I must admit, when it comes to reading books for my own pleasure and that I have no particular deadlines, I may be an actual slowpoke. Proof today as I publish this review of a 2009 book (shame on me…).
I read Peter W. Singer’s Wired For War, that was released in early 2009. I had already read some papers by Peter Singer after I first saw him in Shadow Company, and reviews I had read about his book confirmed my feeling I could buy his book on trust.
Nearly four years after the release of this book, a review is still relevant as these four years have allowed us to conduct an update of the developments that battlefield automation – a fast-evolving field – has experienced in half a decade. Furthermore, the DoD’s recent decision to create a Distinguished Warfare Medal (which would honor Unmanned Systems pilots and computers experts) calls for re-reading some sections of Wired For War.
I really enjoyed the book because of its writing style. A book such as Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers is very rich, yet I cannot stand its tedious style (it is the fourth time I start it, each time going a bit further… this time will be the one!). In Wired For War, I really enjoyed reading, from the first word to the last one. It was a pleasure. Peter Singer writes interesting and complex things in an appealing way. Have you ever read a social sciences book that comes with a playlist? Have you ever read a book that, when tackling artificial intelligence issues, explains that intelligence on earth ranges from “Albert Einstein to Paris Hilton”? This is one strength of the book: it is not only directed to defence analysts and experts, the popularization effort makes it easy to read by non specialists.
If there are multiple occasions for the reader to smile at what the author writes, the book remains serious. It is fair and it is neither a plea or a criticism of the battlefield automation. The authors gives a fair balance of this topic, explaining what opportunities robots do offer (more security and safety for the troops, endurance, efficiency…) and exposing the reasons for concern (lack of societal readiness while standing on the verge of a revolution, backfiring of psychological effects expected on the enemy…). Each opportunity and concern is deeply developed and analyzed.
Defence experts might reproach the author with lengthy parts, for example, when Peter Singer oversimplify particular issues so average readers can understand his reasoning. For example, he spends several pages explaining the importance of doctrine for armed forces, whilst specialists already know how essential doctrines are. In turn defence experts will be glad to benefit from the same long and detailed developments when Singer writes about technological or scientific issues that are unknown to them…
This book is not a review of current robots. Readers will thus appreciate the fact that Singer’s analysis is more based upon a set of technologies or the evolution of technology rather than particular generations of technologies, that are quickly outdated. Thus the analysis remains relevant, years after the book was first published.
The book focuses on the battlefield, yet, the author also tackle the impact of automation on our societies. While this topic would require a book for itself, these developments are welcome because really enthralling (the chapter about “Singularity” is worth the detour).
Four years after its release, Wired for War keeps all its relevance, as the drone war made to the headlines in late 2012 and that scientists and engineers surprise us with the speed with which they discover new things, develop new technologies and find applications for them.
Wired For War is a must read.
Wired for War, by Peter W. Singer. 512 pages. The book can be found on Amazon from $10 on.