OPINION

The showdown of the future

In 10 years’ time, law enforcement officers and military commanders will be using robots armed and programmed to «eliminate» human targets, according to analysts and the designers of such machinery. In one month in Chicago the first such robots will go on display. They will be armed with Taser guns, able to stun humans into submission with a high-voltage charge. But security experts are already considering the military potential of such an armed piece of fearless, remorseless machinery. These robots will be sent into dangerous situations, such as buildings occupied by enemy forces or targets deep in enemy territory, where commanders would hesitate to risk their men. Today, such robots, which stand on large, chain tread feet, are already being used for bomb disposal tasks and dangerous surveillance operations. They are just a step away from being armed. As John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org which analyses security issues, told The Guardian, within 10 years armed robots could be employed in the war against terrorism and in a wide range of military operations. In an age in which the most dangerous weapon of all is the human being wrapped in explosives that are detonated in the midst of the enemy, the development of an android which kills could create an unexpected new symmetry in asymmetric warfare, where human bombs have recently enjoyed the advantage. Whereas the suicide bomber sows fear because he/she fears nothing and shows no mercy, soon the bombers and their handlers will have to reconsider the value of life: Faced with an enemy machine aiming a gun at him, the bomber will have to consider whether the «death» of this enemy is worth his sacrifice. And one can only wonder what the sacred texts would have to say about self-immolation when its purpose is the destruction of a machine and not of apostates and infidels. Osama bin Laden’s terrorists reached the highest levels of success when they coupled Western technology (passenger aircraft) with their primitive fanaticism. Now technology is striking back, in a way that could force crazed zealots to lose their advantage. But the issue is not just philosophical, psychological and ethical. It is also practical: When faced at a checkpoint by a company of robots, armed with guns and equipped with sensors for explosives, what will the suicide bomber do? It is therefore highly likely that the organizers of suicide attacks will despair. They will have to find other ways to destroy their followers. The United States has already shown how effective its high-tech weaponry can be. At this moment, unmanned Predator aircraft, their «pilots» hundreds or thousands of kilometers away, are on the prowl for al-Qaida operatives. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, these former reconnaissance aircraft have been armed with deadly Hellfire anti-tank missiles. The United States inaugurated a new era in warfare when they used such a weapon to kill the local al-Qaida chief in Yemen on November 4, 2002. That Predator’s pilot was in another country when he pressed the trigger that killed the suspect and five others travelling in the same car. (The issue of extrajudicial killings is the subject of a much broader discussion, one that will determine the course of our civilization.) Developments in military strategy, tactics and weaponry have always had a direct impact on the rise and fall of empires. Using the phalanx formation in conjunction with the sarissa (a very long spear), the Macedonians under Philip conquered the rest of what was then Greece and the rest of the known world under his son, Alexander. The Romans, with their innovations in warfare and siege weapons built the largest empire the world had known till then. The Royal Navy’s supremacy allowed Britain to rule an empire on which «the sun never sets.» The list is as long and varied as history itself. Today, the technological superiority of the United States has given them power that no country has ever had. But the sheer determination of their enemies threatens to undermine that advantage, as we have seen in the Iraqi quagmire. But when – someday soon – the armed robot and the suicide bomber face off in the sun, like in some surreal western, the whole world will be watching to see who wins.