The Future of War and the Rise of Robots (updated 2016)

by Ugo Bardi

Ugo Bardi (Italian, born 1952) teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, Italy. His interests cover the depletion of mineral resources and peak oil, nanotechnology, and robotics. He is a member of the Club of Rome and of the scientific commiette of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO). He blogs on “Resource Crisis” (www.cassandralegacy.blogspotcom) and his most recent book is “Extracted”, published by Chelsea Green in 2014.

It is an easy prediction that, forty years from now, human beings will have little place on the battlefield. They will be replaced largely by robotic weapons—a trend already in motion with the rising use of remote-controlled military drones or “UCAVs” (unmanned combat aerial vehicles). We can expect the term “unmanned weapon” to become as odd as the term “horseless carriage” is today. However, it is more difficult to predict how robotic weapons will affect warfare and the structure of society. Future wars may be more frequent but probably also smaller in scale and less destructive. It is possible that robotic weapons will make the concept of a nation-state obsolete, to be replaced by structures akin to present-day corporations. These developments will occur first in rich countries with low levels of corruption and high manpower costs.To examine the future of warfare, we can use the simulation methods used in The Limits to Growth study in 1972—methods that predict behavior within a given system and, specifically, that describe how the world’s economic system transforms natural resources into waste, or pollution.

The military sector is part of the industrial system. Typically, during the past few centuries, the military sector has been drawing around 5%–10% of the GDP of most strong states, while in wartime this fraction may rise up to 30%–40% and even more. In wartime, military activities generate an enormous amount of pollution in the form of infrastructure destruction. With the development of more and more destructive weapons, and especially of nuclear ones, the cost of war in terms of pollution may reach values several times larger than the pollution arising from the GDP of any state. So, while the military sector is expected to follow the size of the global economy, wars may accelerate global decline because of the large amount of pollution they generate. A nuclear war might make the most pessimistic Limits to Growth scenarios unfold almost instantly. Unfortunately, starting a war costs much less than cleaning up afterward.

Robotization may negate these trends by reducing the pollution cost of war. Robotic weapons are inherently precision weapons. They can be controlled to reduce collateral damage and, hence, pollution. In this respect, twenty-first-century robots are enormously better than the iconic weapon of the twentieth century: the nuclear warhead. There are other potential advantages as well. Present-day command-and-control systems are based on models developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to convince human beings to perform activities that are not natural for them: obey orders, march under enemy fire, and stand still while shelled, to name a few. The methods that accomplish these results are called “drilling.” But drilling is not only a slow and expensive process; it is also very difficult to undo. So, once fighting has started, it is very hard to convince people to stop. Because of this inertia, wars often tend to continue all the way to the near-complete destruction of the weaker side. On the contrary, robots don’t need propaganda. They can be easily reprogrammed, and therefore the decision to engage or disengage in a conflict can be very quick. If wars can be easily stopped as soon as it is clear who is winning, the result can be a great reduction in damage and, hence, pollution.

Overall, wars will become less costly with the use of robots, but that doesn’t mean a reduction in their frequency. New major wars— even nuclear ones—cannot be excluded for the future. Future wars may become more frequent even in the face of a progressive decline of the world’s industrial system caused by resource depletion. We may see war becoming endemic, and dispersed in a large number of small conflicts. Also, the low cost of war may make the distinction between “peacetime” and “wartime” disappear. Future wars may often be classified as police actions against groups defined as “rogue.” These are, clearly, already ongoing trends.

We can expect, therefore, drastic changes in the way wars will be managed and conducted. National armies may be replaced by private contractors deemed more suitable for managing high-tech robotic weapons in the kind of small-scale conflict that may become common in the future. These contractors need not be limited to serve a specific national government and may well sell their services to the highest bidder, as is already happening. Nation-states, then, may also decline and perhaps disappear, as there will be no need for propaganda to convince people to sacrifice themselves in battle. In addition, nation states have evolved specifically with the purpose of “defending the borders” when the main source of wealth was agriculture, and hence territory. In recent times, however, the focus of war has been more on the control of mineral resources, with several recent wars described, correctly, as oil wars. It may be possible that the structure considered best adapted to managing war and resources, in these conditions will be not the nation-state but something akin to modern corporations— more effective, perhaps, than states in employing high-tech military contractors for small-scale conflicts.

The reduction of the destructive power of war is an improvement on the present situation. When human fighters become hopelessly outmatched by robots, most humans will simply cease to be interesting targets, while robots will be used mainly to fight other robots.

Certainly, that doesn’t mean that war will not involve human victims any longer; military and political leaders will remain at risk, and the decision of targeting civilian infrastructure might still be considered an option. Terrorism, that is, military actions purposefully aimed against civilians, may turn out to be an especially suitable task for drones, which might easily be programmed for the extermination of specific ethnic, religious, or political groups. On the other hand, the fact that the actions of robots are recorded and traceable could create a barrier over their indiscriminate use against civilians—a plus when considering the violence, torture, rape, and other typical excesses of human troops. So even if war may become more frequent, it need not become more violent. Indeed, the trend of avoiding as much as possible collateral damage to civilians is already ongoing. It is a positive development after the emphasis on carpet bombing in the twentieth century.

War is so deeply embedded in the global economic system that we can expect it to exist as long as there are natural resources to compete for. Robots won’t change that, as long as they are controlled and programmed by humans. In a more distant future, however, the battlefield experience is likely to give robots increased capabilities to act autonomously and a chance to become something much different from what the term “drone” implies. That doesn’t mean that robots would take over their human masters. But it does mean that humans would not be needed as fighters. How such a society could develop is impossible to say at present. The only certainty is that wars are among the most unpredictable of human activities and that the future is, as always, full of surprises.