The scene is one of the most iconic in all of cinema history. As it opens, we are greeted with a charnel house vision of a post-apocalyptic future. What was once a city full of life and vitality has been transformed into a blasted, irradiated landscape, covered with the twisted remnants of our former civilization. On a wrecked highway, scorched cars filled with skeletons slowly turn to dust while the camera pans over skeletal remains and piles of ash covering a onetime children’s playground, before coming to rest on a single human skull.
There the camera lingers, allowing us to contemplate our doom, until a gleaming metallic leg crushes it underfoot. The narrator informs us that all this is the result of a nuclear war that nearly destroyed all humanity, but now, in the future, we face an even greater threat.
The scene suddenly pans wide and we first see the robot army – autonomous, ruthlessly efficient and deadly – massacring human infantry as it presses forward inexorably. The tin men, monstrous with their metallic, human-like exoskeleton and glowing red eyes, have come alive with a vengeance.
Terminator 2 is just a movie, but as a piece of visually-stunning, well-crafted film it nonetheless speaks volumes about our fears and hopes for the future. The fear, of course, is a longstanding one that has been constantly retold over time – that the technology that we moderns rely upon so intimately to keep us healthy, comfortable and safe, could, like Frankenstein’s Monster, turn on us – reducing humanity to savages, slaves or worse, in an instant.
No longer fiction
Until now, this fear of our creations turning on us has mostly been a function of wild fantasy. Our technology has for so long been so crude that seriously contemplating it turning on us was long rightly regaled to the realm of science fiction, or simply entertainment. Today, however, this is no longer the case, and while we may not yet be facing robot hordes bent on our destruction, we are nonetheless inching much closer to that point.
Take, for example, the recent landing of a fighter-jet-sized robotic drone on the deck of the USS George H.W. Bush, an aircraft carrier stationed in the North Atlantic. While small stuff compared to the many accomplishments of human pilots, the landing – which was fully autonomous – was a first for robot-kind, and marks a new stage in the evolution of autonomous fighting machines.
Very soon robots of this sort will be much more prevalent in our land, naval, and air forces – raising a number of difficult questions about how they will be used and deployed. Most pressing, however, is the degree to which a machine will have final authority to attack a human target.
At present, even the most sophisticated combat drones in the field today – the Predator and Reaper aircraft that are engaged in surveillance and counter-terror missions from Somalia to Pakistan – remain highly dependent on remote human operators. They are, therefore, much more like high-flying bomber aircraft than the civilization-destroying machines depicted movies like The Terminator or The Matrix.
Waging war from an office chair
Indeed, what’s new about the drones in service with our armed forces is the degree to which the human pilot is safely ensconced in remote bases far away from the theater of operations. War, for these particular human bodies, has been made so safe that it’s no more dangerous than an average worker’s daily commute. While it’s not quite like civilian office work as depicted in parody, it nonetheless doesn’t seem much like “real” war at all.
The ethical problem here is that this new variety of war can be waged with impunity as its wagers, safely on the other side of planet, risk essentially nothing in doing so.
As a result, the use of force – as evidenced by America’s increasing reliance on remotely-piloted systems – becomes much more palatable, at least to Americans. There’s no need for (American) “boots on the ground.” Drones, after all, do not come home in flag-draped coffins.
Arms race toward autonomous killers
The next-generation of drones, however, of the type that landed on the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier last week, are not remotely piloted.
No, the issue here is their increasing ability to carry out missions autonomously without the need for a human pilot at all. Going from landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier to launching a missile at a target is no great leap, and it seems clear that despite promises to the contrary, this is ultimately where the technology is headed.
In many respects, the fact that humans are still the ones calling the shots, so to speak, is mostly due to the U.S. being the first to field them on a large scale. This is not due to any benevolence or moral superiority on the part of America or Americans, obviously, but results from the U.S. having no military competitor capable of fielding similar forces. This gives U.S. commanders the luxury of not having to worry about reacting to lightning-quick, enemy robot forces, giving them the time and opportunity to keep human operators and trigger-pullers in the use-of-force loop.
So what happens when another country — China, let’s say — starts to field similarly sophisticated systems? At that point, keeping a human in the loop, via remote piloting or some other stop-gap measure, may well become counterproductive. It would slow down the weapon too much to be useful, thus giving an edge to any enemy who decides to allow machines to go ahead and make the decision to kill without the need for human interference.
Letting the robot-genie out of the bottle
Much as the development of remotely piloted aircraft has thus been a reaction to the need to reduce problems associated with human piloting vis-à-vis human opponents, the final elimination of the human component in many combat situations will come when nations, struggling against one another, find that the military edge provided by fully autonomous combat systems outweighs the costs and risks associated with them.
Given the history of human warfare, where one nation successfully goes others, in turn, will quickly follow.
What happens then, of course, is anyone’s guess, but it’s difficult to imagine how the genie of fully autonomous military systems, once proven successful, could be put back in the bottle. It is doubtful that such systems will ever fully replace humans in all aspects of war, but it could be that those militaries that adopt them will have such advantages that the asymmetry between possessors of the technology and those lacking it will be akin to armies equipped with cannons and Gatling guns confronting warriors kitted out with spears, swords and shields.
Such a disparity in power once allowed those in one corner of the world to rule the rest of the planet for several centuries. Given the spread of technology in today’s globalized world, another such technological monopoly might no longer be possible. Since no one likes empire, that’s all to the good, but instead competition and edge-seeking could quickly unfold into fully autonomous combat drones. For those concerned about the moral and ethical implications of such a technological development (as well as the looming specter of the Terminator situation), the inevitable demise of Pax Americana — for all its faults — might not be such a good thing after all.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.