Monday, January 31, 2011

Wired for War, P. W. Singer

P. W. Singer's Wired for War covers all the ways robots are being prepared for and used in military missions. There's a lot of valuable detail here on what's happening, and what's coming. Singer is a little out of his depth when it comes to the societal implications, though. The robots covered here are used for surveillance, rescue, and actual fighting missions on land, at sea, and in the air. Few of the land-based robots are news, though the pervasiveness and popularity with the troops haven't been widely reported as far as I know. The variety of aerial and marine uses was somewhat of a surprise to me. There has been more progress on small-scale fliers and long-duration flights than I had previously known. The underwater and surface autonomous craft haven't seen as much active use as the others, but rapid development has been happening in these areas in parallel with the better known land and air variety.

The material on consequences for society was much thinner; Singer has thought of several plausible areas where the implications might be interesting, but he was stretching to find things to worry about. The main substantive issue he addressed was whether the operators of remotely-operated robots would be less careful about who they attack because of their distance, and whether autonomous systems are an immoral or inappropriate tool, since there would be no human in the loop. I didn't see any substantive contribution to the issue from Singer: he raised the issue, drew in the outlines of the discussion, and moved on. After that, he talked about issues such as: If the robots are operated by armchair warriors who never approach the theater of operations, how does that affect the military esprit de corps?, should the operators be considered combatants if opposing forces want to target the operators in order to reduce military effectiveness?

Another issue he brought up without any depth is the charge that operators who grew up playing video games are already inured to committing violence on-screen, and so would have a hard time thinking of their targets as actual people. This has been a perennial problem with human soldiers. The military does its best to train soldiers to follow orders and let the officers decide what the strategy and rules of engagement should be. The main limit on the military's tactics is public opinion--the same restraints have to be used with robotic soldiers and their operators. With robots it's likely that we'll have better records of who did what. Additionally, the victims in the modern day will have better tools for recording and publicizing any atrocities that happen, so even if there's a greater ability, and we might expect less hesitation from the soldiers, the same mechanisms are available to restrain their instincts, and better abilities to track and hold them responsible. It only looks like the problem is growing in an unchecked fashion if you don't look at how things used to work holistically. That seems to be common in Wired for War.

I recommend reading the book if you'd like to know more about the impact of robotics on the military, but take what Singer says about the consequences with a grain of salt.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cambio Bay, Kate Wilhelm

Kate Wilhelm's Cambio Bay is light fantasy, combining a character study style with an old house that seems to insulate itself and its inhabitants from outside influences and the ravages of time. Cambio Bay is an isolated community on the Santa Barbara coastline of central California, which has somehow escaped the notice of the map makers.

A woman (Iris) and her unspeaking daughter (Bonnie) are on the run because Iris' flaky boyfriend has run afoul of a drug kingpin for whom he did odd jobs. A storm and earthquake shut down the highway and divert Iris and a few other travelers to Cambio Bay and Luisa'a Guest House. Carolyn is a real estate agent with a background in design who quickly realizes that the house's layout doesn't make any sense. She can't be sure that the rooms aren't always in the same places, but she is positive that rooms on opposite sides of the hallway can't both face the beach. She tries several times to sketch out the parts of the floor plan that she has become familiar with (an exercise she commonly performs while touring houses before showing them in her business), and when she can't make consistent picture, she decides the place is too creepy and leaves. Of course the evolving story and the other guests' troubles find ways to lure her back.

In the end, the house turns out to be a force for good, and the good and innocent visitors find ways to outsmart the bad guys. As the story unfolds, we get to know the visitors quite well, and see what drives them. Bonnie's lack of speech is never explained, nor why the drug kingpin is obsessed with capturing her. The house's mystery is traced back to some local Native American legends.

Overall, a pretty fun read, but not very deep. Kate Wilhelm knows how to present interact characters in an interesting story, even when the conflicts remain on a very small scale.