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Friday, March 13th, 2009
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Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century

by P W Singer

Going Digital

A review by Ian Shapira

The future of U.S. warfare and military intervention is upon us, and it seems to lie in getting rid of, or at least minimizing the role of, the flesh-and-blood warrior. P.W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is fascinated with warfare's evolution. Having already written Corporate Warriors, a book on military contractors, he now examines the souped-up world of military robots and related technology.

We learn about robots that defuse roadside bombs, unmanned aerial vehicles conducting strikes in Iraq but operated by Navy pilots sitting in Nevada, andnon-lethal weapons that emit sound waves so powerful that they cause enemies to defecate on themselves. In the future, we can look forward to robot-warriors that can run four-minute miles for five hours; robot-snipers that never miss; and, most alarming, in what might make readers most squeamish, robots programmed to make kill-decisions on their own.

Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century is illuminating, if only because we encounter the full array of military gizmos, their links to science fiction and history, and the debates about these machines that are playing out at the Pentagon and in hotel conference rooms. Yet the book will disappoint readers less interested in contraptions than in the soldiers who use them. The tension and anxieties wrought by this revolution deserve more attention here.

One feels ambivalent at the end of Wired for War, and that's a good thing. It's not as if the United States can afford to stop funding this kind of technological research; other countries are racing to improve their own killing machines, too. But one can't help wishing that a fraction of all the money spent on robot-making went instead to re-building infrastructures in poor or war-torn nations. By the book's end, Singer's zeal for robots seems tempered: "There is inherent sadness in the fact that war remains one of those things that humankind is especially good at....Sadly, our machines may not be the only thing wired for war."

Ian Shapira is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post Book World.

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