Humans in the crosshairs

You probably thought war was bad enough two-and-a-half thousand years ago when unflinching hoplite phalanxes marched bronze-tipped spears into the chests of incorrectly-named Persian Immortals. Maybe you thought war bottomed out morally when bombers leveled British, German and Japanese cities during World War II. Or did you feel it couldn’t get any worse than high-tech, laser-guided smart bombs falling from 30,000 feet to incinerate medieval-minded Taliban fighters hiding in Afgan caves?

Brace yourself, all that may seem like minor skirmishes in light of what is just around the corner. War is changing fast, and it may well be a change for the worse. A profound evolutionary shift is occurring right before our eyes as killer robots are about to begin fighting in Iraq. While robot planes are already in use by the US and have killed, the SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection Systems) will launch a new era as it begins engaging America’s enemies on the ground this year.

Be afraid, be very afraid. This robotification of air and ground war may prove to be the first step into a scary new world.

The use of robot soldiers seems certain to expand rapidly. They will get cheaper, more effective, more autonomous, and the ability to fight an enemy without losing lives on your side is irresistible to generals and politicians.

The possible upside to the rise of the machines is that war might become too lopsided to even contemplate for countries who suffer a robot gap. As a result, wars may become less common. Or, one day in the future we may see vast battles between robot mercenaries with humans as nothing more than safe spectators with a stake in the outcome.

The possible downside, however, is real and it’s bad. Imagine war without risk. Imagine war where humans can only die on one side of the battlefield. What will happen when government leaders are able to launch wars without having to worry about facing heartbroken widows (who vote) and seeing front-page photos of flag-draped coffins?

Conventional warfare (if robot soldiers can be considered conventional) will become, for robot-superior nations, a matter of economics and little else.

Robot ground troops also will increase psychological distance and make killing much easier for the humans who grip the joysticks or punch in the programs. It is psychologically easier to shoot someone than stab them, for example, easier to bomb them than shoot them, and far easier to send a robot sharpshooter over the hill than any other option.

Right now, robots play with children, vacuum homes and mow lawns. In a couple of months, they will patrol Iraqi streets and kill humans. We must hope that as the robot genie leaves the bottle, this newcomer to the battlefield will serve us well and not lead to an even bloodier world.

World New editor Guy P. Harrison is at [email protected]

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