Of Robots, the Age of the Gun, and the Coming Robot Lords
Jon Stokes 03.20.14
Writing in Quartz, economist Noah Smith makes the argument that the coming age of the fully autonomous drone will bring about social upheaval on a scale not seen since the invention of the musket. But unlike the musket, which was a democratizing weapon that empowered the lowly infantryman to face off against the nobles with their horse mounted archers, the drone will shift the balance of power back towards the few from the many. It’s a kind of anti-Kalashnikov, if you will.
Here’s Smith on the Age of the Gun, and how it currently keeps tyranny in check:
The advantage of people with guns is that they are cheap and easy to train. In the modern day, it’s true that bombers, tanks, and artillery can lay waste to infantry—but those industrial tools of warfare are just so expensive that swarms of infantry can still deter industrialized nations from fighting protracted conflicts. Look at how much it cost the United States to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, versus how much it cost our opponents. The hand-held firearm reached its apotheosis with the cheap, rugged, easy-to-use AK-47; with this ubiquitous weapon, guerrilla armies can still defy the mightiest nations on Earth.
The Age of the Gun is the age of People Power. The fact that guns don’t take that long to master means that most people can learn to be decent gunmen in their spare time. That’s probably why the gun is regarded as the ultimate guarantor of personal liberty in America—in the event that we need to overthrow a tyrannical government, we like to think that we can put down our laptops, pick up our guns, and become an invincible swarm.
And here he explains how it’s all about to go sideways:
Note that what we call drones right now are actually just remote-control weapons, operated by humans. But that may change. The United States Army is considering replacing thousands of soldiers with true autonomous robots. The proposal is for the robots to be used in supply roles only, but that will obviously change in the long term. Sometime in the next couple of decades, drones will be given the tools to take on human opponents all by themselves.
The day that robot armies become more cost-effective than human infantry is the day when People Power becomes obsolete. With robot armies, the few will be able to do whatever they want to the many. And unlike the tyrannies of Stalin and Mao, robot-enforced tyranny will be robust to shifts in popular opinion. The rabble may think whatever they please, but the Robot Lords will have the guns.
He ultimately goes on to imagine “a world where gated communities have become self-contained cantonments, inside of which live the beautiful, rich, Robot Lords, served by cheap robot employees, guarded by cheap robot armies. Outside the gates, a teeming, ragged mass of lumpen humanity teeters on the edge of starvation. They can’t farm the land or mine for minerals, because the invincible robot swarms guard all the farms and mines.”
It would be ironic if this dystopian vision actually came to pass, because the other thing that robots are about to do is make guns trivial to fabricate in large, untraceable quantities. Forget about 3D printing — the prices on CNC machines keep dropping, and in a decade’s time you’ll have a machine that costs a little more than a PC and that can take in a downloaded cad file and some aluminum and stainless blanks, and mill a complete, very high-quality gun right in your garage.
But I suppose if The Man has fully autonomous robot drones that can rain down hellfire on you from a thousand feet in the air, your primo self-fabricated AR will only be useful for fighting with the other rabble over the Robot Lord’s scraps.