Like everyone else on the internet, I am by turns inspired and terrified by the viral videos of the amazingly agile robots from Boston Dynamics and MIT. I share these clips with my kids, hoping to inspire one of them to pursue a career in STEM, and while we’re watching them I ask, in a joking-but-not-really voice, what caliber ammo will take these things down.
Here's more footage of MIT's Mini Cheetahs cavorting, frolicking, back-flipping, playing soccer and generally acting fun and cute, courtesy of the Biomimetic Robotics Lab @MITMechE #robots #robotics pic.twitter.com/8ZQzDvCDVW
— Robot&AIWorld (@RobotAndAIWorld) November 7, 2019
I initially pinned my heebie-jeebies on the stereotypical worries about a Terminator-style robot rebellion, but after thinking about the issue more carefully, I’ve realized I don’t fear the robots because they might turn against their human masters and kill them, but rather, I fear them because they won’t.
The big question
Wikipedia hosts a helpful (and long) list of coups and coup attempts, and if you scroll through them you’ll see words and phrases like “generals,” “military,” “loyalists,” and “forces” come up a whole lot. The same is true of Wikipedia’s big list of revolutions and rebellions.
That’s because in moments of deep political uncertainty — e.g. a constitutional crisis, or the “regime cleavage” phenomenon a recent Politico piece has given sudden currency — the main question on everyone’s mind is, “what will the guys with the guns do?” This means not just the commanding officers of a country’s military, but the rank-and-file members of the state’s security apparatus, whether they be grunts, cops, or organized paramilitary groups.
When it comes to settling large-scale conflicts by force, questions of loyalty and discipline trump almost everything else. Because soldiers are people, you’re never entirely sure where their sympathies lie. And the crazier things get, the more uncertainty there is around who the majority of a society’s guns will side with, and why, and for how long.
To take an example still in the news, in the ongoing Venezuelan unrest, most of the US’s efforts to oust Maduro have focused on prying the generals away from his camp. Our inability to get the country’s guns on the side of the reformer we back has meant that the current regime is still in power. Likewise, any hope that the Venezuelans themselves have of a regime change hinges on the loyalties of the generals.
Robots and loyalty
Robot soliders take that millennia-old uncertainty around loyalty and force of arms, and toss it right out the window. Unlike people, robots are property. And as is the case with industrial robots — which never require sick leave, or threaten to unionize, or strike for higher wages — robot soldiers just do as they’re told no matter the circumstances.
To the extent that we replace human eyes and mouths and trigger fingers with advanced technologies of social control and applied force, we’re also removing a critical avenue for change and reform from within the systems we create.
The truly worrying thing about robot soldiers then, is that there can be never be any question about their loyalty. These troops will always stick by even the cruelest, most illegitimate power figure, as long as he or she is the one with the admin privileges. And there will be nothing the populace — or foreign powers who want to use the populace to topple a regime — can do about it. US Special Forces can just delete this entire collection of documents from its website and its training classes, because all of it will be of purely historical interest.
As is increasingly the case with China’s powerful electronic mass surveillance apparatus, the danger is that all this dystopian tech — the social credit scoring system, drones, and robot soldiers — will lead not to instability to but to a toxic and impossible-to-disrupt stability. To the extent that we replace human eyes and mouths and trigger fingers with advanced technologies of social control and applied force, we’re also removing a critical avenue for change and reform from within the systems we create.
So when I watch the clips of the Boston Dynamics robots, I not only see technological disruption, but possibly the end of bottom-up social disruption. I see the potential for a final entry in the aforementioned Wikipedia lists of rebellions and coups, as phrases like “forces loyal to” become a relic of a bygone age.
The last entry in a future version of Wikipedia’s list of revolutions might read something like, “… at which point the group got root access to all the weapons, and they have it to this day.”