Friday, 9 November 2007

Robot cars fight it out in the ghost-town

There's no doubting the technical skill of this year's entrants in the US Military Robot Car Competition, but it's probably worth a little pause for thought about where this all leads.


On the plus side it suggests the possibility of some pretty advanced driver aids - maybe the cars of the future get pre-emptive collision detection, or some kind of auto-pilot that over-rides "user-error" in the supermarket car-park. A more sophisticated extension of the rudimentary automatic parking or emergency brake assist we're starting to see in top of the range Lexus's and Mercedes sounds like a good thing.

It'll also probably start removing troops from the battlefield - something that the pilotless drone planes of today are already starting to do for the airforce. This in some senses might be a good thing, but let's think out a couple of the aspects of this.

Firstly it'll remove US troops first - great for Congress fighting with TV pictures of body-bags being flown home from the dusty passes of Afghanistan. Not so good for those civilians on the ground - and there always are civilians in the mix.

Second, let's imagine that everyone else catches up. Wars fought by armies of driverless machines? More like wars fought remotely by teams of software engineers. Your war in the hands of the IT department - the geeks again inherit the earth. This time with guns.
Thirdly, the thought process behind this really belies the late twentieth century thinking here. Firstly what the hell would these things fight? The old notion of nation fighting nation seems frankly antiquated these days, more like nation fighting rag-bag group of guerilla fighters mingled in with an un-armed frightened population.

As Iraq proves it's now just not possible for a military nation to successfully occupy a modern country - the easy availability of low-cost, low-technology but highly effective counter-weapons means that although you can bomb out the traditional military infrastructure and then drive to the city-centre, you can't ever really win the war unless you've already won the minds of the entire population in advance.

And in what circumstances can this happen? The polarised geo-political reality in the world means that the US is so vastly unpopular overseas that it's just not in a position to ever do this.

So the minute you declare victory, the local youths pop down to the regional equivalent of B&Q, jump on Google - and half an hour later are planting a bomb by the side of the road.

Hence, the whole notion of fighting a "remote" war with automated machines is a sad reflection that the West, and the US in particular, still can't quite engage with the new reality of a world where you actually have to listen and engage with your perceived enemy off the battlefield if you really want to get along. An even harder pill to swallow is that the gap in ideologies we see today may not be bridgeable in the short-term, and that military intervention just widens this gap into a chasm in the vast majority of cases.
Spending mega-millions on developing techno-crap like this is paucity of thought on a grand scale.

1 comment:

Urilla said...

Good for people to know.