Leif Kaldor, “Remote Control War” (2011)
“Remote Control War” presents as a sober documentary on the use of robotics in war, conflict and espionage in the style of a TV current affairs article. The narrow focus of the topic prevents viewers from asking the obvious questions: is war a good or bad use of robotics, and why use robotics at all in war? Now that that particular issue is out of the way, the program briskly takes viewers through the use of forms of remote-controlled technology such as UAVs (drones) in modern warfare. Interviews and a voice-over narrative supplied by Ann-Marie MacDonald are the main way in which the program details the types of technology that exist at present and how they are used. At times, the program almost salivates over particular technologies such as multi-purpose robots that can be used to plant or find and detonate mines, and rescue injured soldiers and civilians. The “balance” of the program lies in the number of interviewees who might be said to support the use of robotics in war (several) against those who might be said to disapprove of such use (one or two).
However the program does a fairly good job in calling attention to particular technologies such as robots that can think for themselves and the repercussions that might arise, and to issues such as people’s attitudes towards the use of drones and robots to kill enemy combatants. Even here the coverage can be superficial and potentially biased: in covering people’s attitudes about using drones to kill, the program only interviews the people who employ the drones; no people in the communities where drones have been used to kill are interviewed as to their attitudes – these are known only second-hand, through the people killing them via the drones. Most distasteful of all is the focus on Israel’s use of drones in fighting Palestinians, who are elevated to the level of insurgents and therefore treated as a mysterious (and therefore malevolent) enemy.
As the program proceeds and the robotic female voice-over delves into the topic of autonomous robot systems, in which robots themselves will make all the decisions, a minefield (pun intended) of ethics, accountability and responsibility is opened. If an entire robot system prosecutes a war, making important decisions that can initiate a chain of actions leading to further decisions that in turn generate more actions, where ultimately does the responsibility for the damage and misery caused and other consequences of that network of decisions and actions lie? Most responses in the film are that a human will ultimately be responsible for (presumably) the decision to use such a system – but the problem that the film doesn’t address is where in a political or military hierarchy would that human be? Already in many hierarchies (political, military, business and so on), responsibility is diffused throughout which makes difficult prosecution of individuals in a corporation difficult if that corporation commits a crime.
The third part of the documentary comes almost as an after-thought to the previous two parts which dealt almost exclusively with robotics technologies: this section deals with the use of drone air-strikes on Pakistani and Afghan targets by the CIA and the legality of such use by an organisation operating in secrecy. At this point the value of the documentary lifts enormously: the ethics involved in using drones to target and kill particular people in areas that happen to be inaccessible to ground troops are finally addressed. Again though, the views of Pakistanis or people who could represent them aren’t canvassed.
Finally the possible use of drones, autonomous robots and swarm robots on civilian populations is considered. The question of what the consequences might be if terrorists, gangs or other organisations got hold of such technologies becomes prominent. As demonstrated by a group of robotics enthusiasts at a competition, the cost of DIY drones and robots is coming down and making the technologies more accessible to the general public – which means the technologies are also reaching people who might one day turn against the military, espionage agencies and governments. Unfortunately the more likely probability that robotics technology will be used by the military, spooks and governments to spy on citizens and turn cities and towns into virtual panopticon societies does not figure at all.
In some respects this is a very good documentary which shows graphically how the various robotics technologies featured are already being used; the sequences demonstrating swarm robots and how they might be used are particularly riveting and not a little sinister and unsettling. However the film seems hesitant to address certain issues or aspects of issues covered in the film that might imply that Western governments and their militaries would not hesitate to use drones and robots against their own populations. Technical detail is used as a cover to disguise a proper exploration of the troubling ethical dimension that arises from the use of such technologies.