Singer: Mitt Romney, Barack Obama should be talking more about robots

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night (Jan. 31, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

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Call me a geek, but Monday's foreign-policy debate between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney was exciting not only for the new attention it brought to "horses and bayonets," but also as a sort of coming-out party for the world of robotics.

Four years ago, this field that was once the sole province of science-fiction writers did not merit any mention on the campaign trail. But in Boca Raton, Fla., this week, robotics joined such prime-time issues as China, Iran and the economy.

Yet while the candidates were asked what they thought about drones, Americans still don't know much about their answers. Obama literally didn't have to respond to Bob Schieffer's question because, as the moderator put it, "We know President Obama's position on this" -- a very odd way for a moderator to pose a question, especially on a topic on which government policy has been far from transparent. Romney, meanwhile, provided the deep insight that "drones are being used in drone strikes."

This is a shame because robotics -- and not just the ubiquitous drone -- has become a signature part of the 21st century presidency and its use of power. The U.S. military now has more than 8,000 unmanned systems in the air and another 12,000 or so on the ground, and they are used every day to protect soldiers in places like Afghanistan.

More controversially, a growing civilian intelligence agency fleet is also used not-so-covertly in places like Pakistan and Yemen, where the United States has reportedly carried out more than 375 airstrikes, though there has been no specific congressional vote on the matter. The technology's use has arguably set a weighty precedent for the presidency, blurring civilian and military roles in war, and potentially circumventing the original intent of the Constitution's division of powers.

Robotics is a game-changing technology not merely because of its power, but because of its impact both on and off the battlefield. Operators for these systems are the fastest-growing group in the U.S. Air Force, potentially reshaping its long-term identity as more and more pilots never leave the ground.

The push forward is only going to continue. A few weeks ago, the Defense Science Board unveiled plans to widen the range of tasks taken on by robots in the U.S. military and to enhance their automation so that these robots can do more tasks on their own. Whether it's Obama or Romney, the next president is going to be wrestling with a series of questions that will determine the future contours of this revolution.

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These technologies won't stay only in U.S. hands -- more than 50 nations have military robotics programs, and groups that range from jewel thieves to terrorists have also used drones. So the next president will have to weigh the consequences of everything from the global proliferation of robotic weapons to the long-term legal precedents he is willing to set for future presidents.

And the dilemmas posed by robotics won't be limited to drone warfare. In the next four years, what was once exclusively a weapon of war will become a regular part of American life and commerce. With the Federal Aviation Administration set to open up U.S. airspace to civilian drone use by 2015, Obama or Romney will have to navigate the ripple effects. What kind of licensing controls should determine who can operate these civilian drones and where? What protections should be in place for privacy?

Robots also play an important role in the jobs issue that is supposedly central to this election, but in a way few want to discuss. If the candidates really want to deal with where our jobs are going, they have to face the fact that the long-term disconnect between growth and unemployment patterns is not about outsourcing or tax rates. As a recent MIT study found, automation is "destroying jobs and creating prosperity," explaining both the gains in efficiency and the loss of as many as 6 million jobs over the last decade.

Technology is never an issue that directly sways voters in presidential elections. But it shapes the opportunities and challenges the winners ultimately have to face. While the only robots likely to matter on Nov. 6 will be robo-callers annoying voters, when the next president closes that Oval Office door for the last time, his policies on robotics will be a key legacy he leaves behind.

Peter W. Singer is director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution. This is from Foreign Policy.

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