Should We Be Automating Our Military?

I served as a Marine for more than a decade of my life. I am proud of my service and of the men and women who served beside me. The values instilled in me as a Marine will be with me for the rest of my life, and I truly believe in the Marine Corps mantra of “once a Marine, always a Marine”. You are changed when you serve.

Though I have a certain bias due to my military service, I am concerned over the high level of automation that has creeped into the way wars are fought in modern times. It seems logical and inevitable that technology should reduce the role of human beings in dangerous situations, and it is very hard to make an argument against this when there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the lives of our brave men and women are saved when they don’t have to go into combat at all. I would never state otherwise. However, there is a looming concern that we ignore at our peril.

Many will have a hard time agreeing with what I’m about to say, and I can truly understand why because I have a hard time agreeing with it myself: combat jobs should not be automated. I say this for one reason and one reason alone: human beings are not easily controlled. At the time of this writing, there is no technology or program or magic formula that can alter a person’s mind to the point that they will do whatever they are told without question. We are autonomous individuals with the ability to make our own moral choices. Computers have no such impediments to control.

The danger of automating our military forces is highly evident when you start thinking about what that really means. Traditionally, our military forces relied on a large standing army of many thousands of individuals, each of which had to be convinced that what they were fighting for was right. Computers, on the other hand, do not have any moral compass to follow except what their programmers choose to put inside them. They have no remorse or compassion or any of the human values that can resist the corruption of those who control them.

Knowing this, it becomes terrifying to imagine the danger inherent in putting so much power into the hands of fewer and fewer people. We have seen many times in our history how this dynamic plays out. As power consolidates and more people are left outside of it, oppression and tyranny become the norm as citizens become too afraid of the consequences of standing up against them. When you add a completely obedient military force to the equation, you have a recipe for an appalling disaster. You can’t get anything more obedient than a computer.

Many people will hear this argument and dismiss it out of hand. It sounds paranoid and too much like science fiction to think that anything like this could happen in the near future. But the reality is that it’s already here. Think about modern drone technology. They can already fly themselves and operate their own weapon systems. The only reason they really need a pilot is as a backup, and as the technology improves and becomes more reliable, those pilots won’t be necessary anymore. Orders will come from a central computer controlled by those in power that tells the drone to take off, fly to a target, and deploy it’s ordinance. Even arming, fueling, and maintenance will eventually become automated. Human beings won’t be necessary at all.

When this kind of power is put into the hands of a select few, who is safe? What is to stop these people from sending a drone over your house if they decide you’re too dangerous to live? If they can send these drones overseas to attack targets abroad, they can certainly drop those same bombs on you. And if we have no human service members with families and friends and a nation to fight for ready to step in and stop it, who will?

I’m not really sure what we can do about this nightmare scenario. Technology advances every day, and it’s only a matter of time before it reaches the point where this kind of thing could really happen. It is only through the will of the people that it can be avoided, and that can only happen if we are actually thinking about and considering scenarios like these. Much like the question of artificial intelligence, the topic of automated militaries is going to end up being one of the most hotly contested debates in human history. We just haven’t realized it yet.

What do you think about automated militaries? Do you trust the government keep you safe all on its own? Do we need a standing military of real human beings as a check against corruption of power? What can we do to stop this from happening? Do we really want to?

Our future may depend on the answers to those questions.

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