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Posted on Jan 21, 2009 in Books and Movies

Wired for War – Book Review

By Michael Peccolo

Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. P. W. Singer. The Penguin Press, 2009. Hardback, 448 pages. $27.95.

All in all, Wired for War is a good book for opening one’s eyes to the horizon of robotics and for feeding one’s paranoia of Big Brother—who just might not be who you think he is.

This book sheds light on the cutting-edge technologies currently employed by American forces and those being readied for use. Many people have heard of a Predator UAV through news stories from Iraq and Afghanistan, but start talking about Talons, PackBots or SWORDS and you’ll probably get blanks stares. This book covers them all and will get readers up to speed on some of the gadgets that the U.S. Department of Defense is exploring to keep American soldiers at the pinnacle of quality among the world’s armed forces. After reading it, you’ll be able to sling out terms like CRAM, LADAR and even PHaSR without blinking.

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The author’s resume includes his two previous books, Children at War and Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. In researching Wired for War, he had access to a varied group of people within the technology industry, Department of Defense and academia. The book is liberally footnoted, with 77 pages dedicated to them.

Wired is broadly divided into two parts titled “The Change We are Creating” and “What Change is Creating for Us.” I did not personally the author’s style of arranging his information. Chapters can swing thru the entire stable of robotic devices, from land to air to sea and back again. I would have preferred a more straightforward organization focusing first on land, then sea, then air, which would lend itself to finding subject matter more easily. Some may think of the style as cutting edge, but I found it soporific. However, even given that, I still found the book informative and therefore an interesting read.

The first part is the better of the two halves, full of vignettes on the use of robotics, first-person interviews with end-users, what has occurred in the robotics industry in its support of the nation, and what is “coming soon.” Some of the new ideas are just downright mind-blowing, but the book lays out facts to support the direction these developments are following. It is heavy on events in the U.S. robotics industry, with light coverage on efforts elsewhere in the world. The only other nation that gets any real scrutiny is China.

The second half of the book gets into the touchy-feely part of robotics with a focus on moral and ethical issues. As I read this I kept thinking of ED-2000 from the movie Robocop.

Having some familiarity with industrial robotics, I find that those people who believe robotics can do everything have missed the point, because everything has to be programmed by humans. One would think that getting an industrial robot to perform the repetitive motion of painting an automobile is a simple affair: once programmed, the robot will then perform the function time and time again without error. Yes, generally, the robot will perform as programmed, but once in a while it will have a brain fart and damage what it is working on and possibly even damage itself. The causes of malfunction can be many and varied: dirt and grime build-up that ever-so-slightly altered movement; an undetected electrical surge; or a programming error that made the robot think it was painting a two-door coupe when a four-door sedan was in front of it. Add in disgruntled employees, industrial sabotage, cybercrime, and cyberattack by a unfriendly entity and a nation’s robotic warriors and industry could be at great risk.

The book explores industrial accidents with robotics, but most of these occur when people fail to follow established protocols around an active robot (i.e., don’t enter the caged area around an active robot until you have disengaged its power source and have physically locked that power source in the “off” position.) Programming errors are not really addressed in the book.

The issue of protecting the integrity of the nation’s robotics and economy from cyberattack is addressed, however. As most people are aware, cybercrime is exploding as more and more of our daily activities are conducted thru the Internet. The book addresses what has been done to mitigate this but also questions what a nation may or may not have the right to do in limiting its exposure. Given that a virus can be hard-wired into printers, thumb drives and the like, it is a curious dilemma that more and more electronics used in the U.S. are manufactured overseas, often in nations that are only nominally friendly.

The book mentions a couple of times that China has dedicated upwards of 9,000 “programmers” towards cyber issues, and it quotes senior Chinese military officials as mentioning what people will do when their devices rise up against them. Ah, it makes one oh-so-comfortable to find “Made in China” stamped on the bottom of your computer, cell phone or Blackberry, doesn’t it?

All in all, Wired for War is a good book for opening one’s eyes to the horizon of robotics and for feeding one’s paranoia of Big Brother—who just might not be who you think he is.

Wired for War author P.W. Singer talks about how the robotics revolution has given rise to the "strategic corporal" and "tactical general" and asks, "Is this a good thing?" in an exclusive article for ArmchairGeneral.com. Read what he has to say and leave your comments.

Michael Peccolo is a retired Armor Major from the U.S. Army with overseas duties, company commands and assignments in recruiting and ROTC. He lives in Tennessee where he raises horses with his wife.

ACG Intel

P.W. Singer books

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