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Engineering Politics

What killer robots say about the state of social activism.


Among the many changes in U.S. policy after 9/11 was one that went unnoticed by everyone except a few geeks: The military quietly reversed its longstanding position on the role of robots in battlefields, and now embraces the idea of autonomous killing machines. There was no outcry from the academics who study robotics-indeed, with few exceptions they lined up to help, developing new technologies for intelligent navigation, locomotion, and coordination. At my own institute, an enormous space is being out-fitted to coordinate robotic flying, swimming, and marching units in preparation for some future Normandy.It's not as if we haven't all seen the movies where robots slaughter their makers with tireless accuracy. That particular dystopia has been well advertised for about 100 years. So why aren't the scientists who are involved in this research publicly dissenting, warning the public about the dangers of killer robots? It wasn't always such a complacent profession.In the tumultuous late 1960s, many engineers questioned their own roles in producing materials for the Cold War. A forthcoming book by the historian Matthew Wisnioski demonstrates that these activists-engineers had mixed destinies (some dropped engineering altogether for organic farming) but that some successfully pushed their institutions to conduct research that didn't center on killing humans.It's hard to imagine that kind of social and political activism in the cubicles of today's military contractors. Indeed, if you've ever wondered how technologies like napalm or mustard gas were developed, you need look no further than the ethos of contemporary robotics research. Engineering is the plain, reliable, and boring cousin to science, and has been ignored by progressives who don't think about designing technologies that further their goals. That's unfortunate, because the work of engineers-nearly everything that you can touch or that you use-profoundly affects all of our lives.Most engineers would deny that their work is sociopolitical. But the fruits of engineering, from the ink in this magazine to your car, are nearly always conceived, built, and sold by commercial enterprises to consumers, companies, or governments. How is that not social? And somehow the ways that resources are allocated and the decisions about which of society's requirements deserve a technology aren't thought to be political. Progressives have ceded the physical world to "markets" and technocratic experts-never a good strategy. Technology has become a democracy-free zone.
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Why aren't scientists warning the public about robots?
How can we reimagine more democratic technologies? To start, change must happen from inside the domain. By the time lawyers and politicians are involved, design decisions have already been made. Progressives need to get involved in research, design, and production. Engineering schools are more socially and politically conservative than other schools, in addition to being enclaves of a culture that loves big guns and fast cars. Students and professors must work to reformulate how engineering is conceived and taught, and the canon needs to be razed and rebuilt.But even the best engineers can't design progressive change if they work for a regressive multinational corporation. Luckily, the open-source movement offers an alternative model. Open sourcing allows individuals across the world to collaborate on, for example, developing groundbreaking software-competitive with that of any corporation precisely because the completed software is sharable and rewriteable. As the open-source movement matures, the number of projects with a progressive political bent (or even ones designed for direct action) will multiply. Scientists, already experimenting with open-source journals, are scheming ways to begin collaboratively designing cheaper medicines and healthcare technologies.Every product is sold with the promise of making a consumer's life easier; we need to understand whether that ease is built on disempowering community, family, or the environment. Social dimensions need to join the list of considerations that go into the design specification of every product. Engineers need to determine whether a product abets democracy or totalitarianism, whether it treats its user as a worker or as a human being.But such changes will only take place if we work to connect models of a just society to specific technical directions. And if we find more progressives who aren't afraid of a little math.
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