Government, energy & environment

War in the robotic age

Writers have been in love with thinking robots since at least the 1920s, but fiction is fast becoming fact. Researchers around the world are designing robots that can do diverse tasks, such as driving vehicles, picking up wounded soldiers and looking after kindergarten kids and the elderly.

While most robots are still fairly dumb, this could change particularly in the area of warfare.

Peter Singer, a high-profile Washington-based military futurist, has been predicting robotic warriors for decades. His vision is coming to fruition with the development of autonomous machines – or robots that think, if you prefer. This, according to Singer, will change how we think about and wage war, especially ground warfare.

Swarms of low-cost disposable drones that could overwhelm an enemy’s defences overturn some of our assumptions about war: that war is expensive and that soldiers don’t want to die.Robots, especially semi-autonomous robots, allow armies to do more with less and it’s much the same story with unmanned fighter aircraft, self-driving warships and submarines.

This probably sounds a long way off, but remember that ‘robots’ and thinking machines are already among us. The life saving air bags in your car are, in effect, an autonomous system, and so too is increasingly common self-parking technology.

Within the military, the US Air Force already deploys long-range missiles with an autonomous navigation system. Israelis are using drones that can hover over potential targets for hours looking for missile launches, then the drones automatically engage.

A paper published by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) says unmanned and autonomous systems will play a central role in future conflict and the Pentagon is funding developments in this area.

But why is this happening now? One answer is the evolving nature of technology. Greater computing power, along with advances in the size and power of both sensors and cameras, have combined to make robotic weapons a practical proposition. Another reason is politicians are becoming warier of sending troops into battle in case some of the troops don’t come home.

Robots are the ideal solution from both a cost and political standpoint. A bigger worry, though, is what happens when weapons start to make life or death decisions without human oversight.

Jody Williams, who won a Nobel Medal for her campaign against landmines (another autonomous weapon in a sense) has launched the Campaign To Stop Killer Robots. Williams questions where society is heading, “if some people think it’s OK to cede the power of life and death of humans over to a machine.”

Moreover, how could machines tell the difference between civilians and military personnel and who should be held responsible in the event of an atrocity?

These are good questions, but it's already hard sometimes to distinguish between civilians and soldiers and can be equally hard to work out who is culpable when things go wrong. This angst links to a broader societal angst about artificial intelligence, robots and autonomous systems in general.

The common worry is that thinking machines have the potential to steal our jobs and perhaps even our minds. But most robots are currently fairly stupid and, in the case of war, still largely dependent upon human action. Hopefully, humans are still smart enough to figure out the best future is one where humans and machines work together, with each focused on what they do best.

Ref: Financial Times magazine (UK), 18-19 July 2015, ‘Robot soldiers’, by G. Dyer.
Search words: Robots, war, drones
Trend tags: Automation

Star wars and space supremacy

Are you worried about tensions in the Korean peninsula, Syria, Iran, Kashmir or Ukraine? Don't, because there’s something far more worrying to think about. High above the Earth there’s an area of near space that contains about 1,300 active satellites. These are used by the US and a handful of other countries to provide GPS navigation, weather forecasting and much more besides.

Until recently, the US was top dog in this region but, as budgets and ambitions expand in countries such as China, India and Russia, this could shift in the future. Moreover, superiority in space is a lot more than ensuring in-car GPS navigation systems or Google maps apps on your iPhone work properly. Without these satellites, missile defence systems don’t work either.

The US, for instance, uses space-based systems to watch for nuclear weapon launches, so the stakes could hardly be higher. Thus, creating systems that can attack or defend against space-based weapons is becoming a high priority.

The Chinese conducted a ‘kinetic weapon’ missile test in 2013 that was designed to potentially destroy or disrupt US military satellites. But you don’t necessarily need to blow up enemy satellites to cause disruption or distraction.

Lasers could be used to temporarily damage satellite components, especially delicate sensors, but even cloaking or spraying over such sensors could do the job, as could using radio or microwaves to jam transmission signals. Worryingly, such actions could be interpreted as a malfunction or might be seen as clear ‘evidence’ of an enemy attack.

There are also accidents. Space is littered with debris and even a tiny collision could cause damage, which again could be misinterpreted. The solution is obviously some kind of UN or EU policy but so far, all diplomatic initiatives have fallen apart due to opposition from China, Russia, Brazil, India, South African and Iran. Watch this space, as they say.

Ref: Scientific American (US), October 2015, ‘Are we on the cusp of war in Space?’ by L. Billings.
Search words: space, weapons, war, future war
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Are polls pointless?

Is polling teetering on the edge of oblivion? In May 2015 every major poll in the UK failed to predict a Conservative Party win and in March of the same year they failed to foresee a win by Benjamin Netanyahu too. In 2013 a US poll found that three out of four Americans distrusted polls.

Yet at the same time, polls and pollsters (originally a term meaning something akin to ‘huckster’) have never wielded greater power. Part of the problem is public response rates, which are now typically into single digits. This means that pollsters have to work harder to offset non-response biases, weighting for the fact that certain demographic groups are less likely to respond to questions.

The numbers, though, are still staggering. In the US between the late 1990s and 2012, more than 3 billion calls were made to Americans to ask what they thought. Most people wouldn't answer. To compound the problem, most Americans no longer use landlines and it’s illegal to autodial cell phones.

The internet hasn't been much help either. Online you have to wait for people to be online and people online tend to be younger and left leaning. Another bias. But the biggest problem of all isn’t demographic or technological.

The single largest issue with polling is that measuring public opinion arguably doesn't serve a public good. Indeed, it might actually be a public ‘bad’. So why do it? Even if polling were deemed to be good, what would happen in a perfect world if you could flawlessly measure public opinion about everything all of the time?

Some online libertarians see this scenario as utopia. But if politicians – or anyone else for that matter – knew that every decision they made was being watched, how would this change attitudes and behaviour? We’d possibly find that politics became short-term, short-sighted, volatile, frantic, sales-driven and, frankly, undemocratic. Familiar?

Ref: The New Yorker (US), 16 November 2015, ‘Politics and the new machine’ by J. Lepore.
Search words: Polling, research, opinion, democracy
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New laws for 2016

So what’s new? Each new year brings a slew of new trends, but also new laws. As of 1 January 2016, same sex marriage became legal in Estonia (the first former Soviet nation to pass such a law), the importation of Turkish food became illegal in Russia and plastic bags were banned in the Netherlands.

In Delhi it is now illegal to drive a car in the city on two days in a row (to reduce pollution). In Japan it’s now illegal not to carry a tax registration number (ID) with you at all times, while in Illinois in the US, it’s now illegal to leave a pet alone in a car if the temperature exceeds a certain limit. In Canada, e-cigarettes face various restrictions.

The good news, if you see things that way, is that in Saudi Arabia women will be able to become politicians.

However, women in Saudi are still not allowed to drive, enter certain Starbucks branches, walk without a male chaperone, travel without the approval of relatives, wear clothes that show off their figures, interact with men they’re not related to, swim, compete in sports, try clothes on in shops, enter a cemetery, read an uncensored fashion magazine or buy a Barbie doll.

Ref: The Guardian (UK), 1 January 2016, ‘New year, new laws: what’s changing around the world on 1 January 2016’ by K. Lyons and C. Brinkhurst-Cuff.
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Search words: Saudi Arabia, laws, restrictions, freedom
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