The Long View 2008-02-27: Killer Robots, Giant Snakes, McCain's Necessity, Pournelle's Fallacy

Azeri drones.png

The widespread use of drones in combat has been talked about for decades, but still hasn’t quite happened. The recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh may be how that long mooted future finally comes about.

Killer Robots, Giant Snakes, McCain's Necessity, Pournelle's Fallacy

Landmines are no substitute for border troops, and I suspect the same would be true of more active kinds of machines, but still I wonder what to make of this:

Increasingly autonomous, gun-totting robots developed for warfare could easily fall into the hands of terrorists and may one day unleash a robot arms race, a top expert on artificial intelligence told AFP. "They pose a threat to humanity," said University of Sheffield professor Noel Sharkey ahead of a keynote address Wednesday before Britain's Royal United Services Institute. There are more than 4,000 US military robots on the ground in Iraq, as well as unmanned aircraft that have clocked hundreds of thousands of flight hours.

The first three armed combat robots fitted with large-caliber machine guns deployed to Iraq last summer, manufactured by US arms maker Foster-Miller, proved so successful that 80 more are on order, said Sharkey.

But up to now, a human hand has always been required to push the button or pull the trigger.

It we are not careful, he said, that could change.

Joe Haldeman tried to think something like this through in Forever Peace, but not altogether successfully, I think. In order to have a story to tell, he had to make the killer robots human-piloted, and he had to think of a reason the pilots would be in danger. (Lethal Predator drones in Afghanistan are piloted now by people in the US who keep regular hours and who worry chiefly about gaining weight.) In any case, such a development is no doubt relevant to the depopulation issue. Even countries that can no longer field an infantry army might still be about to shoo away the shabbier sort of barbarian with automata.

More immediately, Professor Sharkey notes, terrorist AI robots are not at all hypothetical. And it's not just terrorism. There was another lockdown of a college yesterday, happily a false alarm. What happens when a vindictive engineering student decides to take competitive robot-building a step further?

* * *

And if that is not scary enough for you, what about the giant snakes?

( - The giant Burmese python, which can grow to more than 20 feet in length and weigh up to 250 pounds, has established a foothold in southern Florida and could spread to other warm-weather regions of the United States, posing "a health hazard for small people," scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey warned last week.

It would also be a threat to small robots, I suppose, or at least to the unarmed ones.

There is a consequence of gun control for you.

* * *

Is an Islamic Reformation imminent? So we might be forgiven for thinking after reading this report:

Turkey is preparing to publish a document that represents a revolutionary reinterpretation of Islam - and a controversial and radical modernisation of the religion.

The country's powerful Department of Religious Affairs has commissioned a team of theologians at Ankara University to carry out a fundamental revision of the Hadith, the second most sacred text in Islam after the Koran. ...But the Turkish state has come to see the Hadith as having an often negative influence on a society it is in a hurry to modernise, and believes it responsible for obscuring the original values of Islam. ...According to Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkey from Chatham House in London, Turkey is doing nothing less than recreating Islam - changing it from a religion whose rules must be obeyed, to one designed to serve the needs of people in a modern secular democracy.

He says that to achieve it, the state is fashioning a new Islam.

"This is kind of akin to the Christian Reformation," he says.

"Not exactly the same, but if you think, it's changing the theological foundations of [the] religion.

There are two generic answers to the "reformation" hypothesis.

The first is that Islam as a whole is a "reformation" of Eastern Christianity. The second is that there has already been a reformation-within-the-reformation: it's called "Wahhabism." Specifically regarding this Turkish project, though, let me suggest that it is an unusually poor analogue to the Christian Reformation of the 16th century. That was an incident in a pan-European religious revival, continuous with the late medieval devotio moderna and parallel to the Tridentine Reform. It was the opposite of an attempt to accommodate Christianity to novel historical circumstances; it was an attempt to break the spirit free of historical accretions.

Maybe that is happening in Islam today. To me, though, this looks like Unitarianism in Arabic script.

* * *

No, Senator, you may not retract that statement:

ROCKY RIVER, Ohio (AP) — John McCain says to win the White House he must convince the country that U.S. policy in Iraq is succeeding. If he can't, he says, "then I lose. I lose."

He quickly backed off that remark.

The likely Republican nominee told reporters: "Let me not put it that stark." On his campaign bus Monday, he said Americans will judge his candidacy on whether they believe he can lead the country on the economy and national security. He said, "Iraq will play a role in their judgment of my ability to handle national security."

"If I may, I'd like to retract 'I'll lose,'" he said.

John McCain should be supported in his bid for the presidency so he can make three points during the campaign:

(1) The Iraq War was necessary, even in light of later knowledge, because it is an aspect of the War on Terror;
(2) The Iraq War has been largely won;
(3) Success in the Iraq War is a platform for further initiatives.

This is his reason for running. No one will vote for him because of what he has to say about taxes or health care.

* * *

Jerry Pournelle here exemplifies the fallacy that made modern conservatism ultimately futile:

The problem is that once the scope of government is vast and sweeping, and the power of the office is enormous; once you get to where you must have vast sums to get the office, and you must win because otherwise you are ruined by your borrowing, and possibly up for prosecution for criminalized policy differences -- then you are where the Roman Republic was, and it is worth everything to win. The remedy is to go back to leaving much of the power to the States and then decentralizing that to local entities; let the Federal government carry out foreign policy and defense, which is quite difficult enough without interfering with mangers in the public squares and affordable housing in the suburbs and financing transit in the cities and -- but then since we can't defend the borders we demand that the feds do something to justify their existence.

In fact, of course, you can't "defend the borders" if you leave the education of citizens to school boards that prefer social promotion to standardized tests, or if the roads are too poor for cross-country travel, or if citizens live too close to the economic edge to trouble about public affairs. The Romans could not do that in a world where you had to walk to anyplace you wanted to go. We certainly can't do it in a world that's just a few hours wide.

In the imperial period there will no doubt be complete demobilization: too much in the long run, I think. Before that, though, one of the functions of the state is to ensure that the society it governs produces people and stuff in sufficient quality and quantity to participate in a global political system. That design criterion is quite consistent with the survival of liberty and traditional moral norms. Conservatism, when it had its chance, could have made itself useful by elaborating on how that could be done.

Copyright © 2008 by John J. Reilly

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