US researchers have found yet another way that computers can help fight wars. The Laboratory for Intelligent Agents at Penn State is working on a kind of thing called a ‘recognition-primed decision model’, which ‘posits that people make decisions based on their recognition of similarities between past experiences and current situations’.
I wonder if there’s a rival team of researchers positing that people make decisions by completely ignoring past experiences? And if so, who picks the teams? The weediest cognitive scientists must always be left at the back thinking, ‘Oh no, I’m going to end up with the untenable hypothesis again. Why does this happen to me? It’s just like in nursery school, when I always got stuck with the behaviourist kids. “Hey, zombie boy, why don’t you get back in your Chinese room and hunt for some qualia?”’
Anyway, the system is designed to help people make decisions when there isn’t time to do their own reasoning. ‘When the teams don’t know if the incoming aircraft is the enemy, the defense team can’t attack.’ Funny, that never usually stops the Americans attacking. This is only one example, though. ‘While the simulation involved a military scenario, people on distributed teams in other areas such as emergency management operations also need information to make decisions in stressful situations.’ Yes indeed. But they don’t have the budget to fund research.
It’s often pointed out that the Internet began as a defence project, as if this should make liberals, geeks, kids, and other Internet-loving types feel better about defence spending. That’s like saying Beethoven wrote music to amuse the aristocracy, so feudalism can’t be such a bad thing. Few of the people who created the Internet had any special affinity with the military. It just happened that the US Department of Defense bankrolled most high-tech research at the time. Well, times haven’t changed much. Penn State’s work on recognition-primed decision models is sponsored by the US Army. Other sponsors include Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest arms manufacturer.
Oddly, the simulation scenario doesn’t sound all that military. ‘Team members had to protect an airbase and supply route.’ And some fluffy chicks. Like those teen-friendly British Army adverts, this makes you wonder how any of the actual fighting gets done when the military only ever seem to train for building bridges, leading refugees to safety and such. You never hear: ‘Team members had to storm a residential area, blocking escape routes and picking off survivors…’
There’s nothing necessarily sinister about using software to help make decisions. If computers can alleviate the military’s legendary capacity for screwing up, that’s all to the good. But let’s not forget the first rule of data processing: garbage in, garbage out. Where is the information coming from? Who decides the criteria of relevance? Who defines the product that emerges into the waiting ears on the battlefield? Why, our old unchanging friends, the military.
Just as the space programme has given us not only fally-apart shuttles but also non-stick pans and those pens that write upside down, military technology trickles down into civilian life. No doubt the emergency services will soon be able to buy off-the-shelf recognition-primed decision model systems. These systems will have been developed in close collaboration with the military, so it’ll be no surprise if their structures and methods reflect the military’s attitudes and values. While TV adverts show soldiers acting as paramedics, firefighters and police officers, in real life paramedics, firefighters and police officers are increasingly encouraged to act like soldiers. Equipping them with military hand-me-downs can only speed this wrong-way osmosis of mindset.
That liberal geek kid Dwight D Eisenhower had some things to say about technology and the military. ‘We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence by the military-industrial complex. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.’ After all, ‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.’
Ike, who didn’t always practise what he preached, warned that the domination of science and society by the military must be resisted by ‘an alert and knowledgeable citizenry’. I think he meant us.
Adam Banks is regarded as a liberal by geeks and as a geek by liberals.