Attila the Pun
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
Da-da da-da da-dun

I have heard rumours that the Sydney Morning Herald used to be a serious newspaper, and that its editorial page was filled with serious columns. Now they are reduced to this:

The killer droids of our nightmares are advancing on the front line, writes David Ulin.

Anyone out there have nightmares of killer droids? No? Moving on then:

Last week, the US Army unveiled what may be the future of war: one-metre-tall robotic "soldiers" outfitted with tank tracks, night vision and mounted automatic weapons capable of firing more than 300 rounds at a burst.

Known as SWORDS (special weapons observation reconnaissance detection systems), these battle bots are on the leading edge of a new kind of warfare, in which troops will remain hidden (and, presumably, protected) while engaging the enemy by remote control.

Which is totally rad by the way.

The army intends to deploy 18 SWORDS units in Iraq, marking the first time robots have been used to fight and kill humans, one on one.

Oh, what about the unmanned drones fitted with Hellfire missles that have already been used in Iraq?

If you grew up on science fiction, the idea of robot soldiers strikes a chilling chord. Killer droids, after all, have long been speculative-universe staples, potent symbols of the dangers of technology, of what happens when machines go wrong.

I did grow up on science fiction, and the idea of robot soldiers strikes a totally rad chord, not a chilling one.

The fear resonates. Why else would SWORDS designers feel compelled to reassure us, as they did last week, that their robots are not autonomous terminators, but function only at the command of humans, who must identify targets via video before giving the electronic OK to shoot?

Because they knew there were people like you that would go all weak kneed at the thought of armed drones? And what happened to Robocop in your list of evil movie robots? The ED-209 featured in that film is said to be specifically designed for urban pacification and military operations. It then malfunctions and blows away an executive. Why no mention of that? My guess is that Ulin would see the death of a rebel leader (e.g. Terminator) as a tragedy, but the death of an "evil corporation employee as a minor matter...."

On a certain level, the developers of SWORDS make a valid argument: these are not smart weapons, but surrogates for soldiers in the field.

Hmm - the argument that using robots instead of soldiers will lead to less allied casualities in a war against terrorist is considered by Ulin to be "valid" only "on a certain level"

Yet something more disturbing is at work, a sense of wilful disassociation, as if, with enough distance, we might remove ourselves from what war is. Here, the military mimics Hollywood.

I am all for anything that removes our soldiers "from what war is". Why? Because for soldiers, "what war is" sometimes involves dying or being horribly injured. Removing them from that sounds like a great idea.

In Star Wars, storytellers relied on robot soldiers to take the blood out of the on-screen killing and render moral questions moot.

Sorry Ulin, you may have name dropped some top notch films earlier, but here either your pop culture ignorance is showing, or you are ignoring some key information to make a point.

The first three Star Wars films didnt rely on robot soldiers at all. Storm troopers might get around in body armour, but they are still human employees of the Empire inside that armour. In the new, crappy, movies, there is droid army, but it is up against flesh and blood (albeit digital) Gungans. There isn't much if any blood in them, but thats because Lucas wants to keep his movies' child friendly rating, not because he is attempting to render moral questions moot.

As an aside, the original, and arguably the only correct, usage of "moot" means to bring up a subject for discussion or debate. That isn't what Ulin means here.

It's no stretch to suggest that SWORDS, and other high-tech weapons being developed, will further sanitise our point of view. What can't be sanitised, however, is the robot's deadly efficiency; remove the human from the weapon, and problems such as recoil and breath control are eliminated, allowing the robot to hit a small target at 100 metres.

In one test, a SWORDS scored 70 out of 70 bull's-eyes.

Wait - only the Coalition own these, yes? And they are awesome shots? Whats the problem here?

Decades ago, the composer John Cage proposed a different battle strategy: take the heads of warring nations, give each a large sack of horse manure, lock them in a room, and let them fight it out. It's a quixotic notion, but at least it takes into account a human element, the idea that war cannot be waged without a price.

The price is being covered in horse manure? That s hardly a massive price to pay - people would go to war 24/7.

As for the SWORDS units, what does it say about us that this is how we use our creativity: to invent robots that offer more efficient ways to kill? How can we be so disconnected that we refer to people as "targets", whether they are enemies or civilians, too indistinct to identify through the garble of a video display? Surely we lose something by all this disengagement.

Apparently we should instead be using our creativity to write books titled "The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line between Reason and Faith." We refer to people as targets when they make themselves a target - by, gee, maybe butchering aid workers? Bombing schools?

And what if both sides had robots? What if war were decided by a nation's manufacturing capabilities - you run out of robots first, you lose. Surely he would welcome removing the human element from both sides of the battlefield?

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