In ancient times, warriors could look one another in the eye on the battlefield. War was fought with minimal weaponry, a person-to-person test of bravery and strength. Battlefields were clearly demarcated, extending only as far as an arrow could be shot or a stone could be slung.
But as the centuries advanced, so did the strategies and equipment used in human conflicts. Since then, humans have developed greater firepower, bomber planes, chemical weapons and the A-bomb, each making war at once more destructive and more distant.
Current techniques are taking these developments to the extreme, leaving the work of war to robots that soldiers control from another hemisphere. Often with thousands of miles between them, some will never see their opponents or set foot in enemy territory, much less come into direct physical combat. Like video games played over the Internet between people who know each other only in cyberspace, humans are now killing one another from opposite ends of the planet.
Proponents of remote military technologies say that lives on our side will be saved: soldiers will not have to enter extremely dangerous situations where they risk life and limb. Fewer young men will leave the armed forces with disabilities, scarred faces and battered psyches, they assert.
But critics of hyper-mechanized, remote warfare say that the distance is exactly what could also desensitize us to the harm that we are doing to others and eventually come back to bite us. They worry that remote technology could ultimately prove far more destructive, fueled by the fact that the conflict doesn't feel real at all.
In the Air
The use of Unmannned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs, by the US is on the rise, with machines reportedly piloted from air force bases in Virginia and Nevada as they go to war in the Middle East. But experts like military adviser David Kilcullen are questioning the strategic value of drones to the countries that deploy them in light of the anger they are causing on the ground. He says that since 2006 US drone attacks have killed 14 senior Al Quaeda operatives and 700 civilians in the same region of Pakistan fuelling extremism. Furthermore, he says Pashtun culture sees honor in person-to-person combat, and "using robots from the air ... looks both cowardly and weak."
But the trend toward remote warfare doesn't show any signs of slowing -- as the military moves in the direction of removing soldiers from combat, both academia and industry are seeking to fill the need for more sophisticated machines.
On the West Coast, engineers and computer scientists are working on a war machine that maneuvers itself. Drones created at the University of California at Berkeley as part of the multi-university Scalable sWarms of Autonomous Robotics and Mobile Sensors (SWARMS) project will be able to move in patterns found in the wild, like schools of fish or packs of wolves, to pursue a common goal.
The Berkeley group puts a lightweight navigation box on small helicopters, intending to monitor the movements of others and perform group behaviors like "swarming." Developers envision deploying these machines as military search drones in urban outdoor and even indoor environments.
In another Bay Area UAV project also using helicopters, then-Stanford doctoral student Pieter Abbeel, who is now at Berkeley, developed a model helicopter that learns by mimicry. His software allows helicopters (or other machines) to observe and copy tricks learned by nearby remote-controlled machines.
Researchers used two land-based cameras and a sensor on the helicopter to find the remote-control pilot's chosen path. The human pilot completed the move several times, and then the robotic helicopters were able to repeat it, allowing for forces like crosswinds. According to Abbeel, it's much more efficient to have machines learn by observation than to internally program each action. He adds that the technology could also be used for firefighting and searching for land mines.
With all these advances, it's not hard to imagine a world in which cyborgs battle one another, removing humans from warfare altogether. But as long as one side has remote technology and the other doesn't, it's more likely that poorer countries at war with richer ones will see autonomous machines rolling or flying into their neighborhoods very soon, if they haven't already. As weapons become more high-tech, winning will be based less on skill and bravery than on funding and access to the latest new machines. War will continue to be an area where countries can show their economic dominance.
"The general concern about many new and emerging technologies is that they create severe inequalities among those who have access to them and those who don't," says Andrew Light, Director of the Center for Global Ethics at George Mason University. He adds that this puts an added responsibility on richer countries. "The burden of proof is on those who are proponents of the technologies in question to demonstrate that those inequalities between people who have the technology and don't have the technology will not lead to excessively harmful consequences."
For Light, remote warfare is likely to be it's own Pandora's box. If a country like the United States can be aggressive without suffering casualties (normally an important deterrent to war), it may negotiate less, attack more often and kill in greater numbers.
"The number one ethical problem with letting robots do the fighting or increasing the capacity of robotic warfare is that it will increase the likelihood of using lethal measures on the battlefield," predicts Light.
P.W. Singer, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the recently released book Wired for War, compares the increasing use of military robots to the invention of the atomic bomb in terms of the revolutionary impact it will have on how we conduct conflict in the future. With young soldiers fighting from Nevada instead of on the ground or from the air in Pakistan and Afghanistan, he says the field of war is changing dramatically. And while the United States is ahead now in robotic warfare, he warns there is no guarantee that this lead will last.
"We know that in technology there is no such thing as a permanent first-mover advantage," he says, adding that 43 other countries, including Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran are now working on military robots. Singer worries that the America's lag in manufacturing, science and math education puts us at a disadvantage.
Vitally important to whether remote warfare will affect the country's actual willingness to fight is public perception of war, which echoes the military's new remote techniques by putting a comfortable distance between the viewer and what he or she is viewing. With so many advances in Internet and mobile phone technology, more people are watching actual and simulated combat for entertainment, whether through real footage, in movies or in video games. Footage shot by cameras attached to war robots is being leaked onto the Internet, allowing people to participate vicariously, and often with enthusiasm, in the fighting at the front lines, knowing that they will not be hurt. The effect is increased by the fact that the videos turning up on American websites rarely show US soldiers being wounded. Without having to risk their own safety, civilians can use institutionalized violence as entertainment, desensitizing them even further from the destruction that is taking place.
Critics like Singer worry that the blurred lines between reality and violence will perpetuate the American public's relationship with war as a spectator sport - exciting and even cool, as long as the conflict occurs far away. This could lead the public to take its country's wars even more lightly.
Video games have capitalized on the link between war and entertainment, and in some cases are now being integrated into military technology. At iRobot, a Massachusetts-based company now famous for its robotic vacuums, engineers have developed robots that are compatible with video game remotes. Using a screen that displays the robot's point of view, iRobot's Pakbot lets soldiers control it with Playstation or X-box remotes - tools they are already familiar with.
The Pakbot has a long neck that folds in and out to pick up large and small objects. A demonstration I saw at iRobot last year showed how the machine could dislodge buried land mines and move them to another location for safe detonation. While it's not made to be operated from great distances like a flying drone, the Packbot lowers risks for soldiers in cave expeditions, By being the first to enter dark, enclosed surroundings where, until recently, infantrymen reportedly had to go in with ropes around their waists so that they could be pulled out if they were shot, the Packbot offers a safer way to scout.
In the future
Remote warfare will save lives - but only for the country that can afford the technology. Ultimately, as Singer warns, more countries will develop remote capabilities, leading to greater destruction on every side.
Humans have always engineered new ways of waging ever more intimidating and complex wars, but robots and drones have opened the flood gates to nearly endless destruction as we distance ourselves from what we are doing on the ground. A huge amount of human effort and creativity is going into war when it could be directed to more constructive ends like education, healthcare or to the provision of services to other countries that would improve international relations rather than incite conflict. Instead of being used for fighting, autonomous vehicles could be used to rescue victims of natural disasters, or help the elderly. Our potential for innovation seems endless, but robotic warfare makes me wonder how long it will be before we focus less on pursuing conflict and more on making peace.