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2/13/2009
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When Robots Attack: A Look At 21st Century Warriors

P.W. Singer, author of the new book Wired For War, is concerned about how battlefield robots are changing IT perspectives.

P.W. Singer says he hears the Terminator references a lot.

Singer, author of a book about robots being used in wars in real life, on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, says he's often asked whether the robots will rise up to exterminate us.

His response: Maybe. At some point in the future. But between now and then, there's a whole forest of moral, legal, and political issues that we'll need to navigate, and many of those are problems, not in some distant future, but today and in the here and now.

Singer tackles those problems in his new book, Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution And Conflict In The 21st Century. Singer, a senior fellow and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, previously wrote the book Corporate Warriors: The Rise Of The Privatized Military Industry, which looked at private companies providing military services for hire. That book was published in 2003, before the use of those companies becoming an issue in Iraq. Following that book, he wrote Children At War, about children's armies. Singer served as coordinator of the Obama 2008 campaign's defense policy task force.

Robots are proliferating on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, Singer said in a phone interview with InformationWeek.

"I think the extent of it would catch people by surprise," he said.

Unmanned drone air systems went from just a handful when he turned in his manuscript in mid-2008 to 5,300 six months later, to 7,000 today. On the ground, the military now has 12,000 robots deployed tactically.

The robots are currently in use primarily for reconnaissance and defensive purposes -- for example, to disable explosive devices or to fly above a battlefield and relay information to ground-based observers. However, they're also starting to be used to fight back against enemies, and scientists are working on robots capable of delivering greater and greater lethal force.

"These are just the first generation, the Model T Fords," he said. "The sort of things we only talked about in science fiction conventions really need to be talked about in the real world."

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