One indication that modern technological society could be viewed as trying to move in a more civilized direction is in the gradual introduction of fighting robots to do our recreational fighting for us. In an article in Live Science “Giant ‘Battle Bot’ Could Get Makeover Ahead of Epic Duel”, we learn that MegaBots, Inc., a company based in Boston that focuses on building fighting robots, just started a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to build a new improved robot that would fight its counterpart from a Japanese company. Now we no longer have to live with the side effects of our favorite recreational fighter getting a broken nose, a concussion or a busted rib cage. A robot is built of parts that are assembled into a machine entity. Damage or destroy some of the parts in a fight, and they can be replaced. It is much easier to replace a machine part than it is an organic part. Hippies can proclaim a new mantra: “Let the robots make war and we’ll make love.”
But the question is if fighting robots can truly replace human fighters in terms of the psychological needs of human spectators. After all, robots don’t have any skin in the game, both literally and figuratively. A robot does not have the kind of coherent organic self that allows itself to experience a threat to its very existence the way a human would. A fighting robot is programmed to attack and to defend itself, but its fighting is based on programming rather than on an awareness of an existential threat to its mortality. A robot does not have reflexive awareness; it does not have flowing continual consciousness. It does not experience fear that it is going to get hurt or that it is going to die.
A robot does not experience a rush of adrenaline, as it goes from a calmer state living a daily routine life to a survival mode. A fighting robot goes from an off mode to activation for the only thing for which it exists. Now granted the program is sophisticated enough that the robot has to operate independent of the ongoing control and manipulation by a human. It certainly operates more independently than a drone that is guided to a target and that fires missiles at it.
But the Battle Bot is still different enough from a human, that it would generate little real strong identification from a normal human. Unless, of course, the human has become so robotized from all the mirroring and modeling it has experienced from computers, complex machines, and other robots. So here is a frightening truth about these spectator conflicts between fighting robots. Their popularity is based on the fact that human spectators have become sufficiently robotized that they can identify with robots. They can obtain vicarious satisfaction out of seeing their robot damage and destroy another robot as if something apart from a complex piece of machinery was being affected.
Traditionally combat was a meaningful way for men to leave organic imprints, even though negative and destructive, on their field of experience. The spectator, in identifying with a victorious combatant, would participate on a collective level in the organic imprint being left in the victory. The victory would be part of the collective memory of all the observers of the combat, and all the people who heard the news from the observers. If a robot’s victory over another robot can generate a similar kind of impact over some people, then for those people, the boundaries between human and robot have truly been dramatically blurred.
Fighting robots have been and are being considered for actual warfare, and this raises a whole new bundle of concerns. Are the rules of warfare going to be changed such that robots will fight robots in order to resolve disputes, and whichever army of robots wins the war will determine which military group gets its way. This is dreaming. Robots are increasingly going to be an instrument and a weapon to fight human combatants. In other words, we are increasingly going to have complex machines that are going to be able to choose targets on their own. This is, of course, very different from a drone, which is constantly being guided by human operators.
Were we to see robots battling against other robots, we would perceive a situation of conflict in which no organic imprints are being left and in which no hurt or pain to organisms is actually being experienced or perceived. We would see a situation in which no humans are being injured or hurt, in which no humans are being put in pain or discomfort. If this situation does exist, there would simultaneously be no satisfaction of having made and preserved significant organic imprints by causing pain and death to enemies, and at the same time, no recognition of the enormity of war and therefore no experiences to cause a country or militant group to reconsider the next time it considers getting into war. In other words, war without participation of humans is less costly to humans, and therefore, is less likely to provide meaningful resolution and closure.
Robotic warfare that is directed at humans obviously creates pain, injury and death for the human victims. However, whatever organic imprints that exist in the situation are attenuated. One could say that the person or persons who activate fighting robots are creating some sort of imprint by setting the robots in motion. But a true organic imprint in fighting involves a mixture of defined discrete motion – involved with the overall direction of the aggressive actions to subdue the enemy – and flowing blendable continual motion – the constantly adjusted moves that have to be made to deal with the shifting target of the enemy. In fighting between humans, human aggressors are involved in the use and experience of both of these kinds of motion. As a result, they are leaving and receiving organic imprints.
When one pushes a button to activate a fighting robot, one is simply giving off one defined discrete stimulus. This is a highly attenuated organic imprint. Granted that there is the organic imprint of creating one general plan of attack, but this is more attenuated, because the planner is not directly connected not only with the immediate experience of fighting, but even in the immediate experience that comes from planning battles where his human soldiers’ lives are at risk.
It is only by leaving the negative organic imprint that comes from participating with human agents in warfare, that one can truly feel one’s participation in events that lead to human pain, suffering and misery. Pushing buttons for fighting robots, leads to a much more attenuated chain of responsibility. Pushing buttons for fighting robots is ultimately a numbing experience that doesn’t allow a person to fully experience the intensity of the negative organic imprints that come from killing in war and, therefore, does not convince people as easily of the horrors of war. Without organic imprints through a more immediate participation, the button-pushers cannot as easily learn the lesson of just how horrible war is.
So the increasing use of robots in warfare may protect humans from taking on the more active role of combatants, but without that role, there will be less incentive to turn away from the destruction of warfare as a vehicle for resolving conflicts and disputes. Paradoxically, the use of fighting robots in warfare may prolong wars and lead to more destruction, as the button-pushers blur with the robots they activate to become mechanical conflict generators, to become, in a way, fighting robots themselves.
© 2015 Laurence Mesirow