High-tech weapons won’t clean up warfare February 9, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV302 , trackback
Philosopher Peter Singer has written a piece for the Boston Globe in which he points out that smart weapons like drones won’t clean up warfare. Singer points out that technological progress in weapons has sometimes been seen as bringing an end to warfare itself:
The poet John Donne predicted in 1621 that the invention of better cannons would mean that wars would “come to a quicker ends than heretofore, and the great expence of bloud is avoyed.’’ Alfred Nobel thought the same of dynamite, as did the inventors of everything from the machine gun to the atomic bomb.
Of course, many of these inventions have most obviously succeeded in making warfare nastier and broadening its impact on civilian populations.
Thus, we should be cautious about claims that modern “smart” weapons will make warfare somehow cleaner or more acceptable. Remotely piloted drones, for example, seem to have made warfare more precise, allowing for “surgical” strikes against enemies, in contrast with the carpet bombing of past campaigns. In future, the hope is that, as drones become more computerized and thus more autonomous, clever programming will make them even more judicious killers than their erstwhile human masters:
For instance, there has been research, largely funded by the military, on how to create an “ethical governor’’ for unmanned weapons. Think Watson, the Artificial Intelligence program that won “Jeopardy,’’ given a law degree and dropped into war. Software would program robotic weapons to act ethically, such as only being able to fire in situations that conform to the Geneva Conventions.
Singer is rightly skeptical that such a plan will work out in any straightforward way. (See this previous blog post for more information.) Inevitably, the adoption of more autonomous drones will create problems that will be difficult to anticipate or to encode in an explicit set of rules, just as in the case of self-driving cars.
However, there may be a silver lining to this latest manifestation of the military-industrial complex. Developing and adopting high-tech war gear is damned expensive! The US military’s F35 fighter program, for example, will cost $382 billion, according to The Economist. And the figure only gets better if you consider the program’s total cost:
What horrified the senators most was not the cost of buying F-35s but the cost of operating and supporting them: $1 trillion over the plane’s lifetime. Mr McCain described that estimate as “jaw-dropping”. The Pentagon guesses that it will cost a third more to run the F-35 than the aircraft it is replacing.
There are many reasons why budgets for high-tech military projects have become so astronomical. One of them, I submit, is that it is simply harder to develop systems that increase in complexity according to Moore’s law.
Why is this awful acceleration of expenditure a good thing? Perhaps it is, insofar as it makes warfare too expensive to engage in lightly. The pricier war gets, especially in comparison to its expected rewards, the less policymakers are apt to pursue it. I should assure you, at this point, that I am not naive enough to suggest that expense is the only factor that gets considered when hostilities are contemplated, nor that the outbreak of war is determined by rational economic calculation. I merely assert that it is a factor, and that it may become more important as the expense of developing weapons systems climbs sky-high.
If so, then we may have cause to say something nice about ethical governors for drones. They may not make war any less ugly but they may make it prohibitively pricey.