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Unkillable soldiers

by technopolitical Tue May 2nd, 2006 at 11:01:01 PM EST

Technological developments in the works will make the application of military force by rich democracies far easier. Some have argued that more boots on the ground would have enabled the US to stabilize/subjugate Iraq, and to do so with far less bloodshed than endless bombing campaigns. But soldiers are scarce and the prospect of dead soldiers discourages political leaders from deploying troops.

There is an expensive, experimental, clunky technology that will mature into machines that loosen these constraints. Now in prototype are "robot troops" -- actually, machines directed remotely by a person, with no intelligence needed in the box. Note gun:



BBC News: US plans 'robot troops' for Iraq


GlobalSecurity.org: TALON Small Mobile Robot

These telefighters also come equipped with loudspeakers to shout threats and commands. The system could, I suppose, shout a set of phrases in Arabic, directed by a few keystrokes by a monoglot operator. Understanding pleas for mercy presents a greater technical challenge.

Eventually, legged robots will be agile. Here is a spooky video of a gasoline-powered prototype:

The larger, more expensive telefighters will surely be aided by smaller mobile machines, like the one shown in the linked video:

All of these machines can in turn be supported by lower-cost mobile and stationary surveillance devices. These (again, backed by human eyes) could identify targets and to help track down the brave soul who disables a telefighter.

The eventual prospect is abundant, low-cost eyes and guns on the ground, guided by unkillable soldiers working in a "remote-control unit with a Gameboy-style controller and virtual-reality goggles". In air conditioned, rooms, no doubt. Why, with good high-bandwidth links flabby, part-time soldiers could telecommute from home!

These developments, among others, will create growing temptations for the use and abuse of military power. Telefighters with non-lethal weapons will make the projection of power even more palatable.

Welcome to the 21st century. May I encourage a greater focus on anticipating technological developments?
~

PhysOrg.com: Warbots to Replace Human Soldiers?

CNN: The new breed of soldier: Robots with guns

Telegraph: US to develop robot soldiers for safer wars - Yes, "safer wars"

New York Times: New Model Army Soldier Rolls Closer to Battle

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Gee... My first EuroTrib diary...

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Tue May 2nd, 2006 at 11:06:59 PM EST
About time!

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 04:30:09 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Soon we'll be seeing first-person shooter video games based on the next generation of robot fighters. What fun.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 04:31:21 AM EST
Without having read any of the articles, I must say the goofiness factor is a bit too high for this to seem scary. I realise this may be intentional, like with "rubber" and "plastic" bullets.

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sapere aude
by Number 6 on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 05:14:57 AM EST
The ultimate irony is that the reason "more troops on the ground" might have succeeded in altering the course of the invasion aftermath is because it would have meant more humans on the ground.

The failure of the US is not in "winning the war" but "winning the peace." (Or for the pedants amongst you, "creating the peace.")

The presence of a large number of "uniformed" humans on the ground had the potential to restrain various kinds of chaos and criminality, giving civil society a breathing space to grow into. It's hard to see vast platoons of robot killers creating the same psychological effect.

So what's the irony here? That robot killers will encourage the starting of many more wars, with the promise of "blood free wins" but since the majority of "wins" will remain contingent on what happens after the "main battles" are over, the failures will continue.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 05:53:47 AM EST
More or less "blood-free", I suppose, only if overwhelming force suppressed resistance -- unless this merely means (more or less) shedding none of the invaders' blood. The latter would be much easier.

Part of what I imagine, thinking about how a military force might employ this sort of technology, is the use of the telefighters as backup to actual troops -- and backup to police to (as you say) give civil society a breathing space to grow into.

Of course, there could be far less benign applications, including the domestic.

By the way, my stance on developments of this kind is that they are almost impossible to stop, but somewhat easier to direct. This requires adequate understanding, creative thought, and the political will to push in best available direction. Part of this general strategy is to avoid squandering effort on the impossible.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 02:22:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Any new military technology starts with the most advanced countries and then gradually spreads. It also has the potential to destabilise existing balances of power.

An example was the invention of dreadnought battleships before the First World War. Upside, the British Royal Navy had the most advanced warship in the world. Downside, it started with one advanced warship so it was easier for Germany to catch up than at the previous level of technology when the Royal Navy had many more battleships than Germany.

So what happens to the security of advanced countries when (1) unkillable and uncatchable terrorists send remote controlled suicide robots (perhaps disguised as a cute civilian robot dog) or (2) another advanced nation attacks them with robot soldiers (because the threshold for going to war is now lower).

The potential is for the new era of war to cause fewer military casualties but more civilian ones. In high intensity warfare between evenly matched foes the focus woould not be so much on armies fighting each other directly but on trying to terrorise the enemies population and dismantle its infrastructure so it either does not want or is unable to fight further.

It is really an intensification of the war at a distance methods of strategic bombing.

The above unpleasant ideas are just the product of a civilian thinking about the topic for a few minutes. Just think how much nastier the ideas of the professional soldiers and the think tanks will be.

Quote from Robert E. Lee (from memory) "it is well that war is so terrible, else we would grow to love it too much".  

Sounds like we need a cheap technology to disrupt the remote control systems. When we have that the obvious counter is to give the robots AI and permit autonomy of action - that idea works so well in the Terminator movies.

by Gary J on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 10:36:30 AM EST
The potential is for the new era of war to cause fewer military casualties but more civilian ones.
The ratio of civilian to military casualties has been increasing steadily over the 20th century. This is just more of the same.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 10:41:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, that was the conclusion I was coming too after thinking around the problem.
by Gary J on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 10:51:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I agree regarding the ratio, but it would likely reduce the actual number of civilian casualties for a given level of coercion. Bombing is popular in part because it leads to low casualties on the attacking side. Enabling more precise use of force with similarly low casualties should be even more attractive, given the substantial and partially effective reluctance of democratic societies to engage in slaughter.

This would, of course, once again lower the threshold for the application of military force.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 02:30:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
given the substantial and partially effective reluctance of democratic societies to engage in slaughter.
Did you see this recent Wall Street Journal editorial? It changes the calculus a little bit.

You're also assuming these kinds of robotic weapons would only be available to democratic societies.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 04:33:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Your scenario sounds like science fiction -- as it should.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 02:24:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Another thought - in robot warfare there is an advantage in going after your enemies leadership and command and control systems. At the moment this sort of approach is only available to the most advanced powers. It may become easier for weaker powers in the new era.

The US secret service may be able to protect top national leaders against almost all likely human adversaries. How would they do against a foe who could deploy a lot of disposable assets.

It might be necessary to have an arms race in defensive robots to protect against the attacking ones.

by Gary J on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 10:48:29 AM EST
The US secret service may be able to protect top national leaders against almost all likely human adversaries. How would they do against a foe who could deploy a lot of disposable assets.
Suicide bombers anyone? Defence systems are predicated on the assumption that the attacker will want to "win" by preserving its own physical integrity. There is no defence against a suicide attacker.

So what we're going to see is the rich deploying robots and the poor deploying terrorists.

What fun.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 10:51:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You can defend against a suicide bomber/robot by detecting/destroying them far enough away from the target. Difficult but not impossible. However the more individual units are attacking the more difficult it becomes. Unfortunately however many you destroy only one has to get through.
by Gary J on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 10:59:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Now what is an easier way of disabling a bunch of computerised machines than using weapons that emit an electromagnetic pulse. Should insure lots of deaths all around the area the robots are in as we turn to Fuel Air Munitions or Nukes to knock them out.
by observer393 on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 11:10:24 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Careful engineering can harden electronics agaist electromagnetic pulse attacks. The principle is that closed, electrically conducting boxes are impervious at the relevant frequencies (unlike the situation with, say, gamma rays). Data channels in and out can use optical fiber, which is also not affected. Small holes are OK, so cooling air can flow. Electronics outside a box can be made intrinsically hard by avoiding antenna-like wiring and ensuring reasonably voltage-tolerant, (and perhaps also resettable) circuitry. (This is a sketch based on physical principles and recollections of technical articles on the subject.)

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 02:38:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The rich will be deploying robots, and the poor will stick to the basics to screw up the robots: sand, water, rats ...
by Alex in Toulouse on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 11:55:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And assassination devices could eventually be made very small, yet mobile and smart. Think insects with ricin-tipped darts. Technologies that enable miniaturization would make an interesting diary, no?

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.
by technopolitical on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 05:10:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Wasn't there some B-movie based on that premise?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 05:11:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You mean that this Sounds like Science Fiction? (He said, using Big Capital Letters.)

Sometimes I think we're living in a C movie, at best.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Thu May 4th, 2006 at 01:19:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"some B-movie"?
Come on, you made George Lucas cry.


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sapere aude
by Number 6 on Thu May 4th, 2006 at 05:01:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I believe the movie was Runaway, starring Tom Selleck.  Early 80's.  I thought it was pretty cool when I was a kid.
by Zwackus on Thu May 4th, 2006 at 08:21:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Bingo!
Tagline: It Is The Future. He fought the horror of robots programmed to kill.


A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu May 4th, 2006 at 08:23:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I wonder who runs into the middle of the battle to change the batteries?
by observer393 on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 11:06:56 AM EST
Solar panels.

By the way, to those who think this stuff is science-fiction, think of the latest unmanned NASA missions to mars, with their little autonomous all-terrain rovers.

A few years ago I got all excited about the insectoids coming out of MIT in a Scientific American story. I suppose this particular breed of autonomous robots was a necessary spinoff of that kind of engineering work.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 11:12:54 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Since 9/11 (or sometime thereafter) a lot of federal money for research in the US was redirected to 'defence' research. Professors at MIT (and elsewhere, probably) sat down and thought really hard about how their area might be turned into 'defence' research. We should expect some fun new technologies.
I was reminded of a short story, Report by Donald Barthelme.
by someone (s0me1smail(a)gmail(d)com) on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 12:13:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Fuel cells.

That will also be the civilian spinoff of this research.

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 12:38:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"Who changes the batteries?" (or their equivalent) is an excellent question, and I haven't stumbled across a good solution in what I've read. A partial answer is to use gasoline engines, like the large walker linked above (I really do recommend watching the video, though it's an 11.5 Meg download). This option should give reasonable range, and would make refueling at a home base fast.

Fuel cells should give performance in the roughly the same range. Solar cells would work for something that moves very slowly, or that mostly stands still except for bursts of activity (think guard duty).

One option, for machines far from human aid, would be to have them defend a perimeter and air drop supplies inside it. Sucking up fuel should be easy compared to the problems already solved. What this option says is that telefighters could operate far from any at-risk soldiers. Of course, maintenance could be a major sticking point for this scenario, at least with today's technology. Sand is nasty, and many machines don't need any help to destroy their own parts.

Words and ideas I offer here may be used freely and without attribution.

by technopolitical on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 05:07:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Today at the municipal library, in the "War Strategy" section, I saw a recent book entitled "how to win without spilling any blood", next to "The Art of War" and such classics. I wonder if I should have borrowed it.
by Alex in Toulouse on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 11:52:32 AM EST
Any blood or any of your own blood?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 11:56:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
From the title I'd say "any blood", but this ambiguity is a good enough reason to open it and read a few chapters next time I'm at the library.
by Alex in Toulouse on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 12:20:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Fallen Dragon by Peter Hamilton. One of my favorite SF books.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Wed May 3rd, 2006 at 03:39:40 PM EST


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