Coming to a Military Near You: Robots, Drones and Artificial Intelligence

Paul Scharre, director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

On Sept. 26, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was on duty in bunker Serpukhov-15 outside Moscow when sirens began blaring and a red backlit screen flashed a warning. The Soviet Union’s new Oko satellite-early warning system had detected what appeared to be an intercontinental ballistic missile launch from the United States. Then another. Then three more. It appeared that the Soviet Union was under nuclear attack. But Petrov was uncertain. A surprise attack by only five ICBMs made no sense. He called ground-based radar operators for confirmation. The ground radars detected nothing. Going with his gut, Petrov concluded that the new system had malfunctioned. He now didn’t launch a counter strike.

As it turned out, Petrov was right. Sunlight reflecting off cloud tops had triggered a false alarm. Thanks to one man’s intuition, nuclear war was averted, said Paul Scharre, author of “Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War,” in a speech at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal church last night.

What would a machine have done in his place, Scharre asked. It would have done whatever it was programmed to do — even if it meant the destruction of the world.

Robots enhanced by artificial intelligence are coming on fast. We can see the technology in driverless cars, in the algorithms that drive stock market trading, and in weapons deployed by armed forces around the world. Some 16 countries now have armed drones. The Islamic State has weaponized machines that cost $300 retail. On a grander scale, the United States recently launched its first robotic submarine killer, which at $30 million a pop are a lot cheaper to build and operate than $2 billion destroyers.

There doesn’t seem to be any halting the rush toward using robots and AI to enhance our military, said Scharre. In the long run, they’re cheaper. Robots don’t need health care, they don’t ask for pensions, and their morale doesn’t suffer from continual overseas deployments. Also in war, as in finance, speed is crucial. Machines working on a faster decision-making curve will beat slower machines — and humans.

Computers can pound grand masters at chess and even beat humans at the infinitely more complex game of Go. Designers know how to program robots to abide by strict rules so they always obey the law. That’s great when situations are clear and predictable. But no one has figured out how to imbue technology with the kind of intuition that Stanislav Petrov displayed when he questioned the Oko system, Scharre said. No one has figured out how to imbue robots with the ability to make moral decisions in situations of conflict and ambiguity.

These moral issues are of more than remote interest to Virginians. Elected representatives such as U.S. Senator Mark Warner and former Governor Terry McAuliffe are enthusiastic proponents of developing autonomous vehicles and drones as an economic development strategy. The Old Dominion also is home to armed forces that will deploy AI-enhanced technologies — and home to some of the tech companies that write the code for Artificial Intelligence.

Despite misgivings, the U.S. has little choice but to pursue the technologies behind autonomous vehicles and weapons systems. Other countries are working on them, Scharre warns. China aspires to becoming the world leader in AI. If we fall behind in the race, we risk losing our military primacy.

Preserving the global balance of power, averting nuclear catastrophe, and probing the existential angst of robots are fine and dandy, but what about us? I mean, what’s the impact on Virginia? I asked Scharre, who resides in Northern Virginia, what an “Army of None” would mean for the military presence in the Old Dominion.

It turns out that “Army of None” makes a clever title for a book but is a bit of a misnomer. If there’s one thing that the U.S. Army and the Marines have learned from their long campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s that they need manpower to fight insurgencies. While technology can make American soldiers more effective, they can’t substitute for boots on the ground.

Conversely, Scharre said, the Navy and Air Force are the branches of the armed services that have the most to gain from automation. The Navy doesn’t care how many men and women it takes to run a warship. Actually, the fewer the better — highly automated vessels mean less payroll, less pension cost, less deployment fatigue and more money for new weapons systems. By this logic, if the Navy aggressively adopts autonomous systems, the long-run outlook could be a much smaller (though higher tech) Navy payroll in Hampton Roads.

How about the tooth-to-tail ratio? The U.S. Defense Department famously has as many civilian employees today as combatants, the consequence of massive bureaucratization. Is there any hope, I asked, of replacing administrative drones with AI-enhanced drones? Scharre was noncommittal. It might be possible to use AI to improve the efficiency of business processes, just as it is in the private sector, he suggested. But don’t look for a massive displacement of excess admirals and generals, much less a wholesale riffing of mid-level functionaries.

Robots, it seems, do not yet constitute a constituency that can lobby for the advancement and preservation of their interests. Career employees in Northern Virginia’s defense bureaucracy are safe for now.

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4 responses to “Coming to a Military Near You: Robots, Drones and Artificial Intelligence”

  1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov should be awarded an All Time Nobel Peace Prize. He should be celebrated. A world wide international day of remembrance should should be declared in remembrance and thanksgiving for the life of this Russian Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov.

    Instead, in this new Dark Age of ignorance. he is largely forgotten.

    This forgetting and inattention to noble acts that preserved our survival, the greatest gift imaginable by one man, is a sign of the onrushing death of humanity everywhere, including in war, the illusion that artificial intelligence will save civilization and suffering in war.

    We are broaching the tipping point. Our rush to destroy history soon will end it altogether.

    Examples are everywhere. Robert E. Lee, watching the carnage of Union soldiers at Frederickurg said: “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” Now we work hard, feverishly so, and with hated and ignorance run amuck, to remove the last obstacles to our annihilation, including Lee.

    So, that horrible process is not only rushing us into AI computer operated and commanded war machines of unimaginable lethally, it also includes our ongoing destruction of the study of the humanities within our universities. This will prove equally lethal, destroying us all.

    These ongoing crimes of against humanity, for example, includes our erasing the memory of great men struggling to do the right thing amid the awful and evil forces loose within the world. Among the greatest of those men in history was Robert E. Lee. His erasure from history (along with others like him) by today’s ignoramuses and ideologues and their “sciences” are now driving us at warp speed into Apocalypse.

    This final ending will come as a great surprise to many of us who are ignorant of our history and the humanities lost within us, those things that are critically necessary if we are to preserve and control our chances for a decent future. The evidence of Apocalypse is everywhere now. See Wikipedia’s Apocalypse. We’ve nearly driven it out of our vocabulary. This assures its chances of destroying us. Its the key ingredient to evil, the devil’s work, and its success.

  2. Andrew Roesell Avatar
    Andrew Roesell

    Dear Jim,

    What is interesting is the way in which our civilization, for lack of a better word, perhaps “high tech barbarism”? lives by deterministic ideologies. Human freedom, that is free agency is passe, and we are all “forced” to do things which we know are detrimental to our own best interests and happiness. It is a kind of “prisoner’s dilemma” where we must do these things “before the other guy does.” Not saying that we should slight our military, only that we are as much, or more? slaves of our machines and technology as we are “liberated” by them.

    In terms of Reed’s point about the loss of the humanities and heroes and the tragedy that that represents, we, some of us at least, must become, ourselves, bearers of tradition, and in order to do that we must first learn our own tradition, for many of us have been separated from it. Otherwise we will be just flotsam and jetsam living only in the moment and driven only by desires for ever more power, wealth, mobility, and fleeting pleasure before we are summoned out of this world and into judgment. Such an existence becomes Shakespeare’s “tale told by an idiot,” etc whose sequel is everlasting separation from the Life.



  3. djrippert Avatar


    As you know, on June 30 I’ll be retiring from the technology industry where I have worked for the past 38 years. Until then, I will continue to resist the temptation to comment on the short and medium term impacts of rapidly advancing technology on all aspects of society. Anything else would be disrespectful of my current employer.

    However, June 30 is 28 days from now. So, I’ll venture out with three statements I believe I can (and will) defend:

    1. Orwell was an optimist.
    2. Every adult in the United States should read or re-read Brave New World.
    3. Marx, in the long run, was right.

  4. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    That’s great news for Bacon’s Rebellion. Looking forward to your keen well earned prognostications. Likely we’re in for a wild ride.

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