Autonomous weapons are being developed by the powerful military industrial complex as it seeks to systematically diminish human responsibility for mass murder. Garry Glass discusses these new technologies of conflict within the context of the wider systems of domination inherent to modern technological society.
Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) respond to military scenarios intelligently and are designed to make decisions in silicon that can launch an attack independently from human control.
Such systems include Predator Drones, Armed Robot Vehicles and Sentry Guns that create auto-kill zones. Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems are inherently political in that they seek to sanitise and depersonalise killing in order to reduce state accountability.
They represent the terrifying cutting edge of the rationalisation of violence and point to a future where war itself becomes independent from human action.
In contrast anti-militarists seek not only to abolish war as it is presently fought but also to confront the strategic vision that militarists have for their own future as they reach towards the apex of control.
The single greatest impediment to western hegemony is domestic resistance to war motivated by images of flag draped coffins returning home.
It is a political necessity to reduce the amount of dead and wounded veterans returning from conflict. Specifically, to make war more efficient with respect to the ratio between the number of western bodies killed to the number of foreign bodies killed.
This new hi-tech military doctrine seeks to exploit the fundamental racism of this selective compassion and grieving in order to carry out its imperial ambitions.
Control Systems and Total Control
It is in the strategic development of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems that US dominance is to be assured by overcoming some of the challenges of unconventional warfare in urban and mountain terrains. LAWS are also being developed by China, Israel, Russia and the United Kingdom.
They are a technology which disrupts the orthodoxies of organised violence in the pursuit of full spectrum dominance. By revolutionising the way wars are fought, autonomous weapons will change the course of history.
This irresistible capability beckons a robotic arms race which should be utterly abhorrent to those who would abolish militarism entirely.
Through new technological developments states are able to bypass the traditional impediments to the politics of empire. The anti-war movement needs to keep abreast of these technologies but more fundamentally it must shift its focus from its own nation’s war dead to all the victims of war around the world. It is selective compassion itself which has created the circumstances leading to these dehumanising instruments of death. We need only look at the fact that Obama was given the nobel peace prize for his diplomacy despite also massively increasing the number of drone strikes to see that accountability is being threatened.
In order to resist drone attacks, victim’s families in Pakistan print giant posters of their dead children’s faces so that next time drones fly by the distant pilots will have the immediate trauma of seeing the innocent’s face etched into their memory.
The actual act of killing is very difficult for a human to undertake through physical actions. However an autonomous drone would not be affected by this .
A machine doesn’t feel anything, it is simply better at the business of targeting but it does so with cold precision and is incapable of regret.
Technology is that instrument which empowers the extension of human will beyond their own means. Here this extension supports that human ability to end the life of another being. Yet what happens, to extend the metaphor, when that extension seems to slip from our hands?
When violence is made autonomous, at what point are individual humans no longer responsible for that deployment?
There is substantial legal debate over the issue of culpability in autonomous weapons – can they in fact commit war crimes or is that the responsibility of developers and/or policy makers?
To anti-militarists war itself is the crime, to have “gentleman’s agreements” about its legality and appropriate conduct hardly redeems its abhorrence.
Some argue that autonomous weapons could reduce civilian casualties and increase the kill rate of those intended targets. However when policy and its execution are even further from accountability this system of death will arguably be much harder to abolish.
Autonomous weapons reveal something deeply concerning about the world they are being created in and the world they will help create. They suggest a new kind of civilisation that we barely have the concepts to theorise outside of sci-fi horror but that nonetheless now announces itself rudely.
It is increasingly in the interests of the state and those in the violence industry to rationalise the killing process through developing autonomous weapons.
The term “to rationalise” can mean to make something seem acceptable but it is also rather problematically synonymous with making efficient, or reasoned actions. Here we see a terrible outcome of this conflation where efficiency is sufficient justification for developing the technologies to outsource violence from human responsibility.
Competition over resources is the central organising principle of civilisation and Humans are to unleash inventions that express the worst of ourselves to that end. The military industrial complex represents the apex of this tendency to predation. President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the great risk of misplaced power with the rise of a permanent armaments industry.
Nowadays technocrats appear beyond politics but they nonetheless pursue the quickest route to that final cause of a militaristic corporate fascism.
A policy means ordering the world a certain way, usually towards a more economically efficient arrangement for one’s own interests. The military theorist Clausewitz observed that War is the extension of policy by extreme means. Where some objective requires the efficient dispatch of one’s policy adversaries.
The warfare of economic policy occurs on a daily basis and its violence has subtle and insidious forms as we are bound by money’s quantitative logic. Commodities’ futures are traded via electrical signals with numbers representing “values” transmitted down millions of miles of copper wire determining the actions of workers in a telekinetic control system spanning the globe.
Foreign policy is increasingly determined by sophisticated data analytics – individual calculations have repercussions for the way the world is shaped.
Futurists interpret weak signals of novelty in current trends and amplify them in order to understand possible future scenarios. At present geostrategic decisions are partly based on speculative commodity futures markets. The ensuing war is effected numerically as battlefield logistics are planned in neural networks. Policy adversaries are now targeted and destroyed with unprecedented efficiency by the algorithms piloting drones. War is already being executed mathematically and computation will figure ever more centrally.
Imagine a future where war became autonomous – that is efficient mass slaughter of human life entirely planned in silicon and executed by machines. The policy could be automatically generated by a set of calculations. That is to say the imperative to engage in conflict and the business of its execution shall become entirely mathematical and beyond human actions.
Imagine a situation where based on the value of a financial derivative it suddenly becomes profitable for a corporation to exploit a natural resource from some territory.
Where the cost of subordinating the population is measured in multiples of tonnes of munitions and not troops killed in action. Intervention results because these costs are much less than the value of the lucrative commodity on the global market and the subsidised profits of the arms industry. Ultimately robot sorties would hurtle through the sky dodging the obsolete weaponry of the local human population.
Discussing “Killer Robots”
Offering a speculative critical theory on a technology in early stages of development is difficult because it requires a certain amount of retrospection, of seeing how the things interact with the world. It must look at not simply its function but to the motives and ends to which they were designed and the historical contingency of that process.
We cannot predict their full horror and yet without any kind of pre-emptive moratorium this will be a genie that doesn’t return to the bottle .
Herein lies the paradox of the precautionary principle when discussing killer robots. On the one hand they must be stopped before they exist, yet it is difficult to articulate in a way that is concrete enough for society respond to given that it is a theme drenched in sci-fi horror.
This is compounded by the problem that (unsurprisingly) there is little detailed information available on the development of militarily strategic assets.
“Killer robots” as a term touches on familiar cultural reference points to popularise the issue of LAWS.
Indeed the rise of “Sky-net” in 80’s classic The Terminator can be read as a metaphor for the unaccountability of the military industrial complex. However arguing for a pre-emptive moratorium on something that is emblematic of speculative horror is a most peculiar proposition.
For better or worse we rely on these inherited tropes. We must consider how our theory is supported but also undermined by recourse to sci-fi noir with its rich genealogy dating back to Frankenstein’s resurrection.
A killer robot could mean anything that kills via automated or autonomous actions or it could refer to a thing that is specifically humanoid and that is crucially designed to kill humans.
Robots are a paradox in that they are human-like but are also Other to humans. We dehumanise each other enough as people. Autonomous technology speaks to a will that has broken free as though we had given birth to something that now wishes to do violence to “the human”.
Peering into the the uncanny abyss of the machines’ sensory apparatus, we realise humans have created something in our own worst image and release it into the world, full of horror, like a mirror reflecting our own tendency to kill, yet more efficient, threatening and terrifying to an absolute degree.
Efficiency becomes its own end
Domination tends to turn that which it dominates in service to furthering the process of domination. The human being is dehumanised in service to a system of dehumanisation.
Technology is not yet able to reproduce and elaborate itself without human help. It is believed that humans could soon become superfluous to this process of improvement as an artificial intelligence is able to achieve this on its own.
We face a future where we remain in service to technological societies’ general rationalising impulse but also perhaps eventually to some kind of artificial intelligence master that manages our every existence. We must resist becoming machine-like slaves to the automated empire.
Resisting fatalism in an era of the unquestioned rise of rationalisation Sarah Conner says “ No fate […but what we make.] ” in defiance of the imposition of the machines’ will. (Although resistance to this politics of inevitability was abandoned in later iterations of the Terminator saga. )
In light of the seemingly esoteric nature of these concerns it is pertinent to ask how relevant this is to our daily struggles?
Our lived experience is too often subject to a systematic dehumanisation under the commodification of capital. This predatory culture operates via an instrumental ontology which sees beings as objects to be dominated in a world to be colonised. Human creativity is subordinated to efficiency in a historical process of rationalisation. When efficiency becomes its own end we find ourselves in a world of roads to nowhere.
Our increased reliance on technology both liberates us from material poverty and restricts us as we become ‘machine-like’ in our single minded pursuit of efficiency in the technological society. We create a synthetic world, and then must remould ourselves to inhabit it. The more predictable and obedient a person is the more useful they are to the expansion of control.
Some feel they are slaves domesticated to the mega-machine of industrial civilisation with its inevitable global conflict over strategic energy resources and the collapse of the bio-sphere. Others perhaps are more optimistic about the prospect of the end of scarcity through automated mass production.
Humans are said to become “Robots” in their use of control systems meanwhile electricity and metal machines increasingly replace the power of bone and sinew in the productive process.
Under the watchful eye of that new god Surveillance we self censor.
Our work is monitored, our phone calls recorded for quality control. We work to be free yet the bosses endeavour to manage us ever more closely. Our images haunt CCTV screens and our virtual selves exist on government databases and on the cloud.
We are enveloped by the securitisation of everyday life in a technologically advanced police state.
Forward Intelligence teams gather biometric data via cybernetic head cameras. Our security is managed by reminding us to be forever vigilant to the imminent threat of attack.
How long until we see the first G4S robot security guard?
The near future could easily see a scenario where these advanced technologies were fully deployed in foreign or domestic arenas as part of a militarised police force.
IBM’s database systems were used to assist the Nazi genocide demonstrating that rationalisation is intensely political. The Reich’s holocaust was not an aberration of modernity but representative of the range of its raw dehumanising logic at that time. This current empire is far more empowered technologically than at any time in world history and decades ahead of what most of us imagine.
It is incumbent on all who would abolish militarism and authoritarianism to understand the direction it is heading in and also to systematically deconstruct the ways control and rationalisation already dominate our lives.