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The Ethical, Psychological Effects Of Robotic Warfare
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The Ethical, Psychological Effects Of Robotic Warfare

TERRY GROSS, host:

Before we continue our discussion about Jane Mayer's New Yorker article on the CIA's secret drone program, we're going to hear from someone she quotes, P.W. Singer. He directs the Brookings Institution's 21st-Century Defense Initiative and is the author of the book �Wired for War.� It's about how robotic weapons are changing warfare and what it means to be a soldier. Part of the book is about the U.S. military's use of drones in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is an excerpt of the interview we recorded when the book was published in January.

One of the really important questions that your book raises about robotics technology has to do with how it's changing the nature of war, to have people who are controlling drones, for example, from computer screens within the United States. So they're halfway around the world from where the planes are actually flying and from where the damage is being done.

You write that drones flying over Iraq and Afghanistan are flown by pilots sitting in Nevada and that it's like a video game, and this is bringing new psychological twists to war.

Mr. P.W. SINGER (Brookings Institution): What we found is that there's actually a whole lot of human psychology to the impact of robots on war. And one, for example, is the experience of the soldiers who are truly at war but not physically at war. That is, when we say, go to war, we've got a new twist on that meaning. I term it cubicle warriors, that is, these are folks who are working in office cubicles or something like that, but they're juggling the psychological consequences of being at war but at home at the same time.

There's a great quote from a Predator pilot who I interviewed, and he said it this way: You're going to war for 12 hours, shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants. And then you get in the car, and you drive home, and within 20 minutes, you're sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework.

And that's one of the things that's coming out of this is that we're actually finding that the drone pilots, because of this tough psychological juggling they're having to do, the drone pilots actually have higher levels of PTSD - post-traumatic stress disorder - than those who are actually physically serving in the combat zone.

And other examples of the ripple effects is what does this do when you can watch it play out? And one of the things we're finding is the rise of - I call it YouTube War. That is, the Iraq War, because of all these systems, is the first one where you can watch, but you don't have to be there. And these machines see all. And we're taking these clips and watching from afar, but we're also emailing them around.

We found over 7,000 different clips of combat footage in Iraq, and the soldiers actually call them war porn. And the worry of it is that it connects people to war, they get to see what's happening, but it actually widens the gaps, that is, it creates a further distance. They watch more, but they experience less.

GROSS: Many people have made the observation that with more robotics, war becomes like a video game. But you report about how some of the robotics are intentionally designed like video games to take advantage of skills that young soldiers have as a result of having played a lot of video games. Would you describe how some war robotics are designed intentionally like video games?

Mr. SINGER: Well, it's interesting. The military quickly figured out that there were two advantages of doing this. For example, the hand-held controllers that most of the ground robotics systems use, they're modeled after the Xbox or the PlayStation. And the reason was two-fold. One, they figured out, okay, these game companies have spent millions of dollars designing systems that are, you know, perfectly suited, where your finger should go and the like, and if they did all the research, why don't we piggyback on that? The second is they figured out, hold it, the video game companies have actually trained up our forces for us already. That is, you know, we're getting kids coming in who've spend the last several years working with these little video game controllers. So why not free-ride off of that as well?

And the result of it is, because of these systems and because they're trained up that way, it's another kind of ripple effect we're seeing, the demographics of war even being reshaped. That is, one of the people that we interviewed was a 19-year-old high school dropout. He's an Army specialist. He's actually, by some consideration, the best drone pilot in the entire force, and it's in part because of video games. And it's an interesting story because he originally wanted to join the Army to be a helicopter mechanic, but because he had failed his English class, he wasn't qualified for that, and instead they said, hey, do you want to be a drone pilot? And he's turned out to be spectacular at it. They sent him off to Iraq, and then he was so good that they brought him back to be an instructor in the training academy. And again, this is someone who's not even an officer yet, and he's in the Army.

Now, take this ripple effect further. This is not a story that people in the Air Force like to hear, and it's spooking out a lot of people, for example, you know, F15 pilots, who spent years and years training, go to college, they're officers, and when they hear, hold it, this 19-year-old video gamer is not just better at these systems than me but actually is out there doing more fighting than me, what's going on here?

GROSS: P.W. Singer is the author of the book �Wired for War� and directs the Brookings Institution's 21-Century Defense Initiative. We'll talk more with Jane Mayer about the CIA's secret drone program in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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