This well-researched, highly readable and highly disturbing book is essential reading for anyone who has watched with increasing concern the rise of robotic warfare in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. An absorbing account of the range of technological, political and socio-cultural factors that have converged to stimulate a “paradigm shift” in the nature of warfare over the last two decades – a shift which underlies the rapidly escalating dominance of armed drones in combat – it is also a valuable outline of some of the problems that this new reality threatens, just one example being the insidious ease with which the slide towards complete robotic autonomy could occur.
Singer, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, former Pentagon employee and consultant to US departments of defence and state, is without doubt a military insider. Indeed, his opening chapter outlines his own family’s military credentials.
Yet, despite Singer’s military pedigree, he is, within relatively constrained boundaries, a thoughtful individual, concerned by the silence in military and scientific circles when questions of negative unintended consequences are raised. He is also keen to highlight that the time is fast approaching when it will be too late to put the genie of autonomous weapons back in the bottle and this may be one of the book’s most useful contributions, intended or not, in that it provides a way of framing the debate about drones in terms that mainstream as well as radical activists cannot ignore.
Additionally, the insider access and interviews Singer draws on provide a fascinating and useful insight into the thinking and forward projections of the military planners, the geek robot scientists and the sci-fi authors turned Pentagon advisors who form the nexus of this new wave of warfare, as well as the strange interrelationships between them.
Singer’s own fascination with his topic, “because robots are freakin’ cool”, interestingly reveals the psyche of the IT geeks in the driving seat but is likely to chafe on the nerves of peace activists, as it seems to be accompanied by a failure to press the ethical questions raised far enough. Despite this, the book is packed full of recent historical and technical detail and is well worth reading as a way to ground current political action in a broad analysis that appreciates the wide range of forces pushing for robot dominated warfare as the way of the future.