Sunday, October 31, 2010

ARTificial Life Imitates ART

Review by Bill Doughty

Wired For War is P.W. Singer’s big wave-catching guidebook to the tsunami of change, subtitled as The Robotic Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. Part history, part current state of the art, and all philosophy, his book balances ancient storytelling, futuristic thinking and current ethics.

Are we on the verge of a Singularity, a revolution in military affairs (not to mention social/human reality) not seen since the discovery of gunpowder or invention of the steam engine?What will refinement of robots and nanotechnology mean for our military and society in decades ahead?

Nearly five centuries ago, an emperor of the Incan Empire, Atahuallpa, confronted Pizarro and Spanish Conquistadors in what is now Peru -- the first encounter with swords, armor and cavalry. It was, “a powerful example of just how shocking and powerful new weapons of war can be.”

Sir Winston Churchill, featured in our previous blog post, discussed the paradigm shift of new technology. He saw Edison’s and Tesla’s inventions applied to warfare and predicted the future widespread use of drones.

Singer leads Chapter 2 with this quote from Sir Winston: “The further backward you look, the further forward you can see.”

Churchill, who embraced the advent of aviation in warfare, would no doubt appreciate the evolution of asymmetrical warfare, UAVs and development of the Predator, Raven, PackBot, Ro-Bart, Wasp, REMUS, Zeus, Robo-Lobster, Cormorant, as well as other systems and machines explained by Singer in Wired For War.

Other people, however, find it hard to predict, let alone come to terms with, fundamental shifts in technology.
That’s not new.

Singer reminds us what the New York Times said 107 years ago this month, on Oct. 9, 1903, inaccurately predicting human flight:

“The flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years.”

That same day the Wright Brothers, owners of a bicycle shop in Ohio, began assembling their first airplane -- just seven years before the beginning of the Centennial of Naval Aviation.

Singer shows how the “Dennymite” became the first unmanned plane in history immediately after the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Its inventor, Reginald Denny, provided work for Norma Jeane Dougherty -- the future Marilyn Monroe -- who was discovered at a factory where she worked spraying Denny’s drones with fire retardant.

In WWII, John F. Kennedy famously served in the Navy. His older brother, Joseph Jr., was a Navy pilot who served in Great Britain, part of a secret pilot-and-remote-control program called Operation Aphrodite. He was killed in 1944 while flying in support of a drone mission against Germany.

Singer tells us about the important role of Navy mathematician “Amazing” Grace Hopper, who was part of a team that developed COBOL so computers could communicate. USS Hopper is named in Rear Adm. Hopper’s honor.

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Gary Roughead visits with Sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke-class Destroyer USS Hopper (DDG 70) at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on June 9, 2010. Roughead is at the base to participate in the 2010 Japan-U.S. Junior Officers Symposium. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tiffini Jones Vanderwyst.
From ancient mythology, Talos is a mechanical statue who served the Greek and Roman god of metalworks. It’s also the name used by an early Apple Computer operating system and the first computer-guided missiles on U.S. Navy Ships.

Modern “mythology” continues to inspire scientists.

Singer shows how much science fiction has predicted where we’ve come and where we’re going.

He gives a nod to former CNO, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ADM Mike Mullen and the Navy’s Professional Reading Program, which includes SF titles by Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers) and Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game). [Wired For War has been included in the supplemental reading list and was recommended by Capt. John Jackson, “father” of NPRP, in his interview with Navy Reads.]

Singer credits Arthur C. Clarke with “one of the most militarily instructive stories on the dangers of being seduced by possibilities of new technology” -- Superiority.

He cites Isaac Asimov, Brian Aldiss, Joe Haldeman, William Gibson, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and provides dozens of other sources as examples to explain how life imitates art and vice versa.

The unpredictability and uncertainty of war and unintended consequences of conflict are explored with insights from analyst Richard Clarke.

The same analyst who tried to warn against an invasion of Iraq warns about “a real digital divide” between haves and have-nots, educated and uneducated. Clarke recognizes, Singer says, that fear (including fear of change) is extremely powerful and can drive people toward violence, especially when religion is part of a volatile mix.

Nevertheless, change is not only here, it’s accelerating.

Singer gives an insightful quote from Gen. Eric Shinseki, about the constancy and inevitability of change: “If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.”

How will new forms of remote-control or robotic warfare affect the human psyche?

“The courage of a warrior ... is about victory over fear. It is not about the absence of fear,” Singer says, contending, “By removing warriors completely from risk and fear, unmanned systems create the first complete break in the ancient connection that defines warriors and their soldierly values.”

Can understanding and managing change -- like managing and controlling fear -- be part of human “wiring”?

Wired For War, with an obvious pipeline to the Pentagon, is packed with research -- but without jargon -- and backed with copious notes, explanations and examples from literature and popular culture.

Here’s just a partial list (in no particular order) of producers, authors, book titles, movies and games Singer shares:

Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, James Cameron, Mel Gibson, Stephen King, Bertrand Russell, Tom Clancy, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dan Brown, Michael Crichton, S.M. Stirling, Stephen E. Ambrose, Immanuel Kant, Charles Darwin, Ray Bradbury, Albert Einstein, George Orwell, Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Donne, Greg Bear, J. R. Rowling, Frank Herbert, Descartes, Jack London, Marvin Minsky, L. Sprague de Camp, Alien and Aliens, AI, Minority Report, Robocop, Metropolis, Terminator 2, Star Wars, Star Trek, Braveheart, Lost in Space, Matrix, Manchurian Candidate, Twilight Zone, Dr. Who, Battlestar Gallactica, Lord of the Rings, The Last Samurai, Metal Gear, Halo, Medal of Honor, Madden Football, Pixar and Japanese manga.


Anonymous said...

Interesting! A must read!

- Jack said...

I once Tweeted: the depth of our reflection determines the depth of our perception. I suppose I was channeling my inner Churchill.