Monday, June 19, 2006

Attack of the Killer Robots


Interesting article in Newspartsman last week - America's coming robot army:
In just a few years, US forces will be able to deal out death, not at the squeeze of a trigger or even the push of a button, but with no human intervention whatsoever. Many fighting soldiers - those GIs in tin hats who are dying two a day in Iraq - will be replaced by machines backed up by surveillance technology so penetrating and pervasive that it is referred to as "military omniscience". Any Americans involved will be less likely to carry rifles than PlayStation-style consoles and monitors that display simulated streetscapes of the kind familiar to players of Grand Theft Auto - and they may be miles from where the killing takes place.
Now, this is interesting, if only in terms of if they can do that abroad, they can do it here - but I think the article misses something.

I'l explain. In one of his letters, I recall, uncle Charlie Marx discusses how mercenary soldiers were the first real proeltarians - people who had nothing but their ability to fight, working purely for the money. In that sense we can seen ancient war with it's overwhelming need for labour/manpower as one of the conduits for the development of capitalism.

This development has continued, as with real capitalism, to a situation in which the rewards of warfare go according to the capital invested. The US has overwhelming superiority in the means of warfare - it is a hugely capitalised firm, if you like. According to the MOD:
The UK Defence budget in 2005/06 is some £30.1Bn. In terms of monetary expenditure, this puts us second in the world on defence spending, although we are a long way behind the United States whose base Defence budget is some $400Bn.
That last figure, from other charts I've seen, is more, almost, than the rest of the world put together.

Although China is beginning to flex it's muscles, and presents a very real force with massive manpower (i.e. it's a labour intensive competitor) the US is still well ahead. The business of occupying and pacifying (rather than just destroying) urban concentrations remains a labour intensive task, though - the US can handle anyone in the world in an open shooting match, but, much like the US War of Independence, they have trouble when the buggers won't just stand and fight.

These robots would be a qualitative breakthrough that would mean the US could wage war anywhere on Earth - out of its pocket change.

Except, and here I return to my point - this is capitalism - the price and availability of such military hardware means competitors can buy in - imagine a terrorist getting their hands on a killer remote robot. New lines proliferate, driving the rate of rpofit down, and the faster the organic composition of capital falls, the harder and harder it is to stay ahead in the game.

On the one hand, this could be a good thing - restoring a rough equivilance of force to the world (see Frank Herbert's Committee of the Whole short story for a take on such a contingency) - on the other hand, it could lead to catastrophic waves of destruction from nukes in your bedroom.

PS Stross has a fun take on this (also see his more recent post on Guantanamo suicides).

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