How killer robots became more than just scary science fiction.
- By Ty McCormickTy McCormick is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Previously he was a freelance correspondent in Egypt, where he wrote about everything from military trials to revolutionary rap music. A 2011 Pulitzer Center grantee, he has written for Newsweek, the New Republic, the International Herald Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. He has also appeared as a commentator on Fox News and American Public Media’s Marketplace Tech. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, and a master’s from the University of Oxford, where he was a Clarendon Scholar.
The killer robot has been a science-fiction staple for decades, but rapid advances in artificial intelligence may soon usher in the era of lethal autonomous machines for real. If one counts certain ship-borne air-defense systems, that day has already arrived. But a growing chorus of critics think machines shouldn’t be licensed to kill. With the United Nations likely to take up the issue in 2014, here’s a look back at the surprisingly long history of lethal autonomy.
Leonardo da Vinci designs a “mechanical knight” capable of mimicking a range of human motions, including raising its arms, sitting up, and opening and closing its jaw. Sketches in his notebook show an elaborate system of cranks and pulleys beneath an armored exterior, though it’s unclear how the original Renaissance man planned to power his fighting automaton.
The Aegis air-defense system aboard the USS Vincennes, stationed in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War, detects an apparently hostile aircraft. The plane is in fact an Iranian commercial airliner, but the system, then in semiautomatic mode, shoots down the jetliner, killing all 290 people aboard.
A Predator hovering about 100 miles east of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, carries out the first U.S. drone strike outside a war zone, killing Abu Ali al-Harithi, the alleged mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing, and five other militants, including one American. Drones become a regular tool in the U.S. war on terrorism.
*CORRECTION, Jan. 21, 2014: The print version of this article in the January/February 2014 issue incorrectly stated the year in which the U.S. Air Force used laser-guided weapons to destroy the Thanh Hoa Bridge in North Vietnam. The bridge was destroyed in 1972, not 1973.
Special thanks to P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.
Illustrations by Jameson Simpson
John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.| The Complex |
John Arquilla earned his degrees in international relations from Rosary College (BA 1975) and Stanford University (MA 1989, PhD 1991). He has been teaching in the special operations program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School since 1993. He also serves as chairman of the Defense Analysis department.
Dr. Arquilla’s teaching interests revolve around the history of irregular warfare, terrorism, and the implications of the information age for society and security.
His books include: Dubious Battles: Aggression, Defeat and the International System (1992); From Troy to Entebbe: Special Operations in Ancient & Modern Times (1996), which was a featured alternate of the Military Book Club; In Athena’s Camp (1997); Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime and Militancy (2001), named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association; The Reagan Imprint: Ideas in American Foreign Policy from the Collapse of Communism to the War on Terror (2006); Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military (2008), which is about defense reform; Insurgents, Raiders, and Bandits: How Masters of Irregular Warfare Have Shaped Our World (2011); and Afghan Endgames: Strategy and Policy Choices for America’s Longest War (2012).
Dr. Arquilla is also the author of more than one hundred articles dealing with a wide range of topics in military and security affairs. His work has appeared in the leading academic journals and in general publications like The New York Times, Forbes, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Wired and The New Republic. He is best known for his concept of “netwar” (i.e., the distinct manner in which those organized into networks fight). His vision of “swarm tactics” was selected by The New York Times as one of the “big ideas” of 2001; and in recent years Foreign Policy Magazine has listed him among the world’s “top 100 thinkers.”
In terms of policy experience, Dr. Arquilla worked as a consultant to General Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm, as part of a group of RAND analysts assigned to him. During the Kosovo War, he assisted deputy secretary of defense John Hamre on a range of issues in international information strategy. Since the onset of the war on terror, Dr. Arquilla has focused on assisting special operations forces and other units on practical “field problems.” Most recently, he worked for the White House as a member of a small, nonpartisan team of outsiders asked to articulate new directions for American defense policy.| Rational Security |