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Today’s book reduced A Superfluous Man to monosyllabic grunts of admiration and awe–something akin to Keanu Reeves’ character in The Matrix.

There is something so very menacing and unnatural about an airplane without windows, no?

Title: Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, by P.W. Singer

Motivation: Manifest “coolness” of a book about using robots to kill enemies was difficult to resist. Also, a superb 2009 article by the author on the use of unmanned weapons systems in the War on Terror.

Completed: April 22, 2012 (#29)

Recommendation: For Clancy aficionados, a must. For others, just study the New York Times for White House leaks…


Global Hawk can stay in the air up to thirty-five hours. Powered by a turbofan engine that takes it to sixty-five thousand feet, the stealthy Global Hawk carries synthetic-aperture radar, infrared sensors, and electro-optical cameras. Working in combination, these sensors can do a wide-area search to look at an entire region, or focus in on a single target using the ‘high-resolution spot mode.’ The link of the sensors with the long flight time means that the drone can fly some three thousand miles, spend twenty-four hours mapping out a target area of some three thousand square miles, and then fly three thousand miles back home. In other words, Global Hawk can fly from San Francisco, spend a day hunting for any terrorists in the entire state of Maine, and then fly back to the West Coast.


One way to pack in more control and information is to tap as many of our other senses as possible. The Pentagon is pursuing ‘haptics,’ technologies that use the body’s sense of touch as another portal for interfacing, akin to how the blind read Braille or people set their cell phones on vibrate. Given the different ways that our senses of feel and touch work, haptics multiply the amount of information our bodies can take in. The new controller programs range from the simple, such as buzzers that would let a soldier know there is danger in a certain direction, to variant thermal and pressure switches that might be placed on everything from biceps to toes. For example, instead of having to look down to check if ammunition is running low, a soldier might get a quick pinch on their bicep when ten rounds are left in the gun. Or if a squadmate is wounded, a patch on their back might go ice cold.


Much as Internet connections have gone wireless, so might the implanted brain chips one day. This development will give soldiers in the field access to all sorts of new capabilities beyond just controlling their robots by thought. For example, when I couldn’t remember who starred in Firefox, I punched in a search on my desktop computer’s Internet browser. Imagine instead being able to do such searches inside our heads. One researcher explains that the ability to directly connect to the Internet ‘is going to be my mental prosthesis. Everything I want to know, I can look up. Everything I can forget, I can find. I’m going to get old, but it won’t matter. I won’t have to remember anything.’

Are you kidding?

The LRAD actually made its first combat debut not with the military but on a vacation cruise ship. In 2005, one of the Seaborne line’s luxury ships was attacked off Somalia by pirates armed with machine guns and rockets. Instead of fighting them off with shuffleboard sticks, the crew used LRAD sonic blasters to chase them away. There are also smaller, handheld acoustic weapons that can send out ‘sonic bullets.’ These bursts of sound last but a few seconds, but are so powerful (150 decibels, the equivalent of standing in front of a jet engine or guitar speaker set at ’11’) that they can literally knock people off their feet.

Pain rays!

The final category of nonlethal weapons targeted for robot use is those that emit various forms of directed energy. One already tested out in Iraq is the Active Denial System. Sometimes called the ‘pain ray,’ the system shoots out waves like those used to heat up frozen pizza in a microwave oven. The rays, which have a range of over five football fields, penetrate the top sixty-fourth layer of skin (even if you are wearing clothes over the skin) and heat up the water inside. The ray doesn’t permanently hurt the person, or even cause a sunburn. But the sensation is excruciating, enough to make test subjects feel like their skin was catching on fire. If the ray is turned off, or the person moves out of its focus, the pain instantly ends.


Just before nine in the morning on October 12, 2007, the 10th Anti-Aircraft Regiment began its role in the South African military’s annual Seboka training exercise. The operation involved some five-thousand troops from seventeen other units, so the pressure was on to get everything right. But the unit’s automated MK5 antiaircraft system, sporting two 35mm cannons linked up to a computer, appeared to jam. As a follow-up report recounts, this apparently ’caused a ‘runaway.’’ The description of what happened next is chilling. ‘There was nowhere to hide. The rogue gun began firing wildly, spraying high-explosive shells at a rate of 550 a minute, swinging around through 360 degrees like a high-pressure hose.’ The young female officer in charge rushed forward to try to shut down the robotic gun, but, continues the report, ‘she couldn’t, because the computer gremlin had taken over.’ The automated gun shot her and she collapsed to the ground. The gun’s auto-loading magazines held five hundred high-explosive rounds. By the time they were emptied, nine soldiers were dead (including the officer) and fourteen seriously injured, all because of what was later called a ‘software glitch.’


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. If you are sitting at a computer’s controls, with no real danger other than carpal tunnel syndrome, your experience of war is not merely distanced from risk, as with previous technologies, but now fully disconnected from it. And thus these new warriors are disconnected from the old meanings of courage as well. As one described his experience in the Iraq war, fought from a cubicle in Qatar, ‘It’s like a video game. It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s &*$#ing cool.’

Mr. Singer thoughtfully and delicately addresses a number of the ethical questions provoked by the present ascendancy of drone combat, but the main attraction of this book is his boyish joy in introducing readers to these cutting edge technologies. Strongly recommended–understanding these issues is every citizen’s duty.