Tyrades! When Johnny comes clanking home again

Friday, December 10, 2010

According to The New York Times, the U.S. Army and its contractors are working feverishly to "recruit" more robots for military service.

Supporters of the high-tech expansion dream of robots supplementing or replacing humans in functions such as hauling equipment, scouting for bombs or engaging the enemy; but the matter has proven very controversial.

I think some civilians are unnerved by any tampering with military tradition. Kids like to send letters to servicemen and servicewomen, but they don't want the mail coming back with a notation of "According to my spell check function..."

And soldiers are accustomed to a sentry challenging, "Halt! Who goes there?" Morale would suffer if troops encountered a greeting of "Oh, it's you. I was just reviewing your high school permanent record, your credit report, and a fascinating tour of your colon. And by the way, the baby couldn't possibly be yours."

Some critics say you just can't replace good old human adaptability. You can't imitate the human ability to discern a noncombatant, the human ability to make moral judgments, the human ability to recognize a great photo op for humiliating a prisoner...

(Granted, I have my own trepidations about an overzealous reliance on artificial intelligence. I hate to see our military slogans devolve from "I have not yet begun to fight" and "I shall return" to "I don't wanna grow up, I'm a Toys R Us kid...")

Some bioethicists grant that the U.S. will reap short-term gains from robotic weapons but that the long-term effects will be detrimental. It's refreshing to hear a liberal acknowledge the unintended consequences of a program. On the other hand, I hear they're quickly making up for it. Rep. Barney Frank has declared that all robots have the right to an affordable home, and someone is researching pregnancy leave as a robot entitlement.

Opponents of robot soldiers think we're triggering an expensive new arms race. (56 nations are already developing robotic weapons.) These folks (who would probably drool over a "Kumbayah"-singing robot) are suddenly nostalgic for the good ol' low-tech days of war. Apparently these retro types won't be happy until every nation in the world pledges to wage war only with Civil War reenactors. ("Yeeeehaaaw! The South --of Yemen--is gonna do it again!")

Skeptics fear that long-distance entrusting of more battlefield decisions to robot soldiers will lower the barriers to warfare and make nations more trigger-happy. Oh, yeah, leaders have such a hard time finding excuses nowadays. I'm sure that North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il says stuff like, "That dude on eBay never delivered the Rock'em Sock'em Robots. Guess we can't go picking any fights, doggone it."

Apparently any flirtation with beefing up our military readiness is supposed to make us hang our heads in shame and pretend we're characters in a preachy 1950s science fiction comic book. It's 2525 and a handful of human survivors stand amidst the destruction caused by warring robots. ("We were fools to trust the machines. We -- hey! On the next page! Sea monkey ads! Cool!")

You can't put the genie back in the bottle. I guess we'll get our real test when we elect our first robotic commander-in-chief. ("I have been criticized for overreliance on my Teleprompter. I must plead guilty to nepotism. The only reason the Teleprompter has the job is that he's my brother-in-law and...")

Note: Danny Tyree welcomes e-mail at tyreetyrades@aol.com.