Here’s our second article under discussion this month, Robot Wars: US Empire and Geopolitics in the Robotic Age by Ian Shaw. This work follows on from his great book Predator Empire, which is not only a well argued piece on the technology-based containment of the globe by the US, but also includes magnificent accounts of the history of target killing amongst other things.
Here’s what we thought of his article:
This reading group has been going for almost nine months now, and in that time it’s fair to say we’ve read a fair bit on drone warfare and autonomous weapons. From all of our reading thus far, I’m not sure that this article actually says anything specifically new about the field, or indeed offers any sort of radical insight. As is typical for a piece grounded (forgive the pun) in the Geographical and Earth Sciences, the paper is awash with ‘topographies’ and ‘spaces’, and yet all of this when drone warfare has been around for quite some time. And of course, let us not forget that battlefields are constantly shifting spaces, and this is not the first shift in the ‘landscape’ of warfare, as the invention of the tank, the aeroplane and the submarine have already gone to show. In this sense then, I’m not really sure how much this paper is adding to our understanding of drones, or drone warfare – nor indeed empire and geopolitics.
The one thing I did find interesting however, in a non-TTAC21 specific context, was this notion of robots as ‘existential actors’ (455), and autonomy then as an ‘ontological condition’. Again, though I don’t think this is anything new per se, I find it interesting that now we are starting to see a shift in the language around drones, as other disciplines are slowly getting to grips with the impact of drones on our conception of space and the relationship between the human and the machine.
Mike Ryder, Lancaster University
I thought this article was interesting, and I liked to reconceptualization of various aspects of targeted killing, modern war, and robotic conflict into abstract geopolitical ideas. However, The part I found most interesting was Shaw’s use of Deleuze’s notion of the dividual, where life is signified by digital information, rather than something truly human. As Shaw himself notes, in signature strikes by remote-controlled drones, the targets are dividuals who simply fit a criteria of a terrorist pattern of life, for example. With future autonomous weapons, killing by criteria is likely to be the same, but a lethal decision-making algorithm is likely to determine all targets based on criteria, whether something simple like an individuals membership of an enemy armed forces, or working out if patterns of life qualify an individual as a terrorist. In this sense, no only do the targets become dividuals, as they are reduced to data points picked up by sensors, but also those deploying autonomous weapons become dividuals as their targeting criteria and therefore their political and military desires become algorithmic data also. It seems that one of the effects of using robotics is not only the de-humanising of potential targets, but also the de-humanising of potential users.
Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University
UPDATE: added 11th March 2019, written earlier.
I second Mike’s criticisms—the author uses a tremendous amount of verbiage to ultimately say very little. Buried beneath all the talk of human-machine teaming ‘actualiz[ing] a set of virtual potentials and polic[ing] the ontopolitical composition of worlds’ and ‘aleatory circulations of the warscape’ are three predictions about a potential future world order. First, the author suggests that swarms of autonomous military drones will make ‘mass once again…a decisive factor on the battlefield’. Secondly, they describe the co-option of the US’ global network of military bases into a planetary robotic military presence called ‘Roboworld’, which aims ‘to eradicate the tyranny of distance by contracting the surfaces of the planet under the watchful eyes of US robots’. Finally, the employment of AWS will fundamentally change the nature of the battle space as, ‘[r]ather than being directed to targets deemed a priori dangerous by humans, robots will be (co-)producers of state security and non-state terror’, issuing in an ‘age of deterritorialized, agile, and intelligent machines’.
Josh has already mentioned about the idea of people being targeted on dividual bases, but I found the above mention of ‘deterritorisalisation’, along with the phrase ‘temporary autonomous zone of slaughter’ particularly interesting, owing to the latter phrase’s anarchist pedigree. The author’s comments about the ‘ontological condition’ of robots notwithstanding, AWSes are unlikely to be considered citizens of their respective nations any time soon. As they fight one another at those nations’ behest, but without any personal stake in the outcomes, we see a form of conflict that is perhaps fundamentally not as new as it is often made out to be, but rather a modern re-incarnation of the mercenary armies of the past or, even, of some sort of gladiatorial combat.
Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University
What do you think?