The Pathfinders Column from the April 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
The recent news that a US soldier in Afghanistan has gone loopy and machine-gunned a whole bunch of small children will have shocked even those veteran war-observers with long memories of such ‘My Lai’-type massacres. With the omniscience of modern communications it is no longer feasible to hush up such inevitable excesses, and the incident is bad news for politicians and strategists trying to wind down Western involvement in Afghanistan and extricate their countries with some shred of dignity.
But it will also add weight to the arguments of developers aiming to remove human agency altogether from the battlefield. As technology and economies of scale continue to accelerate, these arguments are gathering force. Existing military ‘training’ involves the unsavoury business of trying to turn sentient mammals into cold-blooded killing machines without conscience, self-regard, emotion or independent thought. The problem is, it doesn’t work and never has worked. Despite thousands of years of history and the most intense training schemes ever devised, humans are just not very good at war. Most soldiers in wartime never fire on or even at the enemy, despite their supposed motivation for doing so. Of those that do, the stress can easily send them over the edge, resulting in embarrassing murder sprees.
Practically and tactically, robots are better. They shoot what they are supposed to shoot; obey without demur; don’t rape or torture; don’t sleep, eat, desert, mutiny, fight each other, get ill or go mad; they retain functionality even when damaged; and they do not tie up rescue resources when badly damaged. No grieving populations need await casualty figures; no moral tide threatens to wash away public resolve; no breast needs beating at military reversals; no songs of regret need writing about Little Johnny never coming home because Little Johnny never went in the first place. If war has its own form of utopia, this is it.
The main problem with robots is that they are stupid and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Artificial intelligence systems can give a measure of independent decision-making to battlefield robots along the lines of the self-driving car or the Mars-lander, but giving autonomy and firepower to machines risks the same kind of blow-back effect that banished gas as a viable battlefield weapon. For the moment, humans have to be in charge.
The process of robotising warfare is however under way. Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) drones fly sorties and strafe enemy targets, while improvised explosive device (IED) drones trundle up to suspicious roadside objects in a selfless act of identification before the bomb disposal experts move in. The Pentagon recently invited manufacturers to design ‘disposable’ satellite systems for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance that could be launched in the field by a soldier using a handheld device (BBC Online, 14 March). Research is ongoing into powered exoskeletons. Essentially, these install the human controller inside the armoured robot. Problems with power supplies, however, mean ‘robosquaddie’ is still some way off.
One might be tempted to imagine future battles being fought entirely between robot armies without any direct human agency at all, but although socialists wouldn’t complain about the lack of worker self-sacrifice involved, this is unlikely. The 1985 novel Enders Game, currently in film production, describes a society where war is fought remotely like a computer game, and in the gradual distancing of humans from the live action we can indeed see signs of the virtualisation of war.
The future of war is not on any physical battlefield, where indestructible Terminators can too easily be hacked and turned against their own side. It is in the virtual fields of the internet, fast becoming the nervous system of the world. Already awash with amateur viruses and professional adware and spyware, the internet is now hosting covert state attacks on social and political infrastructure. Last November Foreign Secretary William Hague warned of such attacks during a cybersecurity conference in London. He avoided mentioning China and Russia by name but in any case the finger points in both directions, and most state administrations have some form of a cyber ‘defence’ department devoted to hacking and undermining economic adversaries.
All this is to put in somewhat larger perspective recent news reports about the ‘boring’ nature of ICT lessons in British schools. That the state should decide to direct so savage a critique at a central part of its own education strategy is surprising and the question needs to be asked: why this, and why now? The ICT syllabus was, like every other syllabus, designed around the supposed needs of future employers at a time when young people had little access to computers and wouldn’t know a spreadsheet from a spark plug. Today computers are vastly easier to use, but more to the point, with social networking changing the youth lifestyle, students are often more tech-savvy than their mostly unqualified teachers. The overwhelmingly office end-user orientation of the school syllabus will comfortably turn out armies of low-paid administrative assistants, but that’s not going to reignite the white heat of British technological creativity and employers know it. Apps, games and cyber-security are where it’s at, and for that you need to get ‘under the bonnet’, down among the program code. The recent anti-establishment successes of hacktivist groups, Anonymous and Lulz-Sec have caught states flat-footed, but they’re catching on fast. Virtual war is coming, and the state with the most IT-literate population will be the one which wins, or at least survives, the coming cyber-conflicts.
For socialists there is an upside to all this. As the needs of capitalism become ever more sophisticated, power flows into the hands of the workers whose job it is to run that system. But it is a perpetual arms-race between the ruling elite and workers, each one learning to be smarter, faster and more devious than the other. When workers in Iran, Burma and Egypt broke out in rebellion, the state shut down communications channels in a massive denial-of-service which protesters found ways around. But in Syria the regime was cleverer and hacked the rebels’ own communications, flooding them with gibberish. The Syrian regime may win in the short term through sheer medieval brutality, but you can’t run a modern state without a sophisticated infrastructure and a working class trained to run it. And that inevitably gives capitalism its Achilles heel, and workers their ultimate weapon against war itself.