Drudge points to a nifty report on battlefield laser weapons, and the report briefly mentions a very interesting question:

Are military computers and commanders ready for entirely automated weapons that deliver instant, lethal blasts of energy and can be retargeted in seconds? Lasers under testing for air defense already offer that capability. Fully automated firing on offensive targets is a short step behind.

"When you develop the capability to track, target and destroy something in a second, then the temptation to remove humans from the decision cycle becomes very great," said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based defense think tank.

Our emerging use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles controlled largely by computers brings up this same dilemma: how comfortable are we taking decisions out of the hands of humans, and putting them in the hands of computers? If we don't do it now, once our enemies start to let ultra-fast computers run their battles we may not have any choice.

One intermediate step may be the introduction of true neural control technology. Once the sensors and controls of a remote vehicle can be piped directly into a human's brain, the time required to execute operational decisions will be drastically reduced. A human will never be fast enough to target a laser weapon on an incoming artillery shell (a defensive use), but for offensive uses it might be possible to keep a human in the loop. Considering that laser weapons are line-of-sight, we're likely to have enough strategic warning of their use that we'll be able to plan ahead to counter them. However, once space-based lasers are in play that can destroy major targets (like buildings or city blocks), we'll probably be forced to turn all of our military systems over to tactical and strategic computer control.



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