Monday, January 5, 2009

A Killer Robot Army?

John Pike, the founder of has a really strange article in yesterday's Washington Post entitled, "Coming to the Battlefield: Stone-Cold Robot Killers." He starts out by asserting that
Soon -- years, not decades, from now -- American armed robots will patrol on the ground as well, fundamentally transforming the face of battle. Conventional war, even genocide, may be abolished by a robotic American Peace.
He discusses the major advances in technology that have given us UAVs, greater automation, and the need for fewer vehicle crewman. He then goes on to write
But now the Army stands on the threshold of one of the greatest transformations in war-fighting history, on the short list with steel and gunpowder. The Future Combat Systems program is aimed at developing an array of new vehicles and systems -- including armed robots.
Pike thinks this would be a great thing. A U.S. robot army would mean the end of genocide as
the large-scale organized killing that has characterized six millenniums of human history could be ended by the fiat of the American Peace.
There are many problems with Pike's theories that just leap out at the reader. Pilotless drones and other unmanned vehicles are not the same thing as self-directing robots capable of replacing humans. Unless Pike has classified information on these robots not available to the general public, the technology for the type of robot army he describes simply does not exist, and is unlikely to appear in the next few years. His entire article appears to be based on the military equivalent of vaporware. But even if such technology did exist, his other assertions are also way off-base. Pike argues that "no human army" could stand against a robot "onslaught," and that anyone facing such a force would have a "simple choice of martyrdom or flight." I find it difficult to believe that someone like John Pike, with his knowledge of military affairs, would make such a ridiculous unfounded assertion. Any weapon system has weaknesses and can be defeated by human ingenuity, or other factors unforseen by the creator of the wonder weapon. And the idea that the U.S. could suddenly deploy a completely irresistable robot army, of the type Pike envisions, doesnot even qualify as good science fiction, let alone a reasonable real-world military prediction.

Then there is the author's blissful assumption that only the U.S. would possess such robots. How long did the U.S. retain sole possession of nuclear weapons technology? Is the U.S. the only country with UAV technology? Of course not, as Pike knows. Would the rest of the world just sit back and accept his so-called "fiat" of "American Peace." Somehow I doubt it.

Finally, he argues that his robot army would be an effective force for "genocide prevention." The theory here is that we could intervene freely in places like Darfur, since we wouldn't have to worry about our casualties. What about the casualties the robots might inflict? Are they going to be able to tell the difference between good guys and bad guys, and make the split second decisions about whether or not to shoot? What if they malfunction and perpetrate a massacre? Are they going to have the diplomatic ability to sort through and deal with various factions, changing alliances, and all the other chaotic factors present in unconventional warfare? I'm sure all that technology will be ready to go in the next few years as Pike asserts. is a great resource, with all sorts of useful information about worldwide military affairs. But Pike's article is an embarrassment. I'm surprised that the Washington Post agreed to publish it.


  1. "Soon -- years, not decades, from now -- American armed robots will patrol on the ground as well, fundamentally transforming the face of battle."

    I think I read something like that in 2001. I'm still waiting.

    On another note, where the hell are my flying cars?