Saturday, March 22, 2008

Robot Warriors Will Destroy America

You might think you know what I mean.

Not quite.

Military robotics trends point in some scary directions.

And military robots are becoming very effective, very quickly.

The 80s-movie doomsday scenario here is robot genocide against humans, or more simply, robots used as a weapon of oppression.

But this scenario overlooks two very important, fundamental phenomena which have historically always influenced the real-life use cases for any technology:

1. Miniaturization

2. Commodification

As cool as a $30 miniature helicopter is, that's nothing to a simple palm-sized flamethrower you can build for about the same cost.

It's only a matter of time until somebody glues a $30 miniature remote-controlled helicopter to a $30 palm-sized fireball launcher to scare the living hell out of their neighbor's cat.

But there are serious repercussions as well.

In the early 90s, I wrote an ebook and uploaded it to America Online. It was called "In Defense Of Terrorism." I'm scared to even tell the world I wrote this now, with Guantanamo Bay and unjustified persecution becoming commonplace. But what the hell. If Harold and Kumar can escape from Guantanamo Bay, maybe I can too. I'll tell you my defense of terrorism.

Terrorism is worse than pacifist nonviolent protest - but it's better than war. I'm going to assume that the worse than nonviolent protest part is obvious. Here's why terrorism is better than war: less people die, and terrorism achieves the same result.

War is violence which achieves political goals. Terrorism is the same thing. A lot of people think of terrorism as irrational and unpredictable, but it's no more so than war. A lot of people think terrorism never produces real political results - and they're completely wrong. Study the history of Sinn Féin, the PLO, and the Irgun - there's a consistent trend of terrorist organizations "growing up" into legitimate political parties.

This ebook I wrote went into detail and fully charted the parallels, but I don't have time for that here. If you read the links looking for these parallels, they're pretty easy to spot. My goal with the ebook wasn't actually defending terrorism per se, but pointing out that you could see terrorism as a cheaper form of war - cheaper both in terms of materiél and in terms of human casualties. I can't totally stand by the argument, though, because what I didn't realize at the time was that there's a significant upside to war being inherently expensive, in that the expense and the logistics act as a dampening factor on warlike tendencies in any given society. It's kind of a good thing when people have to really think it over before going to war.

So even though at the time I thought I was sure terrorism was actually better than war, these days, I have to leave it as an open question. Either way, though, terrorism functions as a cheaper version of war. It's organized violence which results in substantial political change. It's a lot like war. It's just smaller.

You might wonder what this has to do with robots.

Let's flash back to one hypothetical image of military robots in the future.

Scary. But we know that's not going to happen. We know it's not going to happen because we know about commodification and miniaturization, and the fact that we can build a simple proof-of-concept remote-controlled flying miniature flamethrower for around $60. That means that if/when robots are used against humans, they won't get bigger and bigger as they get more and more sophisticated; they'll get smaller and smaller, and as they get smaller, they'll get cheaper, too.

(Actually the if is a lie; there are already military robots in Iraq and Afghanistan, and although officially none of them are armed, one of them is very well-specced for use as a roving gun platform. But even with all that, the points about miniaturization and commodification hold true. These robots are smaller than people, and will become even more so as time moves on.)

What direction does that point us in?

For the record, I'd just like to tell you how I discovered the above video. Using the above reasoning, I logically deduced that this video would exist, and then I went on YouTube searching for it, and it was right where I expected it to be. Now this process of logical deduction began in the early 90s at least, but I'm still taking that as a fairly powerful validation of my reasoning. I actually wrote a very bad screenplay where miniature robot weapons figured predominantly, also in the early 90s, but at the time I didn't have the experience in the technology industry to acquaint me with the organizational implications of commodification and miniaturization. Back then I really only knew they'd be small and numerous.

Anyway, this is a bit of a tangent. Just to wrap it up, I've found a few related videos as well.

Now the question is, if terrorism functions as a cheaper version of war, what will military robotics swiftly become?

Here's a big hint: consider that you don't actually have to be a government to build a giant robot.

Next consider that most military robots won't be giant anyway.

And then consider that late last year, the United Nations nearly declared the United States to be one of the many nations in the world with child soldiers, based on the reasoning that many ghettoes in America function as undeclared war zones, where children carry guns.

Now take a look at this picture from a recent LA Times story about a shootout in LA which occurred between gang members and quote-unquote "police officers":

"Police officers" my ass. If you're wearing camoflauge and body armor, and you're carrying an M16, it does not matter what your spokespeople stand up and say to the press. These men are obviously soldiers.

So here's what I'm saying. Terrorism is cheap undeclared warfare. Undeclared wars already happen in the United States. And within the next few decades, advances in robotics, and more importantly, the commodification and miniaturization of advances in robotics, will make the weapons available to the politically disenfranchised and/or criminal-minded dramatically more effective.

Today, individuals can single-handedly create and run multimillion-dollar companies. With every advance in information technology, the size of the average company shrinks. What will advances in weaponry do to the size of the average country, or the average army?

Robot controlled by Nintendo DS

What if the size of the average country is a function of the size of the average army?

Commodification and miniaturization doesn't mean a proliferation of robot weapons - it means a proliferation of robot soldiers. When soldiers become cheap, wars happen more easily. This will dramatically magnify regional political variations, and make government at the Federal scale really difficult to maintain. If you can strap a gun or a pipe bomb to a remote-control helicopter, that makes highly tactical urban warfare cheaper than a crappy used car. And that's just what we have today. In the near future, highly tactical urban warfare will become cheaper than a crappy iPod. Our current assumptions about government just don't operate at that kind of scale. It'll be like Microsoft competing with 37 Signals. A dinosaur doesn't realize it's competing with mice until too late.

When I say robot warriors will destroy America, I don't mean there's going to be this big war with big robots crushing big tanks. I mean there's going to be lots of tiny conflicts with lots of tiny weapons, which will in aggregate exert this tremendously powerful erosive effect which will transform every idea of government we have and force societies everywhere to re-organize at unknown scales and in unknown ways. Robot warriors will destroy America because robot warriors will change the nature of war so much that all countries will become obsolete.

Update: Some of this is already happening. Markus Prinz reminded me about the Boing Boing post about a man who built a vigilante robot to patrol his neighborhood and spray "unsavory characters" with water. It looks like a steampunk Dalek, but it's a sign of things to come.

Update: iRobot machine gun platform Wiimote hack