Friday, December 31, 2010

Apocalypse Via the Roomba



So perusing Matthew Yglesias' blog, I came across this line about the company that makes Roomba's:

Perhaps the most notable American civilian robot is the Roomba, a sort of semi-intelligent vacuum cleaner. But even this is made by a firm, iRobot, that has extensive defense contracts for its PackBot and other military robots.

Why on Earth would a company name itself after a
book whose main focus is on the unpredictability of intelligent machines and the danger they could pose to humanity. Maybe it has something to do with that sense of unlimited progress the book evokes, or it could have to do with how wildly unsuccessful the movie franchise was that no one even gets the reference, but I digress.

On a more serious note, military robotics have always been an interesting topic for me. The rise of asymmetric warfare demands that military strategy change to deal with fluid battle lines, unrecognizable enemies, and different types of weapons technologies. I have always wondered why the changing nature of warfare demands turning towards more autonomous forms of war machines. If the threat that a military has to deal with gets more complex, how does making the fighting systems themselves more complex help to deal with it? Why does this not mean we should return to the basics, i.e. focusing on the particularity of the combat environment?Pushing towards greater understanding of the cultures we're fighting in would make more sense to me. For every advanced fighter jet we build, we could be hiring thousands of cultural experts including sociologists, translators, linguists and other academics who have expertise in that area.

My inkling is that this has something to do with the military-industrial complex in our country. Via Will Wilkinson, there is a discussion floating around on this Bryan Bender article in the Boston Globe. The gist of the article is that just as the executive branch sometimes acts as a revolving door to high-power financial institutions, so does our military act as a conduit of influence for defense firms:

But this is the Pentagon where, a Globe review has found, such apparent conflicts are a routine fact of life at the lucrative nexus between the defense procurement system, which spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and the industry that feasts on those riches. And almost nothing is ever done about it.

The Globe analyzed the career paths of 750 of the highest ranking generals and admirals who retired during the last two decades and found that, for most, moving into what many in Washington call the “rent-a-general’’ business is all but irresistible.

From 2004 through 2008, 80 percent of retiring three- and four-star officers went to work as consultants or defense executives, according to the Globe analysis. That compares with less than 50 percent who followed that path a decade earlier, from 1994 to 1998.

Defense companies determine which technologies will be developed via grant proposals, just as academic researchers determine which ares constitute their field of study by choosing those topics which are relevant. The reason that there is a dearth of economists writing from a Marxian perspective has as much to do with the failure of Marxian economics as it has to do with the field itself determining that Marxian economics is not a worthwhile area of study. The problem with this method is these companies are not pushing for an intercultural approach to warfighting. Their expertise exists in weapon technology and all foils of that, irrelevant of the culture they exist in. By having these channels open, where companies influence the defense department, it seems likely that the defense department will view their toolbox of military strategies more and more through the lens of defense contractors. This is not to group all defense contractors into one group. There do exist many groups that deal with the intercultural exchanges necessary to deal with modern combat. However, after reading the Bender article, it is striking how much influence technology firms have over the process. They are the ones with the big bucks, and as the illustrious Wu-Tang have said, "Cash Rules Everything Around Me."

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