25
the characters that represented the best
17:28
and worst of humanity.
17:30
Only one character made it onto both lists:
17:32
The Terminator, a robot killing machine.
17:36
And so that points to the fact that
17:39
our machines can be used
17:41
for both good and evil, but for me
17:43
it points to the fact that there's a duality
17:45
of humans as well.
17:47
This week is a celebration
17:50
of our creativity. Our creativity
17:52
has taken our species to the stars.
17:54
Our creativity has created works of arts
17:56
and literature to express our love.
17:58
And now, we're using our creativity
18:01
in a certain direction, to build fantastic
18:03
machines with incredible capabilities,
18:05
maybe even one day
18:08
an entirely new species.
18:10
But one of the main reasons that we're
18:13
doing that is because of our drive
18:15
to destroy each other, and so the question
18:17
we all should ask:
18:20
is it our machines, or is it us
18:22
that's wired for war?
18:24
Thank you. (Applause)
18:26

sponsored links

P.W. Singer - Military analyst
In P.W. Singer's most recent book, "Wired for War," he studies robotic and drone warfighters -- and explores how these new war machines are changing the very nature of human conflict. He has also written on other facets of modern war, including private armies and child soldiers.

Why you should listen

Peter Warren Singer is the director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution -- where his research and analysis offer an eye-opening take on what the 21st century holds for war and foreign policy. His latest book, Wired for War, examines how the US military has been, in the words of a recent US Navy recruiting ad, "working hard to get soldiers off the front lines" and replacing humans with machines for bombing, flying and spying. He asks big questions: What will the rise of war machines mean to traditional notions of the battlefield, like honor? His 2003 book Corporate Warriors was a prescient look at private military forces. It's essential reading for anyone curious about what went on to happen in Iraq involving these quasi-armies.

Singer is a prolific writer and essayist (for Brookings, for newspapers, and for Wired.com's great Threat Level), and is expert at linking popular culture with hard news on what's coming next from the military-industrial complex. Recommended: his recent piece for Brookings called "A Look at the Pentagon's Five-Step Plan for Making Iron Man Real."

The original video is available on TED.com
sponsored links

If you need translations, you can install "Google Translate" extension into your Chrome Browser.
Furthermore, you can change playback rate by installing "Video Speed Controller" extension.

Data provided by TED.

This website is owned and operated by Tokyo English Network.
The developer's blog is here.