Four Burning Questions for P.W. Singer, Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative

Posted on Monday, November 19, 2012

Peter W. SingerBy Theodora Tsentas

Peter Warren Singer is the Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century; Children at War; and Corporate Warrior: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. As the youngest scholar to be named senior fellow in Brooking’s history, he has also found his way onto Foreign Policy Magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers list, the Smithsonian Institution’s list of 100 “leading innovators in the nation,” and CNN’s “New Guard” list of the next generation of newsmakers. Singer has acted as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense and the FBI, and as adviser to a host of entertainment programs – most recently for the forthcoming sequel to the popular Call of Duty games, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.

On Thursday, Nov. 29 (6 p.m), Singer will deliver the 2012 Media@McGill Beaverbrook Annual Lecture entitled, “Wired for War: Everything You Wanted to Know about Robots and War but Were Afraid to Ask,” in Room 100 of the Faculty of Law’s Moot Court (3660 Peel St.) . The lecture is free and open to the public. For more information go here.

The past decade has seen a rise in the development and use of military robotics, especially in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the application of Moore’s Law, which asserts that technological innovation is driven by exponential growth, it is easy to view this expansion in robotics as mirroring the start of the boom the computer industry experienced in the seventies. How do you envision the not-too-distant future of the 21st –century battlefield in the way in which war is embarked on and fought?

I see it as a mix of the new and the old. We are seeing a host of new technologies, and akin to computers, I think we will see a shrinking and proliferation of robotics, not just in war, but also on the civilian side. But, in other ways war will stay the same. Humans aren’t going to disappear from war, nor is war going to be “clean” or “surgical” as some would have it.

Earlier this year it was revealed that the U.S. government, under President Barack Obama, had developed and used cyberweapons in Iran and Afghanistan, in an attempt to overpower Iran’s nuclear facilities and Afghanistan’s Taliban on a digital level. Though the U.S. government has admitted to developing such weapons, their use still depends largely on speculation. As the Director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, do you view cyberwarfare as an existing critical issue for global defense and security policy?

It is an issue of growing importance. Historically, it’s akin to how humans once only fought on top of the land and sea. And then at the turn of the last century, technologies emerged that could take us into the air and into the sea. Now they are taking us into a place, cyberspace, that didn’t exist a generation ago. Essentially our new technology has opened up a new domain of both commerce and conflict, and we now need to figure out everything from the doctrine and tactics to the law and ethics.

You have acted as consultant for organizations ranging from the Pentagon to the Call of Duty game series, which is due to launch its newest game, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 this month. The military sector and the entertainment industry are very different in many respects, but relationships between the two have been formed – most notably in the use of X-box game controllers to operate certain drones. Do you perceive this maturing link between war and games as a dangerous one?

I call it militainment. The fictional world has always drawn from war for its stories, whether it is the old epic poems of Homer to our new entertainment format of video games. What is different today as you note is how the military is now drawing from the entertainment world even in the technologies it uses. For the public, I think the danger is if people misunderstand the goals between the two and blur the lines. The Iliad is a classic, but no one reading it truly experienced what it was like to fight in a phalanx from it. The same goes for a video game. Entertainment is not the same as experience. In turn, the military using gaming technologies can aid in training and simulation, especially of a generation that grew up with them, but it should be a supplement, not a replacement for muddy-boots training.

This October, the Guardian reported that the U.K.’s participation in the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan could amount to war crimes, according to an ongoing court hearing that is challenging the legality of the drone program used by the U.S. military in Pakistan. What are your main concerns for the use of drones and other unmanned vehicles in the face of, what some would deem, anachronistic Geneva Conventions?

We have 20th century laws struggling to keep up with 21st century technologies and conflicts. The old laws shouldn’t be thrown out, but they may need to be updated. It’s something I hope to explore further at the session upcoming at McGill.

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