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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Qui Bono From Robot Armies? (2017-02-24)

Photograph of a 'talon' series robot courtesy of the u.s. army research laboratory. Photograph of a 'talon' series robot courtesy of the u.s. army research laboratory.

Now that we are in the age of internet of shit devices being built into botnets for use in massive ddos attacks, I have observed more and more thoughtful technology commentators resisting the urge to refer to these as "robot armies." It's a strong urge, as reflected in talks like one in delivered in november last year by Maciej Cegłowski at the australian web directions conference, Who Will Command the Robot Armies. In that talk, just as I did myself in this very paragraph, Cegłowski paralleled iot devices to a number of drones and robots under development, some civilian, most being built by the u.s. military research laboratories. Curiously enough, not many folks have been drawing on examples from the various space programs in the world, perhaps because the relationships that this reveals between space and military research are uncomfortably close.

Who benefits from robot armies must seem so obvious to many fortunate enough to live in countries not currently at war or under continuous attack by various militaries under a whole range of rationales. The answer is simple. "Our" soldiers, who won't have to put themselves in as much danger in an already dangerous profession because they can use robots like the one in the picture to check and detonate explosive devices, deliver necessary supplies in periods of intensive firefighting, or carry gear over difficult terrain. That all sounds pretty good, nobody likes the idea of soldiers being gravely injured or killed if there is some way to avoid that. In fact, it sounds easy, commonsensical, something that "everybody knows." When I notice an idea or answer has that quality, that marks it as something that deserves further thought. Especially in this case, because it seems to me that the best way of keeping soldiers safe of all is not to go to war in the first place.

The origins of the term "robot" are reasonably well-known today, so here I will give only a précis. The term was coined from czechoslovakian robota meaning "forced labour" which entered "western" culture via Karol Čapek's play "Rossum's Universal Robots." Efforts to soften the term in english have been ongoing, with more recent meanings referring to a machine that can carry out a complex series of actions, controlled by computer programs. The "forced" part of the labour has dropped out because the robots are not sentient. With this in mind, the reason the iot devices are slipping under the "robot armies" rubric is no longer so mysterious. Robots tend to be most useful and most powerful at scale, by being combined together in numbers. These numbers may be relatively homogenous, as in the case of types of iot devices that all have the same vulnerability, or say, a pack train of robots that carry luggage. Or they may be fairly diverse, as in factories that employ sets of robots to carry out certain tasks in different sections of the building. A major growing concern about robots is that they don't just help people keep safe, in fact they have primarily been applied to getting rid of human labour as a cost cutting measure. Then there is the issue of what it means to have a large number of centrally controlled robots, whether within a factory or as the envisioned "robot armies."

The countries driving hardest to develop robots in military and civilian applications though, are those often labelled "the west." To me this begs many questions about potential relationships between this increasing military and corporate interest, and the slowly growing hysteria of male people who think they are white about "falling birthrates" and deeply embedded racism against anyone they consider racialized, which is closing the door on immigration as a solution to this "problem." On a more abstract or pop culture level, I wonder a lot about the insistence on framing "robot armies" as things that will become sentient and determined to wipe out humanity. How many people appreciate that this is rapidly becoming a displacement of anxiety about what is now not only contempt but overt violence and hostility of the "1%" against everyone else, who are the ones who mainly own and guide the most dangerous robots?

Then there is the whole line of thought that runs if a person does not have some sort of job to do that produces something in a capitalist economy, that person is useless. Since world war ii is a perrennial generator of books, movies, and other paraphernalia that makes various media companies money, I hope that one of the most overt and heinous applications of this idea is not a mystery to any readers. What may be surprising instead is the notion that this idea is not one held only by extremists. It is so common and so ingrained, that anyone who suffers a period of unemployment frequently also suffers a terrible loss of self-esteem and sense of purpose, and may even find themselves struggling with depression. It is still widely considered okay to treat anyone who is unemployed with the utmost contempt, especially if they are also homeless. (The homeless get treated like shit even when they're employed, which is most of the time.) Many people associate unemployment therefore with a serious loss of self, and a sense that without a job they lose their right to live full lives. They are hardly being "luddites" when they wonder skeptically and uncomfortably qui bono from the robot armies.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 15, 2017 22:42:48