Friday, 6 December 2019

By Paul Scharre W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 448, R1549.00
The book’s cover has appreciative lines by Bill Gates, who–as the cliché goes—needs no introduction, and Lawrence Freedman, who may need an introduction only for those from fields other than strategic studies, being the doyen of the field. Since Gates knows technology and Freedman focuses on war, their recommendation places the book on the frontline of technology and war.
It is no wonder that at the time of writing of this review, the headlines have it that the army’s Jaipur-based South Western Command is organizing a seminar at Hisar to get to grips with Artificial Intelligence and military operations. The media reports the seminar organizers modestly acknowledging that though the military has taken note of the advances abroad, including China, it is never too late to catch up. Clearly, here is the book to help them tank up.
Even so, a headline alongside says that India is going in for another 1000 plus armoured personnel carriers. This underlines a well-known trait in most militaries—apparently more pronounced in the Indian one—that it is easier to get a new idea into its head than to get an older one out. So long as the three services are busy throwing governmental largesse—set at $130 billion over the coming ten years—on platforms such as fighters, ships and tanks, it is unlikely India will ‘catch up’ this decade. From what Scharre informs through his 446-page book, it would be too late.
Paul Scharre is a good guide into an esoteric subject since he makes intelligible a formidable array of technologies that go into the making of autonomous weapons—weapons he describes as not having a human in the loop for their firing. The science he covers would interest sci-fi aficionados. The book itself is meant for practitioners, though it is written in a style that would attract armchair strategists too. It is meant for those into defence technology, specifically defence scientists and the fledgling defence industry.It needs being read by those working on national security policy to challenge the military’s laundry list of twentieth-century hardware. The book must be made compulsory reading at the military academies and staff colleges, perhaps figuring on the next update to the ‘Golden 100’— an army headquarters compiled list of ‘must read’, ‘should read’ and ‘could read’ tomes. One way to focus young military minds on its contents is to make it part of promotion and competitive exam syllabi.
An additional target audience of the book is the think tank community. Though the military glossies have been a dime-a-dozen for over a decade now, there is little cutting edge content. Technology has ample coverage, since the arms industry is out for a piece of the defence budgetary cake. However, missing is deep-end thinking presented by Scharre such as on the ethics of such weaponization. One doubts there is an equivalent project at any of the plethora of Delhi’s think tanks to the one Scharre tenants at Washington’s independent and bipartisan Center for a New American Security: its Ethical Autonomy project.
This is a step further than merely the technology or the operational usage of the weapon. It is engagement with the ethics of and ethical use of such weapons when fielded. The current state of the art is semi-autonomous weapons, requiring human sign off on targeting. Apparently, only the Israeli Harpy drone has so far crossed the line into being autonomous. Armed drones have over a dozen states in pursuit of the technology. That there is much for ethicists here while the technologists are still at it is evident from the recent killings by a semi-autonomous drone strike of 30 Afghan civilians out nut picking on a Hindu Kush hillside. If and since things can go wrong even with a human in the loop, what more can go awry when the human is at best with a kill-switch? On this count some 3000 robotics experts have already called for a blanket ban on autonomous weapons.
This is the key area Scharre engages with. He takes his time building up to the climax, traversing the technology and its operational use, before getting to in Part VI on whether and how strategy and ethics informs policy choices. The take away is that a weapon ban is wishful and fielding of such weapons is inevitable. Consequently, engaging with how these would relate to international humanitarian law is necessary in the here and now. The international community is taking its usual leisurely course at the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons meetings, even as developments overtake speeches made. In early 2018, there was a drone attack by Syrian rebels on a Syrian air base that also housed Russians, with Russians shooting down the intruding drones. By late 2019, ten drones targeted Saudi Arabia’s premier oil facilities temporarily putting a proportion of its oil production out of action and setting the region closer to a war between regional rivals, the Saudis and Iran.
The book is therefore an important one, with its significance likely to be remarked on more in retrospect some twenty years on. Scharre has wrapped up some ten years of work into its covers, beginning with methodically and readably outlining the technology: robotics, artificial intelligence, neural networks, cyberspace, bots etc. In the later parts, ‘The Fight to Ban Autonomous Weapons’ and ‘Averting Armageddon’, he comes to the meat. Thus the first three quarters of the book would interest the tech savvy, while the last two parts can be expected to detain policy wonks and academics. This ‘something in it for every-one’ aspect of the book comes from his background: an infantryman having served in both of America’s wars this century: Iraq and Afghanistan; and later as the director of the technology and national security programmme at his think tank. This review cannot but in closing reiterate Scharre’s sobering words:
‘No piece of paper can prevent a state from building autonomous weapons if they desire it. At the same time, a pell-mell race forward in autonomy, with no clear sense of where it leads us, benefits no one. States must come together to develop an understanding of which uses of autonomy are appropriate and which go too far and surrender human judgment where it is needed in war. Weighing these human values is a debate that requires all members of society, not just academics, lawyers, and military professionals. Average citizens are needed too, because ultimately autonomous military robots will live—and fight—in our world.’