Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Monday, 8 February 2010

The Rise of the Machines

Warfare 101: "Let's keep our guys safe, and kill the enemy."

At least that 's the definition inspiring Bob Quinn of robot manufacturer QinetiQ in his aim to delegate the whole messy business to a bunch of robots.

There's something distinctly unsettling about the idea of a battlefield where lethal robots eliminate each other in the name of human ideologies. It's the apotheosis of the arms race, the ultimate Deus ex Machina. We've already visited this territory through the visions of countless science fiction writers and filmmakers and it's a worrying place to be.

Despite the reassurances of Quinn and his colleagues that humans will retain ultimate control, the processing speed of machines could unleash a counterattack before the operating soldier fully registers the incoming fire. Wait for a human response and you've lost the advantage.

So robot warriors under human control only work against unaided humans; put them up against a similar force and the tiresomely slow human element will soon be removed. The search for advantage will transfer the decision-making to the robots themselves, and thus render it dependent on their programming; and we all know computers never fail, don't we?

Most unsettling of all, perhaps, is the Pentagon's new toy, the EATR. This driverless vehicle can refuel itself in from 'organic matter' scavenged from its surroundings. The interviewer on the Today programme had the same queasy thought as I did and asked the inventor, Dr Robert Finkelstein, whether it might feed on the bodies of fallen soldiers.

Dr Finkelstein reassuringly replied that it would consume "organic material but mostly vegetarian," but then went on to say, "The robot can only do what it's programmed to do, it has a menu."

I'm sure it has; I'm just worried about what - or who - might be on it.


  1. The whole system would be a failure.

    Who the HEL in Paris or Berlin is going to lay down and allow themselves to be ruled by some Commy bastards, or something, just because a couple of tons of metal destroyed each other somewhere on the Chinese/Mongolian border?

    All it would do is increase the likely hood of good old fashioned garden fork and burning torch civil wars/revolutions, at home.

    OR, you alow the robots to destroy civilians and cities.

  2. We have just experienced a Robot government and it hasn't worked.

  3. With the government's record on IT, who thinks this will ever work?

    That scene in 'Robocop' springs to mind!

  4. somewhere on the Chinese/Mongolian border?

    Too true - if war is about control of territory, then the controlling agents will be far closer to home.

    Not to mention the implications for crowd control - I suppose we should be grateful that no government has yet thought of that one.

    Bad enough being 'kettled' by the Met without them sending in Robocop too.

  5. Bad enough being 'kettled' by the Met without them sending in Robocop too.

    You mean you can tell the difference?

  6. Don't know about the Met, but as long as Oxford's police go sledging on their riot shields surely there's some hope for them?

    It's my favourite 'swords into ploughshares' moment ever.