Tell Us the One About the Robots, Mr. President

Want to lead the free world? You'd better figure out what to do about the rise of the machines.

Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images
Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Call me a geek, but Monday’s foreign-policy debate between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney was exciting not only for the new attention it brought to "horses and bayonets," but also as a sort of coming-out party for the world of robotics. Four years ago, this field that was once the province of science-fiction writers but now covers everything from self-driving vacuum cleaners to military drones did not merit any mention on the campaign trail. Neither Obama nor Sen. John McCain was asked about it in their debates. But in Boca Raton this week, robotics finally made the list, joining such primetime issues as China, Iran, and the economy.

But while the candidates were asked what they thought about drones, unfortunately Americans still don’t know much about their answers. Obama literally didn’t have to respond to Bob Schieffer’s question because, as the moderator put it, "we know President Obama’s position on this" — a very odd way for a moderator to pose a question, especially on a topic on which government policy has been far from transparent. Romney, meanwhile, provided the deep insight that "drones are being used in drone strikes" before swinging far to Obama’s left with a call to counter extremism, channeling the new UNDP wing of the Republican Party.

This is a shame because, like it or not, robotics — and not just the ubiquitous drone — has become a signature part of the 21st century presidency and its use of power. The U.S. military now has more than 8,000 unmanned systems in the air and another 12,000 or so on the ground in its inventory, and they are used every day to protect soldiers in places like Afghanistan. More controversially, a growing civilian intelligence agency fleet is also used not-so-covertly in places like Pakistan and Yemen, where the United States has reportedly carried out more than 375 air strikes, despite the fact that there has been no specific congressional vote on the matter. The technology’s use in the last few years has arguably set a weighty precedent for the presidency, blurring civilian and military roles in war and potentially even circumventing the original intent of the Constitution’s division of powers.

But the story is even bigger. Robotics is akin to gunpowder, the steam engine, or the computer. It’s a game-changing technology not merely because of its power, but because of its impact both on and off the battlefield. While modern unmanned systems are still in the first generation of use — the Model T Ford stage, so to speak — operators for these systems are already the fastest-growing group in the U.S. Air Force, potentially reshaping its long-term identity as more and more pilots never leave the ground

And the push forward is only going to continue. A few weeks ago, the Defense Science Board unveiled plans to widen the range of tasks taken on by robots in the U.S. military and to enhance their automation so that these robots can do more of these tasks on their own. Whether it’s Obama or Romney, the next American president is going to be wrestling with a series of questions that will determine the future contours of this robotics revolution.

Take, for example, the areas of military purchasing and research. In a time of tight Pentagon budgets, should we continue the current planned trillion-dollar purchase of F-35 manned fighter jets, or invest some portion in the next generation of unmanned jets — like the X-47 UCAS that the Navy is testing out on Maryland’s western shore? Similarly, the next commander in chief will preside over the purchase of the Air Force’s next generation of strategic nuclear bombers. It would be fascinating to know whether Obama and Romney thinks that planes carrying nuclear weapons should be manned, unmanned, or, as presently planned, convertible?

Of equal importance are questions about where and how we should use the new weapons we have bought. In his first term, Obama ended up not just authorizing counterterrorism drone strikes, but also drone strikes in a Libyan civil war that no one had planned for, as well as the first quasi-offensive use of cyber weapons, using a piece of malware publicly known as Stuxnet to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program — an amazing capability the president had not even heard of when he launched his presidential run. So too will the winner of this election have to decide whether to authorize the use of real weapons they never imagined in unanticipated operations taking place in locations not currently on their radar screen.

And these technologies won’t stay only in U.S. hands — more than 50 nations have military robotics programs, and groups that range from jewel thieves to terrorists have also used drones. So the next president will have to weigh the consequences of everything from the global proliferation of robotic weapons to the long-term legal precedents he is willing to set for future presidents.

The dilemmas posed by advances in robotics won’t be limited to drone warfare. The candidates didn’t face a question on it in the debates, but in the next four years, what was once exclusively a weapon of war will become a regular part of American life and commerce. (Estimates put the future American drone market value at more than $45 billion.)

With the Federal Aviation Administration set to open up U.S. airspace to civilian drone use by 2015, President Obama or Romney will have to navigate a similar set of ripple effects on the domestic side. What kind of licensing controls should determine who can operate these civilian drones and where? What protections should be in place for privacy?

Robots also play an important role in the economic growth and jobs issue that is supposedly central to this election, but in a way few want to discuss. If the candidates really want to deal with where our jobs are going, they have to face the fact that the long-term disconnect between growth and unemployment patterns is not about outsourcing or tax rates. As a recent MIT study found, automation is "destroying jobs and creating prosperity," explaining both the gains in efficiency and the loss of as many as 6 million jobs over the last decade. Robots are a large part of the reason the automobile companies of Detroit are back, but so many automobile workers are not back to work. (Already, 1 in 10 has been replaced by a factory line robot, with many companies across a wide array of industries planning to fully automate their assembly lines.)

Technology is never an issue that directly sways voters in presidential elections. But it is a crucial force that shapes the opportunities and challenges the winners of these elections ultimately have to face. Put another way, the only robots likely to matter on Nov. 6th will be robo-callers annoying voters. But when the next president closes that Oval Office door for the last time, how he answers these many questions of policy related to robotics will be a key legacy he leaves behind.

Unfortunately, it looks like we’ll just have to wait to find out what he thinks about the matter.

Peter W. Singer is a strategist and senior fellow at New America. He is a co-author of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media. Twitter: @peterwsinger

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