February 16, 2005

is this the future?

There's a New York Times article right now about robot soldiers (registration required; free til next week). Apparently there are a couple of versions already out there clearing bombs in Iraq, and there are going to be more, including one with guns that's heading for Baghdad (under control of a soldier with a laptop) in the relatively near future.

This kind of thing freaks me out. I've read a couple of sci-fi books lately where one premise is that the culture involved rejected long-distance weapons at some point in their history because it was going to wreck their society.1 One society rejects distance weapons because they had disastrous wars using mental weapons, and the other won't use bows and arrows for anything but hunting because they live on a sort of vast steppe where running away is too easy, so honor is all about facing your enemies with a sword. I look at the history of wars, and you know, it mostly doesn't seem to be like that. People have always been all about using whatever advantage they can get and killing as many people as possible. Certainly no one swore off distance weapons or explosives because it was cheating, and war back in the day of knights in shining armor was all about putting the peasants out front to get cut to pieces so the aristocracy wouldn't get too many of its own killed.

Not a lot of honor in that long and sordid history. But it does seem like there have usually been lines people aren't willing to cross, whether for fear of hurting their own interests or because of honor, and with that, there have always been people willing to cross those lines. The biggest one, recently, is the idea that there's a significant moral difference between conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction. Nerve gas is no longer in use, except occasionally by people like Saddam Hussein; nuclear weapons have been used twice, and only twice. We rely on the existence of certain rules for combat: the Geneva Conventions, not attacking civilians, whatever. It's the same thing as trying to live with other people: you know that lots of people could beat you up and steal your money, but you count on the fact that most people won't do that.

I think the same thing happens in war. We won't target children. We won't use chemical weapons. People break those rules, but basically we rely on them. And I think those rules require a certain responsibility for our actions. The closer you are to the evil you're doing, the harder it is to do it. So in the Civil War, people didn't aim or didn't shoot, because they could see the people they were going to kill. If you're dropping a bomb, you don't see that. Having a conscience depends on that direct relationship to your actions.

Robot soldiers are even worse. They will allow us to go further and further away from what we're doing, to program soldiers to kill and then not see the consequences. I'm not a pacifist, really, but I think people should be able to look at their actions and own them: the further we get from that the worse war (and everything) becomes.

All this is quite aside from how completely silly it's going to be if robot armies start taking each other on. Then it'll be just like Magic the Gathering or Warhammer. "My Salamander Hunting Pack can beat up your Daemon Prince!" Except, you know, real. And paid for by my tax dollars.

If that's really what they want, I have an old deck of Magic cards they can have. It's not very good, but it'll get them started. Even better, it won't kill anyone.

1. The Darkover books by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Jaran and its sequels by Kate Elliott. Jaran is awesome, and some of the Darkover books are pretty good too. The Shattered Chain is total adolescent wish-fulfillment for a certain kind of person.

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