[No Comment ]Prepare for the Robot Wars: Six questions for P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[No Comment]

Prepare for the Robot Wars: Six questions for P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War


P. W. Singer of the Brookings Institution labors at the intersection of the military, defense contractors, and the world of high tech. In his latest work, Wired for War, Singer confesses his passion for science fiction as he introduces us to a glimpse of things to come–the new technologies that will shape wars of the future. His new book addresses some ominous and little-discussed questions about the military, technology, and machinery. (Subscribers may also be interested to read “The Coming Robot Army,” by Steve Featherstone from the February 2007 issue.)

1. The received wisdom is that developments in military technology allow the fortunate nations that control them to fight more effectively and with reduced risk to their own career military. Is that putting too rosy a perspective on things?


These systems are being bought in such great numbers (5,300 in the air already, another 12,000 on the ground) not only because they save lives, but also because they offer an amazing array of military capabilities. But we also have to remember that there is no permanent “first mover” advantage in either technology or war. The Turks and Chinese discovered this with gunpowder, the French with tanks, and, in turn, I doubt you still use your Wang computer. Forty-three other nations have military robots programs, including states like Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China. But, importantly, robotic warfare will also be “open source” warfare. The systems are also available to non-state actors, made all the easier by the fact that so much of the technology is off-the-shelf or do-it-yourself. For a thousand dollars, you can now build a drone that has essentially the same capabilities as the Raven drones our soldiers used in Iraq just a few years ago. The book features a group of college students who raised money to do something about the genocide in Darfur, upon which a private military company offered to rent them an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) of their own.

A particular area of concern is the use of such systems by terrorists. During its conflict with Israel, Hezbollah operated at least four drones of their own. A militant website already has offered as a prize the chance to remote detonate an IED in Iraq via your home computer, while one of our bomb-squad robots in Iraq was even captured and then turned back into a mobile IED. So we may also see new sparks of terrorism. One of the people I interviewed was Richard Clarke, the government official who warned about 9/11, but was unfortunately not heeded. He talked about how our new technologies raise such fundamental questions in ethics and law that we’ll see the rise of “neo Ludditism”–people who will resort to violence to stop it. The next wave of terrorism may therefore be a mix of Al Qaeda 2.0 and the Unabomber.

2. Historically, the United States has taken enormous care clearly to define command authority over weapons systems—the introduction of nuclear weapons in the closing days of World War II, for instance, led to extended deliberation over exactly how the principle of civilian control would be maintained, resulting in very complex protocols. However, nothing comparable seems to be happening with the latest generation of weapons—particularly robots and drones. If anything the trend is to make things even murkier as contractors without training regarding the law that governs the use of force direct and discharge these weapons from remote locations. What needs to be done to change this?

In all my various interviews, this issue of control, particularly over increasingly autonomous systems is the equivalent of Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter, the issue That-Must-Not-Be-Discussed. What happens to the human role in war as we arm ever more intelligent, more capable, and more autonomous robots? When this issue comes up, both specialists and military folks tend to either change the subject or speak in absolutes, saying things like “people will always want humans in the loop,” as one government official put it. But the reality is that I came across gobs of programs focused on taking humans out of the loop. And we ignore how we have continually redefined what it means to be in the loop. On many of our most sophisticated systems right now, the human power is mere veto power. But even then it is one that we are afraid to use against the perceived better judgment of the computer. This also connects to the increasing civilian role in warfighting, even with these systems. Just as we have more private contractors in warzones, taking on more roles, we are seeing more of these “Soldiers of Fortran” on the digital side.

3. Your book is filled with references to science-fiction writers, many of whom you credit with anticipating not only significant technological innovations, but also the ethical issues that come with them. Is there any writer you would name in particular who foresaw the coming robotic age of warfare and provides some useful guidance?

I love the writings of the cyberpunks, who don’t dream of alien worlds, but instead explore what happens when technology is put in our very own strange world now. “Battlestar Gallactica” today is another example of great work. Their season on insurgency was a better exploration of the issue than about 99% of what came out of all our thinktanks and defense journals on the issue. I don’t know if anyone predicted robotic warfare and where we are exactly headed so well, but its somewhat beside the point of what science fiction can offer. I’ve always been partial to H.G. Wells, who is known as the “Father of Science Fiction.” Wells was born in 1866, but in his various stories he forecast the 20th century with incredible accuracy, predicting such things as computers, video cassette players, televisions, and even super highways, each of which seemed unfathomable at the time. His book often had a theme of conflict running through them and so he also predicted various military developments well before their time. For example, he wrote about tanks, or what he called “Land Ironclads,” in 1903, which inspired Winston Churchill to champion their development a decade later. Similarly, his 1933 book The Shape of Things to Come, predicted a world war that would feature the aerial bombing of cities. Wells was not a fan of such technologies, as he saw them as “unsporting.”

Perhaps Wells’s most important prediction was in his story, “The World Set Free,” written in 1911. In it, he forecast a new type of weapon made of radioactive materials which could destroy cities, which he called “the atomic bomb.” At the time, physicists thought radioactive elements like uranium only released energy in a slow decay over thousands of years. Wells described a way in which the energy might be bundled up to make a powerful explosion. Of course, at the time, most scoffed; the famed scientist Ernest Rutherford even called Wells’s idea “moonshine.” One reader who differed was Leó Szilárd, a Hungarian scientist. Szilárd, who later became a key part of the Manhattan Project, credits the book with giving him the idea for the nuclear “chain reaction.” Indeed, he even mailed a copy of Wells’ book to Hugo Hirst, one of the founders of General Electric, with a cover note that read, “The forecast of the writers may prove to be more accurate than the forecast of the scientists.”

The book’s influence extends, and illustrates the way science fiction can guide in multiple directions. Wells’s story ends with his fictional scientists trying to organize an effort against war and the use of what were then fictional atomic bombs. After Hiroshima, the idea inspired Szilárd, Einstein, and the others to organize modern day arms control efforts such as the Pugwash movement. Wells’s book, in turn, is now the inspiration for the “refuseniks” today, scientists who are trying to organize to keep the robotics trend from following what happened with atomic research.

4. America was founded as a republic with an army of citizen warriors shaped by a special ethos that reflected respect for the dignity of those who fight, including the enemy. That aspect of our warrior culture has been greatly undermined by changes that President Bush introduced. But you suggest that the technological changes will also erode that ethos. Why? And what do you think should be done about that?

There are all sorts of ripple effects that we are just starting to be aware of, and again, these are already happening with the first generation of these systems, the Model T Fords compared to what is coming. For instance you have the rise of a new type of warrior, who I call “cubicle warriors” These are combatants who have the novel experience of juggling the psychological disconnect of being “at war” while still dealing with the pressures of still being “at home.” In the words of one Predator pilot, “You are going to war for 12 hours, shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants and then you get in the car, drive home and within 20 minutes you are sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework.”

This, of course, has taken the already preexisting tensions that soldiers in the field have towards those behind the lines and put them on steroids. It also has some worried that it might make the experience of war too distant, make us lose respect for the foe who share the bond of risk, and even make the contemplation of war crimes too easy. More than a century ago, General Robert E. Lee famously observed, “It is good that we find war so horrible, or else we would become fond of it.” He didn’t contemplate a time when war became a daily grind of commuting to work each morning in your Toyota Camry, shooting missiles at an enemy 7,500 miles away and then hoping you are going make it home in time for Friends. Being able to move more Americans out of harm’s way may effect our very decisions on when and where to use force. Many I met with worry that more robots will make us more cavalier, a return to the “cruise missile diplomacy” of the 1990s, but on a whole new level. “We’ll have more Kosovos and fewer Iraqs” is what one former Pentagon official predicted.

5. In the Iraq War, the Rumsfeld Defense Department placed historically unprecedented reliance on military contractors, particularly including security contractors, to accomplish its missions while maintaining a surprisingly small uniformed military force. This seems to reflect a reconfiguration of defense capabilities in which contractors play a sustained role, occupying steadily more roles that were seen as a part of the uniformed military’s core. Contractors also seem to maintain a tenacious control over some of the new technologies. Are they locking their position in at the heart of the defense establishment?

I do worry that we seem to be entering an interesting bind. We have become more and more reliant on contractors to carry out almost every type of traditional governmental endeavor. Yet, we still haven’t figured out how to maximize the marketplace as a client or regulator or how to avoid a wide variety of blowback effects in the execution of these operations. You’ll recall that we discussed that back in September 2007. One concern I have is what happens with this new technology revolution and how it interfaces with our defense industrial complex. We have an American system right now that drives all our defense purchases towards exceptionally large, usually overpriced, weapons that take not years but often decades to develop, and are filled with hardware and increasingly software that is actually built elsewhere. What we have to wonder is whether that model will turn out to be the best for staying ahead in the robotics revolution?

6. There is remarkably little discussion in your book of Congress. The issues you raise seem momentous, and prior waves of technological development garnered close scrutiny from congressional committees, which closely monitored contract relationships and insured that principles of command and control were properly addressed. Is it fair to say that Congress has gone AWOL?

What is this “Congress” thing you are referring to? I think I remember reading in some musty old document about an institution that was supposed to such things as “declare war,” “promote the progress of science and useful arts,” and “regulate commerce,” right? I wonder what ever happened to it…


In all seriousness, one of the greatest disappointments of my brief time in D.C. was sitting in on the Blackwater hearings. To recall the context, this was just days after the Nissor Square shootings, which had left at least fourteen dead and severely damaged the U.S. war effort in Iraq. It was highly educational, just not in the way the Founding Fathers intended. The best encapsulation of the entire hearings on this important matter of national security was that offered by Rep. Darrell Issa. He led his remarks by saying, “Hopefully, we will get to serious discussion.” Then he proceeded to talk about everything from diabetes drugs to Moveon.org—as opposed to the actual issues at hand in national security.

Let me be clear: I don’t expect Congress to start holding hearings on protecting Wall-E’s right to work or anything like that (though, I do document in the book a presentation that took place a few years ago on Capital Hill about the potential of a robot revolt). But I hope that the book helps better inform members and staffers about the various real world issues surrounding the robotics revolution that are just now starting to break. Perhaps it might open a window into a historic moment, so that people aren’t afraid to talk seriously about issues that are too often steered into the realm of mere science fiction. We made that mistake with atomic weapons, and hope we don’t do the same here.

More from