The Duck of Minerva

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Friday Nerd Blogging: Robopo-collapse

July 22, 2011

I am less impressed with Daniel Wilson’s new book than my frenemy Drezner appears, and quite possibly because I so wanted it to be what Wilson admits, at the end of this diavlog, that it is certainly not: World War Z for anti-zombites, a fictionalized near-future scenario that throws lights on present-day socio-political conditions through the metaphor of killer robots rather than supernatural threats.

How Wilson fails so spectacularly is the subject of my latest essay in Current Intelligence:

In my view, there is almost no politics involved: nothing about how political institutions or political actors respond to or enable zero hour, or how they relate to one another as the war unfolds. International relations scholars will be particularly disappointed: the only nations that figure prominently (America, the UK and Japan) operate largely without one another yet in seemingly perfect coordination. It is a techno-utopian scenario brought about by… technological collapse. Really? Who would have thought a book about a zombie plague would have seemed realistic by comparison?

What passes for political narrative is remarkably unsophisticated. Humans appear to have only a single identity after zero hour, that of ‘non-machine,’ quickly banding together in all sorts of unrealistic combinations to fight ‘Rob’. The argument seems to be that when faced with an existential threat dumb city-dwellers will perish or hang their hopes on Red America… one waits in vain for predictable tensions to emerge among the human characters as life becomes increasingly brutish and short, but any that arise are quickly resolved, leaving the book plotless and dry. Factionalism among the robots themselves is somewhat more interesting but ultimately unexplained.

The most interesting aspect of the book is Wilson’s depiction of human vulnerability to technological dominion. His emphasis on specific technological foils with which to critique humanity’s increasing reliance on robotics – which as Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen phrase it in their book Moral Machines, might be termed “bonds, bondage and bombs” – is curiously selective. True, Wilson explores sex-bot culture and the genuine emotional ties humans are developing with electronic objects, detailed more by David Levy’s recent nonfiction work Love and Sex With Robots. And he mocks humans’ emerging reliance on smart cars and smart houses, though in the diavlog he quite rightly points out that these are no doubt positive trends from a human security perspective.

But Wilson barely explores cyborgism at all – or rather how knowledge and socio-political identities themselves are being mediated by humanity’s interface with machine intelligence… and Robopocalypse is largely disconnected from the trend in real-life robotics that has most brought the debate over artificial intelligence and killer machines to the fore: the movement toward the development of autonomous lethal robots.

Read the rest here.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.