For in tremendous extremities human souls are like drowning men; well enough they know they are in peril; well enough they know the causes of that peril; – nevertheless, the sea is the sea

December 31, 2013 § Leave a comment


Boston Dynamics was as much its YouTube channel as it was a robotics firm. Poorly lit, with a look that betrayed iMovie’s default settings, the videos were what Boston Dynamics did best: present experimental technologies as logical conclusions. Of course we’ll have quadruped robots running faster than Usain Bolt. I mean, obvy. The banality of it all; how could you resist? But there were consequences to this kind of thinking.

PETMAN isn’t the T-1000. It was meant to test hazard suits worn by military personnel, so, the logic goes, it needed to move like one. LS3 isn’t a mobile weapons platform, but a way to haul supplies across uneven terrain. In neither case are the technologies murderous on their own, but a very real problem lies in the goals they serve. Here are robots meant to streamline war. Make war go faster.

My—our—obsession with Boston Dynamics served as a kind of military boosterism. An obscenely large foam hand emblazoned with the words Real Future Shit (and, occasionally, We’re All Going to Die). Also, a sense that only in a not-too-distant future will war be truly horrifying, when it’s waged by articulated legs, quadcopter swarms, railguns—only then. I’m absolved of any guilt about the wars happening right now because I’ve transferred it to the future still buffering. Fearing what a robot might do makes me comfortable with what drone strikes do right now.

Paralysis comes swift when you think of all the ways you’re complicit in ongoing horror. So 2013 went to drone pilot confessionals. Snake robots in water. It was also the year I turned 30, and, feeling nostalgic, searched for early footage of the Gulf War—the moment, I think, science fact and science fiction became inseparable, inviting all of us to imagine what could be at the cost of what already was.

No one company should take all the blame, if that’s even the word. The speculative arms industry is thirsty and involves universities, blogs, commercial gimmicks—even DIY makers cobbling better, cooler drones in the backyard. Harmless, robbed of context.  read more


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