By Timothy Imholt PhD
Years ago I found a copy of a (at the time) used paperback novel in the local used bookstore that made me want to be a scientist. First there are some interesting bits about that first, it was a book not an eBook, and second I was in a local bookstore not a big box store. Neither of which are common any longer.
This book was the first in a series called Warbots by a fellow Physicist named G. Harry Stine. He was also one of the fathers of what is now build at home model rocket kits. He passed away in 1997 and is missed by a wide array of different professional communities. He even was the partial influence for me becoming a physicist and somewhat the reason for me writing fiction books (something I love to do).
None of that matters to modern day politics or the problems we face as a nation.
It does help us with something. What he did in those books was to very accurately (in a way) predict drones, or what I believe the endgame desire of the drone programs to be.
He said that someday humans would be replaced on the battlefield by robots controlled by a human link (really deep mental link not just joysticks). Through these Warbots, HEAVILY armed really advanced drones countries could settle international disputes and the humans would remain safe.
In those books he showed that humans on the battlefield are needed because the robots can’t give you a really great vision of the ‘situations on the ground’ if you are fighting an insurgent war, such as we have been doing. The reason is that robots can’t give you a sense of what the people underneath all that heavily armed tonnage think and feel, at least those not involved in the battle. In other words, the civilian population.
I think what he was trying do, in an entertaining way, was to warn us about future science taking thought out of killing. Can you push a button and end a life? Sure. With the right robot…err…drone can you push a button from thousands of miles a way and end 50 lives…sure. Should you? That is the question.
Can a soldier on the ground tell for 100% certain that the person being killed, or structure being destroyed is a hostile thing? Not always, but can a drone? I think the answer is clear.
Should the drone programs exist? I think they should. Should heavily armed drones take the place of humans on the battlefield? No…
Why bring up this topic in a day when we have other issues…missing airliners, Vladimir Putin taking over Crimea, Iran doing whatever Iran is doing…well, simple.
No matter where you or I stand on the matter our military has two things going on right now. First, it is shrinking. Now if you think it should is another question but the fact remains it is getting smaller. Second, the military we have is tired. The Global War on Terror has left us with banged up equipment and servicemen who need a break. As a veteran I have talked to many who verify both of these claims. They need to rest, retrain and re-equip.
Why does this question of heavily armed drones matter?
Well, specifically everything I have said above…Russia, Iran, and the world being, in general, a dangerous place. People still want to do us harm and we want to stop them.
Now, as a scientist, if I looked at everything out there and said I have to protect a nation given the equipment we have in hand and the condition of our soldiers, I would lean HEAVILY on drones right now. Logically that is a good answer, but is it the right answer morally?
That morality question is one I struggle with. I hope, as a nation, we can get to where we can have a real dialog about it because drones aren’t going away. They will become more common but we need to determine as a people where that line gets drawn. What functions can a drone do? What functions should a drone do? Those are the questions we must answer and what your political party affiliation is should not come into the equation (sorry for the physics speak I couldn’t resist) when we do so.