Frank Rieger Interviews Daniel Suarez : Swarming Killing Machines

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The resemblance of stability during the Cold War was only possible because all sides were acutely aware of the intolerable results of any failure of the nuclear deterrence. The strategists seem learn now that with the new realities of „cyberwar“, where attribution is only possible if the attacking party volunteers it (like in the case of Stuxnet and Flame) the Cold War logic of mutual assured destruction-based deterrence does not really work. With drone warfare developing into an physical extension of cyberwar, it seems rather unlikely that a treaty framework can succeed before things become genuinely unpleasant. How could a strategic logic work that makes cooperation in the form of treaties attractive for the major players?

It’s true that the mutually-assurred-destruction of the Cold War does not apply in the case of autonomous drones. However, the chilling effect from robotic weapons on civil society should not be underestimated. A constant state of low-intensity, surgically precise war - where individuals perish in anonymous attacks for unknown reasons, and the best defense is to keep a low profile - is an outcome we must try to avoid. Effective robotic arms control will be a challenge, but it must be attempted. Repeatedly if necessary.

Given that world business and political leaders are likely targets for autonomous robotic weapons, I think an international treaty on robotic weapons will get signed. However, it’s vital that this agreement specifically limit the use of robotic weapons on *individual citizens* - not just heads of state. This might seem obvious, but remember that these weapons will prove very tempting to certain leaders as a tool to solve domestic or international ’problems.’ They will want to retain their ability to use them in secret. Combined with high-tech surveillance, robotic weapons could be highly effective in disrupting political protests or populist movements. And unlike world leaders, individual citizens will not be able to afford elaborate anti-drone countermeasures. Thus, the net effect of the treaty should not be an agreement by leaders to refrain from using them on each other (staying silent on whether they can use them against the general public). This would almost be worse than no treaty, since it would give the impression that the robotic weapons issue had been solved, when in reality it would be establishing insufficient boundaries.

Finally, we’ll need to accept that these treaties - especially in their earlier incarnations - will be far from perfect. While autonomous drones don’t threaten the stark, irradiated hellscape that thermonuclear war would have brought, the intolerable effects they can have on democratic institutions need to be popularized so that as and if these symptoms start occurring, the public will have some idea what’s around the corner. It’s at that point where I think we’ll have the best chance for effective political action to properly contain the menace of robotic weapons.

Daniel Suarez


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