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Review: P.W. Singer's 'Wired for War' is a sobering look at robotics juggernaut

The premise of this sobering, entertaining book is that war, not necessity, is the mother of invention. Whether that makes a continual state of war the key driver of creativity is the unsettling question P.W. Singer raises in Wired for War. He suggests that nurturing creativity in peacetime might be a pipe dream, at least unless the prevailing mind-set changes.

Such issues are among many Singer raises in a book subtitled The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. It's dense and not that elegantly written, but it's important, and Singer warms it with anecdotes frightening, funny and both. It should be required reading for the Obama administration, particularly at the Departments of State and Defense.

The focus of Wired is the merging of man and machine signaled by robotics. Packbot and Talon UAVs (unmanned armed vehicles) clear the way for human soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan; unmanned Predator drones bomb sites there. Meanwhile, controllers in Nevada run the show, navigating distant terrain as if it were a video game.

The increasing deployment of robotics, and the synergy between their military and peacetime use, signals a paradigm shift so profound it alters how humans think of intelligence and even of themselves.

Hitch this to the notion of singularity, in which robots are poised to outpace humans in intelligence, and the very primacy of the human race comes into question. For now, this prospect remains the province of futurists and science fiction writers. But Singer suggests that advances in robotics are bringing singularity near quickly.

The technologizing of war through robotics, fueled by the rub that unmanned battle saves lives even as it burns research dollars, seems unstoppable. True, it also drives progress in fields spanning from medicine to housekeeping (witness the Roomba). If only it could shift and be confined to the latter.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer in Cleveland.

for War

By P.W. Singer

Penguin, 499 pages, $29.95

Review: P.W. Singer's 'Wired for War' is a sobering look at robotics juggernaut 07/17/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 17, 2009 2:18pm]
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