Soul of A New Machine

Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan To Organize Everything We Know BY Randall Stross. Free Press. Hardcover, 288 pages. $26.
Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century BY P. W. Singer. Penguin Press HC, The. Hardcover, 400 pages. $29.

The cover of Planet Google: One Company's Audacious Plan To Organize Everything We Know The cover of Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century

More than a century ago, inventor Nikola Tesla saw the potential of remote-controlled weapons in war. In the 1890s, he used radio waves to steer a small boat before a crowd at Madison Square Garden, but when he tried to sell the idea of a remote-fired torpedo to the United States government, the official who listened to the inventor’s proposal “burst out laughing.” Tesla died penniless, a man ahead of his time.

By World War I, the idea no longer seemed funny. Germany used Tesla’s invention to develop remote-controlled motorboats packed with exposives to protect its coast. In World War II, the country deployed the first cruise missile, the V-1, and a land torpedo known as Goliath, while the United States built its own fleet of unmanned planes for aviation training. In 1995, unmanned systems were linked to the Global Positioning System, a network of satellites that can provide a location for anything, anywhere, and drones could roam without getting lost. Drones like the Predator soon made their debut; they now buzz through the skies over Iraq and occasionally rain Hellfire missiles down on al-Qaeda camps in the tribal regions of Afghanistan.

Such desert missions are but the vanguard of the next generation of robo-warriors, writes P. W. Singer in Wired for War. Singer, who has examined the roles of child soldiers and military contractors in previous books, argues that the next revolution in military affairs is already taking shape on the ground, and in the air, in Iraq. US combat leaders are deploying thousands of unmanned systems of all shapes and sizes to scout the terrain and help defuse roadside bombs. These applications augur a new age in battle planning, Singer contends: “Man’s monopoly of warfare is being broken. We are entering the era of robots at war.”

Predators get all the attention, but many of the robots on today’s battlefield are vehicles that have been converted into remote-controlled systems to do dangerous grunt work. The Dragon Runner and its big brother, the Talon, can send back images from areas too dangerous or inaccessible for humans. The PackBot is designed to sniff out roadside bombs. Iraq saw the introduction of the Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection Systems, “the first armed robot designed to roam the battlefield.” The weapons mounted on these modified Talons can hit targets with frightening accuracy. But Singer neglects to tell us that so far the US military has deployed just three of them—its strong preference remains to keep weaponry in the hands of humans.

For all its talk of the fast-approaching robot revolution, then, much of Wired for War is highly speculative. Robot wars are nothing new to fans of science fiction, and Singer looks there for inspiration; he also bombards us with allusions to popular culture. According to him, the matrix of pop culture is how people process knowledge nowadays—a valid point as far as it goes, but only if the information is relevant. Unfortunately, this not the case with much of Singer’s book. After noting that many video games provide models for robot-human interfaces, he rehearses the sequence of commands that will extract a spinal cord in the game Mortal Kombat.

Such distractions diminish Singer’s genuinely provocative discussion of how warfare conducted by robots insulates the responsible parties from the reality of combat. Drones that fly over Iraq and Afghanistan are controlled from a base in Nevada, where airmen arrive at work, spend twelve hours directing hits on enemy targets, and then drive home. “Within 20 minutes you are sitting at the dining table talking to your kids about their homework,” said one Predator squadron commander. Few in the military have considered that under the rules of war, these remote pilots walking around Nevada may very well be legal combatants.

For a generation of young soldiers brought up on video games, launching attacks via computer is second nature, even “freaking cool,” as one air-force lieutenant puts it. But Singer points out that studies have shown that such disconnection makes atrocities more likely. No one is quite sure who would be accountable if a soldier in Nevada were to inadvertently unleash an unprovoked Predator attack on civilians overseas. Neither the International Committee of the Red Cross nor Human Rights Watch has taken a position on the new technologies.

The next leap forward, Singer writes, will be unmanned technologies that can cut military personnel out of the loop entirely. Humans, with all their needs, emotions, and flaws, are becoming the “weakest link in defense systems.” In 2005, the Pentagon predicted that autonomous robots would be the norm on the battlefield in less than a decade. To be sure, robot warriors won’t be prone to the fits of rage that lead to war crimes, but neither will they feel pity, mercy, self-disgust, or the conscience-stricken impulse to disobey orders.

Of course, remote control is an idea that Americans have assimilated in the home-front world of online data gathering. And here, it turns out, the notion of autonomous intelligence is quite a bit more advanced, serving as the de facto mission of Google, the ubiquitous Internet search engine. Randall Stross’s Planet Google shows that we have given a single company an unprecedented window into what we are thinking, when we are thinking it, and, increasingly, where we are when we entertain our thoughts.

The secret to Google is machine intelligence—a set of mathematical rules for solving a problem. The company’s PageRank algorithm evaluates the relationships—the links—between websites. By clicking from one site to another, you’re essentially voting for it, and Google keeps count, giving popular pages more weight. The result is a highly effective way of guiding people through the clutter of the Internet.

Google is making a fortune by means of what Stross calls one of the most cost-effective systems “ever devised in the history of advertising.” Without knowing anything else about you, Google can serve up highly targeted ads at the precise moment you’re most receptive, so you get a prompt that touts a listing of sushi bars in Manhattan when you’re in New York and craving hamachi or maguro.

The more information the algorithm has, the better it works, and company leaders are determined to stoke the great expanding equation with whatever data they can get their hands on—“all the world’s information.” The “ultimate goal,” Stross writes, is to collect enough data about each visitor to be able to “provide customized answers to the questions ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’” Planet Google doesn’t examine what kind of world it would be if we needed something like the omniscient HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey to answer such questions for us. Instead, Stross, a business columnist for the New York Times, focuses on how the company is going about organizing all the world’s information—which is just as alarming.

The sheer quantity of data Google devours is staggering. As part of its ambitious book-scanning project, it is digitizing all seven million books in the University of Michigan’s library—after some high-stakes legal battles with authors and publishers. Company servers hold all the videos posted on YouTube. Its mapping feature permits users to zoom in on satellite images of most any location on the planet. Google is finding its way into cell phones now, so it could alert you to the half-price sushi around the corner at lunchtime.

Stross contends that Google has assembled the biggest computer on earth to warehouse all this information. One of the company’s data centers, near The Dalles, Oregon, is powered by a dam. Like all Google data centers, it remains off-limits to the public, which Stross finds highly troubling. At the very least, he would like to know what steps Google is taking to safeguard privacy, which is a paramount concern about a company with enough storage capacity to track indefinitely what users are thinking and doing. “How can users be certain that their personal information won’t be put to uses to which an individual would never willingly consent?” he asks.

Most of us give Google a pass because its image of corporate good citizenship makes it seem innocuous. But Stross argues that many company boosters share an “un-examined confidence” that Google’s interests are in complete alignment with those of its users, which is almost everyone who accesses the Internet: “Every new service is seen by Google as an ‘advance for humankind.’”

“Some day, when the experiments have run their full course, they may be seen as the masterful fulfillment of Google’s mission to organize the world’s information, as farsighted vision,” Stross writes. “Or alternatively, the same stories may one day be read as accounts of misspent resources, evidence of hubris.” Still another possibility, which he doesn’t discuss, is that all this information may be used for purposes that the company never intended. Venturing beyond their initial mandates is, after all, what our brave new technologies do. Drones and data streams alike aren’t fussy about how they are employed, whether it be fighting side by side with US soldiers or helping terrorists plot last November’s attack on Mumbai with maps downloaded from Google Earth.

Seth Hettena is a writer based in San Diego and the author of Feasting on the Spoils: The Life and Times of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, History’s Most Corrupt Congressman (St. Martin’s Press, 2007).