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Human Visions of Non-human Future War?

How advances in digital and robotic technology are creating a new non-human notion of conflict and how such conflict could be perpetual.

Predicting the future (of conflict) might be indeed a thankless task but predicting a future (of conflict) in which humans no have a role at battlefield any more might be even more thankless: With no soldiers present, it will solely be up to robotic systems to report if the generals were for once right. And although robotics have advanced significantly in the last decades, a robot with an emotional AI able to report from the battlefield is still light years away. However, as thankless such a task might be it is increasingly becoming an essential one. The Digital and Robotic Revolution in Military Affairs (DRRMA), which has emerged over the last decades, is increasingly creating a new notion of conflict (Singer 2013). In this new notion of conflict the human role will be increasingly reduced and taken over by digital and robotic systems. Indeed, the first case this modus operandi of conflict has emerged already:: Drone strike campaigns. In this, robotic systems – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or as they are more popularly known, drones – are fighting a new way of war. One that been taking place for 13 years already, has resulted in thousands of causalities, yet has no visible front, no frontline reporting and no soldiers describing their front line experiences – an abstract, remote, faceless and invisible war. A war difficult to envision, yet all the more likely to occur more often in the future as the DRRMA has in the recent years become a global affair, with now over 78 nations developing or having unmanned capabilities. In addition, the DRRMA seems to be moving away from rudimentary unmanned systems and increasingly into highly automated and autonomous systems (Work and Brimley 2014). Both developments are making it increasingly likely that the future vision of war will be one in which humans solely will take the decision “to take up arms” and go to conflict, with unmanned, robotic systems literally taking up the arms and fighting the wars for humans.

Such wars raise fundamental questions about the future political nature of conflict and war. Throughout the history of conflict and war the human factor and cost have been an important, if not decisive factors in questions on the necessity, utility and benefit of starting, continuing and ending wars. However, future unmanned, non-human wars would not, or only to a limited degree face questions about their cost. This raises the question of what will happen with war, if it becomes such a “low cost” affair. If conflict becomes so easy to conduct – due to its limited costs – will the world move gradually to a continuous state of war? Wars far away from the public’s interest, experience and vision? Could this lead to a reversion of Kant’s peace theory? Should we imagine a future, in which the world is embroiled in a perpetual state of war, made possible by digital and robotic machines?

The lecture seeks to understand and aims to predict to which extent future visions of war will be robotic, and what it will mean for war itself. It seeks to analyze this by answering two main questions. First, how likely is the above-described scenario of digital and robotic conflict? Secondly, what would be the political implications of such a state of conflict? In this the paper seeks to build further on the author’s doctoral thesis, which focuses on the DRRMA and the future of conflict.

Tobias Burgers is a doctoral candidate, Otto Suhr Institute, Free University Berlin, formerly at the Center for Security Studies, NCCU, Taiwan and currently a visiting fellow at the Keio Global Research Institute, Keio University, Japan