Robot revolution hits Louisville [IdeaFestival]

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Peter W. Singer spoke at Idea Festival in support of his book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century and announced that we are in the middle of a robot revolution. 

"This isn't something that will happen in the future," he said. "This is happening now...what was once discussion saved for Sci-Fi conventions is now legitimate concern at the Pentagon."

Singer  also said that every type of plane currently in research and development is unmanned, that over 400 US soldiers have returned to combat with robotic limbs and mentioned a laser eye surgery that allowed the patient to see 400 yards at night.  Pictures of many types of robots were projected on large screens as he spoke. Some robots looked like military probes  or androids like in the movie I-Robot; some looked like butterflies; others were compared to the Phaser guns in Star Trek and  the ATST in Star Wars. He said that there will soon be tens of thousands of robots in use instead of the thousands  today. The robots of the future will be much more powerful, as the computing power of technology doubles about every 18 months. At this rate, it will only take 25 years for our computers, robots and technology to be 1 Billion times more powerful than today.

He began the seminar by telling the story of a soldier that got blown to bits after happening upon a bomb that looks like a piece of garbage.The condolence letter written included the line "At least when a robot dies, you don't have to write a letter to his mother".  The soldier who took the blow was a packbot - a robot that is in common use now and was created by the same company who created the Roomba unmanned vacuum.  Using robots may seem to have legitimate value but  Singer says there is a whole new world of questions to be asked and dangers to be aware of. The ripple effects technology has on life may pose bigger problems  than the robots themselves.

"It's like a genie we can't put back in a bottle."

One of the most interesting changes brought on by robotics is the way it is leveling the playing field.  Singer said that there is no such thing as a permanent "first mover" advantage.  There will be no more "big boys" running things in the technology field.  Singer told stories of a blind man who built a drone (unmanned aircraft) that flew itself across the Atlantic Ocean. The editor of Wired magazine spent $1,000 and built the same type of drone being used overseas. College students raised $1 million with a battle of the bands contest and used the money to rent drones from a private military company.   Since there are other countries and citizens with these drones, it opens up concern for seeing them over our own skies.  Singer also alluded to the USA falling behind the other 44 countries developing robotics because the USA produced less engineering and technology based graduates last year than it did it 1986

"Don't worry, though," he told the audience. "There was a 500% increase in fitness and leisure activities majors."

There are also dangers with software glitches and robots going "squirrely".  One software glitch caused a robot to spin around and open fire, killing 9 soldiers. Singer also brought up concerns about robotics and terrorism crossing. Since the drones and robots are controlled through computers, there is always a concern for hackers.

A plethora of ethical questions also arise when there is less danger to humans.  The conflict going on in Pakistan is five times the size of the Kosovo war but isn't called a war because most of the operations are unmanned. Most of the unmanned robots have video capabilities whose footage sometimes ends up online, leading to war becoming a form of entertainment known as "war porn" with videos of graphic war events set to music and edited by people thousands of miles away. A man can go to work and "go to war" for eight hours at the office by computer and then return home to his family for dinner. Singer said it is interesting that many of these type of soldiers show more signs of stress and combat fatigue than soldiers who are physcially in combat overseas. 

"Our creativity is what sets us apart from other species. We created fire and other technologies. We created art and literature to express our love for each other. We may now be creating another species, but it's still out of our human need to discover how to better destroy one another."

This is the same speech given at Idea Festival.

Photo: Courtesy Brookings Institute
About Jessica Lynn
Jessica Lynn has been writing for Louisville.com since fall of 2010 and has also been published in LEO, Velocity, Voice-Tribune and others after serving as Editor in Chief of The JCC student newspaper, The Quadrangle. She has also served as columnist or contributing writer to an array of online publications.
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