The Washington Post just published an expose on the U.S. Military’s experiments with autonomous killing machines.  While frightening, I’m convinced the move to autonomous war is inevitable and impossible to stop.  Rarely have humans been able to hold back science, especially military technology, though the Japanese did manage to keep the gun out of Japan for a few hundred years.

Quoting from the article: “The automated, unpiloted planes worked on their own, with no human guidance, no hand on any control.  After 20 minutes, one of the aircraft, carrying a computer that processed images from an onboard camera, zeroed in on the tarp and contacted the second plane, which flew nearby and used its own sensors to examine the colorful object. Then one of the aircraft signaled to an unmanned car on the ground so it could take a final, close-up look.

Target confirmed.

This successful exercise in autonomous robotics could presage the future of the American way of war: a day when drones hunt, identify and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans.”

It’s likely that most of the advances in robotics over the next few decades will come out of the military.  Many of the advances in autonomous vehicles have already come out of the DARPA Grand Challange that pitted unmanned cars in a 200 km race.

Unmanned marauding machines spark fear in many people.  It almost certainly foreshadows the rise of robotic soldiers and echoes the development of Terminators in the films of the same name.  I’m not sure if anyone else noticed this, but the infamous Reaper drones that make up a large swatch of the U.S. unmanned fleet are known as “hunter-killers” the same name used in the original Terminator films to describe the Skynet army’s various robotic warriors.  That’s not a coincidence, I’m sure.  But are we actually close to anything like true AI to guide these machines?  My guess is that we aren’t.

The AI industry has been around for 50 years and not made much progress towards true Turing machines.  Human intelligence has proved more inscrutable than we imagined.  We know that we think, but not why or how. We’ve had some breakthroughs, like the speech and image recognition, but nothing like true intelligence.  Of course, maybe we don’t need to have sentient machines to have robots capable of mimicking intelligence, as Watson on Jeopardy proved.  While Watson certainly gave some far left field answers, that betrayed a complete lack of deep understanding about the questions, it trounced the two smartest players in history.  Spielberg’s movie A.I. has a great bit of dialogue where we see how a machine might mimic something as complex as love.  Professor Hobby asks the female robot “what is love?”  It responds “Love is first widening my eyes a little bit and quickening my breathing a little and warming my skin and touching…”  The question is, when do you cross a line where it’s impossible to tell the difference between a mimicry and the real thing?

We already fight much of our wars remotely.  According to the New York Times, the U.S. already has over 7,000 drones, compared to the 50 we had before 9/11.  The Pentagon asked Congress for more than $5 Billion for drones last year and that’s only the money we know they asked for.  The U.S. Military is known for “black budgets” that it uses to fund secret projects.  The Wikipedia article notes that the black budget in 2009 ballooned to an estimated $50 Billion.  With our open ended adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq and now Libya, it’s probably more like $100 billion in 2011.  For the first time in history the Pentagon is planning to build more drones than real fighter craft.  That tells the whole story.  The future of war is and always has been automated, as soon as generals could dream of robots.  Other countries are scrambling to match our coveted drone capability. The next cold war is robotics.

I have to admit to having a secret love affair with military technology.  I clearly see the horrific nature of weapons and war but I’ve always loved action stories.  As an adventure and thriller writer, violence is the fuel that drives my plots.  We live in a violent world.  We always have.  It’s a part of life.  The honest truth is that while we all recoil in horror at the nightmare of war, there is something darkly seductive about war machines.  I guess that just says something about the duality of man.